Skip to main content

Lifeboats used by passengers on board the sunken B.C. ferry Queen of the North sit on the deck of the Canadian Coast Guard vessel Sir Wilfrd Laurier as it leaves Hartley Bay, B.C., Wednesday, March 22, 2006.

Cuts to the Canadian Coast Guard, including the closure of Vancouver's Kitsilano search and rescue station, are raising questions about whether boaters in trouble will have to wait longer for help to arrive.

In addition to the station in Canada's largest port, the Conservative government is also planning to shut down as many as 10 of 22 Marine Communications and Traffic Services Centres, which are essentially like air traffic control centres, but for boats on the oceans. The centres in Inuvik, Thunder Bay and Rivière au Renard, Que., will close. Comox, Tofino, Vancouver and St. John's are scheduled to have teleconference meetings Friday on their future.

Kitsilano is the third search and rescue station the government has shut down, said Christine Collins, national president of the Union of Canadian Transportation Employees.

"It says it will amalgamate that operation with the Sea Island Station in Richmond, but that means longer response time which can mean the difference between life and death," she said.

But the government says the two stations are only 17 nautical miles apart.

"No other Canadian Coast Guard search and rescue resources are in such close proximity," Erin Filliter, director of communications for Fisheries and Oceans Minister Keith Ashfield, said in an e-mail. "Levels of service will remain the same and consistent with other major ports. Search and rescue capacity will be augmented by a new hovercraft which is being delivered in 2013."

But the promises did little to ease concerns just outside the Kitsilano station on Thursday afternoon as workers, behind closed doors, were briefed on the government's plans, which will cost 12 full-time and term employees their jobs.

Eardley Beaton, commander of the non-profit Vancouver Power Squadron which teaches boating courses, predicted a "really serious" impact on response times in the False Creek area that is jammed with recreational boaters. "This not being here?" he said, nodding to the station. "It's sort of the whole basis of boaters in False Creek."

He said he has seen boaters there from around the world. "Sail boaters come into here and into Granville Island, False Creek.… If something happens, it's nice to know the Coast Guard is here, and now it won't be."

Gerry Moores, a coxswain and shop steward, said the hovercraft will provide a rapid response, but have to cover a much larger patrol area. "It will be somewhat different than having a dedicated, 24/7 station here at the entrance to False Creek able to respond within five minutes daily," said Mr. Moores, who has spent 16 of his 36 Coast Guard years at the Kitsilano station.

He said the station had 285 search and rescue calls last year and 70 calls this year, but also handles pollution issues and general investigation of marine issues, helping the police.

Mr. Moores, who noted he is eligible for retirement so not in the same predicament as younger staff, said workers were urged to submit resumes Friday as part of an effort to find new jobs, but he said prospects were dim in the marine sector. "When I started my marine career, you could go down to the union hall and, if you were paid off a vessel by 8 o'clock in the morning, you would have another one by noon. That's no longer the case."

The Coast Guard communications centres broadcast maritime safety information such as weather and navigational warnings, regulate traffic movement and monitor distress and safety calls. One of them managed to interpret the truncated 20-second distress call of the MV Flare as it sank in pieces in the Cabot Strait in 1998. While 21 sailors died, four others were found clinging to the wreckage based on the brief message.

The government says centres have outdated technology which limits their ability to work together. Some will be modernized and become more interconnected, so they can pick up calls for each other. But others will be closed.

The Public Service Alliance of Canada says 1,072 workers at Fisheries and Oceans Canada were told Thursday that they could lose their jobs.

The Coast Guard was particularly hard hit. But the government is also closing a research station scientists have used for decades to study how pollutants like acid rain and phosphates affect lakes. The Experimental Lakes Area is in Northwestern Ontario, about 250 kilometres east of Winnipeg, and since 1968 government and university scientists have used its 58 small lakes to test hypotheses about freshwater ecosystems. One experiment has been running for 40 years.

John Smol, a professor at Queen's University in Kingston, said closing the facility is a "travesty, not just for Canada but for the rest of the world." He said data from experiments carried out at the lakes "were critical in showing we can't have phosphates in detergents and that acid rain causes marked ecosystem changes."

David Schindler, a professor at the University of Alberta, said employees were told that the facility will be closed as of March, 2013, and that universities, not governments, should be doing this kind of science. But he argued this type of large-scale, long-term research requires government support.

"I think we have a government that considers science an inconvenience," he said.