Report urges funding for N.L. search and rescue, highlights issues with police

The flag of Newfoundland and Labrador is pictured in this file photo.

A final report released Wednesday from an inquiry into ground search and rescue in Newfoundland and Labrador recommended the provincial government provide better funding for those services.

In the report, Commissioner James Igloliorte said ground search and rescue services are underfunded and staffed by volunteers who put in many hours and risk burnout. The former provincial court judge said the Newfoundland and Labrador Search and Rescue Association is also over-reliant on a few key volunteers, most notably its president, Harry Blackmore.

"This over-reliance and absence of professional staff threatens the long-term viability of this essential organization," Igloliorte wrote in the report.

In his recommendation for funding, Igloliorte pointed to a submission from Blackmore that said the search and rescue association needed a commitment of $2 million a year for two years, followed by $1 million each year thereafter.

The Public Inquiry Respecting Ground Search and Rescue's community consultations began in September in the coastal Labrador community of Makkovik, and they ended later that month in St. John's.

The inquiry was triggered by the unsuccessful 2012 search for 14-year-old Burton Winters in Makkovik. On Jan. 29, 2012, Winters set out on the sea ice on his snowmobile and didn't return home. His body was found three days later, "some 15 kilometres from where his snowmobile was stuck in the jumbled ice," Igloliorte wrote.

The final report from the inquiry released Wednesday was dedicated to Winters's memory, Igloliorte said. The 159-page document included 17 recommendations, such as more mental health support, more training for search and rescue volunteers, and a review of the province's 911 services.

The search and rescue association has more than 750 volunteers organized into 25 teams across the province, but their services, the report said, are not yet established in Indigenous communities, such as the Innu Nation towns of Sheshatshiu and Natuashish and in other communities along Labrador's south coast. Igloliorte recommended the government identify which communities are in need and that it find solutions.

In most cases, ground search and rescue services in the province are tasked by police, but this may not work in some Indigenous communities where relationships with police may not be as "harmonious," he wrote.

"Cultural differences and, especially, language differences also might impact interoperability within Indigenous communities," Igloliorte said. "Police officers, generally not being of the culture of the community and with limited local knowledge, might thus be a poor choice for incident commanders and a policing presence on searches might be counterproductive."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 1, 2021.