Speech on Coast Guard Search and Rescue Cuts and Closures

Mr. Speaker, I rise today in support of the motion by the hard-working member for St. John's East, and I am happy to second the motion.

I am pleased that the member has brought this important motion before Parliament so we can debate the Conservative government's short-sighted and reckless cuts to the Coast Guard search and rescue services right across this country.

The closures are a result of a massive $56 million in cuts proposed to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. Because of these cuts, coastal communities will see the closures of the St. John's marine search and rescue coordination centres, as well as the closure of the Quebec marine rescue centre.

The cuts will also result in the closure of the Kitsilano Coast Guard station in Vancouver. The Kitsilano Coast Guard station is one of the most active in the country, servicing approximately 300 distress calls per year in Canada's largest port. Most of these calls deal with serious emergency situations, such as a person in water, medical responses, suicide attempts and fires.

There is no question the closure of the Kitsilano Coast Guard station will increase response times, as the next nearest rescue boat would then have to travel 17 nautical miles from Sea Island in Richmond to Vancouver.

Last week the member for St. John's East and I held a packed emergency town hall meeting at the Jericho Sailing Centre. We heard a variety of perspectives, but all attendees were in agreement that the closure of the Kitsilano Coast Guard station was a huge mistake that would put people's lives at risk. Many citizens showed up to voice their concerns about the Kitsilano Coast Guard station. Those in attendance included recreational boaters, kayakers, yacht owners and club members, representatives from labour unions, retired Coast Guard members, Coast Guard employees, Vancouver parks board commissioners, environmentalists and residents of Vancouver.

One of our panellists at the event, Mike Kelly, a retired captain and 37-year veteran of the Coast Guard, stated:

The coast guard is disaster driven. Bases don't fall out of the sky because they have got too much money. They only fall out of the sky because somebody paid for it in blood, and it is always blood on the deck before anything gets done. We must not pay that price again.

We also heard from Mike Cotter, the general manager of the Jericho Sailing Centre Association. He brought up some excellent points. He told the audience that over five million people travel through the Vancouver harbour every year, and billions of dollars' worth of cargo travel through the First Narrows.

He also stated that the Vancouver harbour is the busiest port in the country.

According to Mr. Cotter, the Kitsilano Coast Guard has the ability to respond to an emergency in this region within six minutes. If British Columbians had to rely on the Coast Guard auxiliary for an emergency, according to Mr. Cotter it would take at least 45 minutes for a response from Horseshoe Bay and 50 minutes from the Deep Cove auxiliary to reach the First Narrows. He wondered why the Conservative government would not come up with the $900,000 to ensure the safety of people and products travelling through this busy port of entry.

Both the Vancouver parks board and Vancouver city council have passed motions opposing the closure of the Kitsilano Coast Guard station. The B.C. NDP opposition leader has written to encourage all B.C. MPs to speak out and oppose this closure. The premier of British Columbia has also urged the federal government to reverse course.

Yet the government refuses to listen to the very people who know the region, the waters and the services that are required to keep people safe.

We held the town hall meeting to give people an opportunity to voice their concerns and anger. The Conservative government so far has refused to listen, despite mounting outrage. We promised to bring the people's message back to Ottawa.

One of the attendees at the meeting was Katrina. She works in insurance for the yachting industry. She asked what impact this decision would have on insurance costs.

Since then, she has written an open letter, and it is excellent. I want to quote from that letter. She said:

Weighing shades of grey and ethical dilemmas which cut across political, moral and industrial divides is a hobby I take great pleasure in pursuing. These sorts of dilemmas in Canada are many and complex; our ability and willingness to navigate these concerns and stay united despite our differences somehow defines us as Canadians. However, I assure you wholeheartedly, my fellow Canadians, that the closure of the Kitsilano Coast Guard Station is not a decision that falls into this category. There is no political, economic, social, moral, or nautical justification which would warrant the closing of this base; not one. Any politician suggesting there is has misunderstood grossly some or all of the reasons which compel this location to remain open. If this station is closed lives will be lost, full stop. Any politician suggesting otherwise is in grave error and in gross neglect of their duty as a public servant. At no point were they elected to put human lives at risk; at no point will the sea bow down and say, “I will quell my force in obedience to Ottawa”. At no point will one human life lost at sea be forgotten conveniently in order to make this issue go away.

Those are powerful words.

One message we heard repeatedly is that the protection of the public must be the top priority for any government. Everyone was adamant that the Conservative government must not balance the budget at the expense of marine safety. British Columbians are also upset that, once again, the government has failed to consult them on a major decision, such as shutting down the Kitsilano Coast Guard Station.

After assurances from the Minister of Canadian Heritage, who is the lead B.C. Conservative MP, that a broad consultation had taken place, we soon discovered that the department had only consulted with the Department of National Defence. This lack of consultation does not instill a sense of confidence that this short-sighted decision is in the best interest of British Columbians. The choruses of disapproval from people who are active in marine safety, who have the local knowledge of the area and know the level of service required, is growing.

If the government had taken the time to consult, it would have heard that on the May long weekend alone the Kitsilano Coast Guard Station saved nine lives, or that so far this year the Kitsilano Coast Guard Station has responded to 70 calls and saved 55 lives.

If the government had bothered to ask Fred Moxey, retired commander of the Kitsilano Coast Guard Station, he would have told them, “Very simply, lives will be lost.”

Attendees at the town hall all wanted to know how the government could justify relying on volunteers to protect citizens in the water. They wondered who exactly was consulted about this. They wondered who was consulted when the decision was made to use the hovercraft and volunteers to replace trained professionals.

People do not trust the government on this issue. They are shocked and appalled that this decision was reached without public consultation, particularly with people who are active in marine safety and have the local knowledge. Also, the City of Vancouver and the Province of British Columbia were not consulted.

Marine safety should be a high priority for the government. The federal government has a responsibility to provide this essential service. To shut down the Kitsilano Coast Guard Station is an abdication of their duties.

The message from the town hall meeting was clear: the closure of the Kitsilano Coast Guard Station creates an unacceptable risk for Canadians. I urge the government to reconsider this reckless cut to close the Kitsilano Coast Guard Station, and keep it open.