On a brisk morning last August on the eastern Arctic coast, the Canadian Coast Guard rescued 126 people aboard the Akademik Ioffe passenger ship after it had run aground north of Kugaaruk, Nunavut.
Rescue crews evacuated the damaged vessel by escorting passengers into inflatable boats and bringing them to safety.
Thankfully, there were no injuries and no environmental risk, but it was just one of a growing number of search and rescue incidents in Canada.
Highly-skilled crews and volunteers from the Canadian Coast Guard and the Canadian Armed Forces are called into the worst weather conditions in some of the most remote parts of our country almost every day.
These brave men and women tasked with these daring maritime rescues are truly the best of the best. It’s something we heard often during the course of our study.
But they are also struggling with significant staffing shortages, aging fleets and a rise in calls to the North as marine traffic there increases.
As members of the Senate Committee on Fisheries and Oceans, we have been studying the challenges of maritime search and rescue operations and how to improve them. On Nov. 29, we released our report, “When Every Minute Counts: Maritime Search and Rescue.”
We were surprised to learn that in the Arctic, which has no permanent search and rescue resources, it can take up to eight hours before rescue crews can reach a scene. In a region where marine traffic has doubled in the last 40 years, how can someone wait that long to get help in frigid waters?
As the title of our report makes clear, every minute counts.
Our research has made it clear — Canada needs to look to public-private partnerships now to address the significant gaps in service because seconds matter when it comes to responding to vessels in distress, to individuals who go overboard and medical emergencies. That’s why one of the 17 recommendations in our report is to launch a pilot project authorizing a civilian helicopter operator to fill gaps in coverage in the North and off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador.
Mervin Wiseman, a retired marine rescue co-ordinator from Newfoundland and Labrador, told our committee that we used to have one of the greatest search and rescue systems in the world.
Now, he said, “Canada has been slipping behind most industrialized countries in its response capabilities.”
Our research has made it clear — Canada needs to look to public-private partnerships now to address the significant gaps in service because seconds matter when it comes to responding to vessels in distress, to individuals who go overboard and medical emergencies.
That’s why one of the 17 recommendations in our report is to launch a pilot project authorizing a civilian helicopter operator to fill gaps in coverage in the North and off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador.
We are talking about life and death.
Every year, an average of 600 people are saved, but 18 die off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador. The number of search and rescue operations in the province is about twice the national average.
A pilot project would establish private civilian search and rescue resources in underserved regions at a lower cost to taxpayers and it would dramatically reduce the response times for search and rescue calls.
Sadly, our reaction time to crises lags behind those in other maritime countries like the United Kingdom, Ireland and Denmark.
These problems have been going on for more than a decade so we should look to these countries as examples to diversify our approach to search and rescue response.
But we must also look beyond public-private partnerships.
We heard Indigenous peoples are often the first responders to a crisis in their waters. Why not provide training in these communities so that search crews can benefit from their knowledge and expertise? It would be a win-win for coastal residents and for the Canadian Coast Guard, which is struggling to recruit and retain staff, and would help address the language barrier between locals and search crews in Indigenous communities.
There are many more recommendations in our report, including mandatory emergency position-indicating radio beacons for all fishing vessels. With more than 12 deaths per year, the commercial fishing industry has the highest fatality rate of any job in Canada.
To address funding concerns, we also recommend making the Canadian Coast Guard a separate, stand-alone agency reporting to the Minister of Transport so that it can benefit from long-term capital planning and enhanced visibility as a public institution.
Canada is a maritime nation. We can always do better to keep Canadians safe.
Senator Fabian Manning is chair of the Senate Committee on Fisheries and Oceans. He represents Newfoundland and Labrador. Senator Marc Gold is deputy chair of the committee. He represents the Stadacona division of Quebec.