By Chad Stroud, President of Unifor Local 2182, representing coast guard communication officers.
Canada has the longest coastline on the planet. It is a sensitive — and often unique — collection of ecological zones that provide a living for commercial fishers, tourism operators and First Nations.
The Canadian Coast Guard is our first line of defence during marine emergencies, such as oil spills.
But despite the role of Canada’s coast in commerce, transportation and leisure, our coast guard services have suffered greatly under Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government.
Beginning in 2014, the Harper government began to “downsize” essential coast-guard services with the closure of 10 of 22 marine-communications and traffic-services bases.
Stations in Inuvik, Saint John, Ucluelet, St. John’s, Montreal, Thunder Bay, Rivière-au-Renard and Vancouver have already been closed.
St. Anthony’s will be closed this summer, while Comox’s centre is scheduled to close soon.
Only two centres will remain to monitor the entire west coast’s 25,725 kilometres of coastline, and thousands of commercial and pleasure craft.
The Harper government claims the new technology that replaces the 10 coast guard centres is an improvement in service.
But since the implementation, the west coast has experienced numerous outages under the new system, including one that coincided with a mayday call on April 21, just south of the area of responsibility for the Prince Rupert station.
If that vessel had been 20 nautical miles to the north, the results could have been disastrous with no station to hear the words “Mayday, mayday.”
The cutbacks to marine-communications bases show the Harper government’s preference for risk management over prevention. To his way of thinking, it is a better photo opportunity to replace a dozen old Zodiac rescue craft than invest in the services to prevent emergencies.
But as British Columbians might soon find out, it is always better to prevent a tanker spill than deploy shiny new resources to clean up the coast after the damage is done.
The coast guard base closures have coincided with a 23 per cent across-the-board cut to marine-safety programs. In Vancouver, these cuts mean overburdened rescue staff.
On the busy Canada Day weekend, for example, the Stanley Park rescue station had to shut down for six hours while officers who were working non-stop for days were granted time to sleep.
The Harper government is clearly starting to feel the public backlash to cutting corners with marine safety, and his spin doctors are on the offensive.
On July 6, Transportation Minister Lisa Raitt announced funding for an “arms-length” research centre cleverly called the “Clear Seas Centre for Responsible Marine Shipping.”
Setting aside for a moment that the centre has been forced to admit that it is funded in part by the oil and gas industry’s representative, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, Canadians have little reason to believe that Harper will care what the centre might recommend about tankers.
Consider this list of federal watchdogs that Harper has ignored or openly treated with hostility: Kevin Page, parliamentary budget officer; Howard Saper, prison ombudsman; Daniel Therrien, privacy commissioner; Michael Doucet, CSIS oversight committee; Scott Vaughan, commissioner of the environment; and perhaps most often, Mary Dawson, ethics commissioner.
For a man who has made a career of battling arms-length government watchdogs, Harper gives Canadians little confidence that the “Clear Seas” watchdog will be any different.
Instead of cutting vital public services to pay for wasteful vote-buying schemes (e.g. income splitting), the federal government should be investing in programs that British Columbians value. You don’t have to live on the coast to appreciate how important it is to the fabric of Canada and our economy as a trading nation.
When Harper throws marine safety overboard, he undermines an important part of our way of life in B.C.
A version of this article originally appeared in the Times Colonist