That, in the opinion of the House, it is imperative the government move expeditiously to allocate the necessary resources to put in place a full-time dedicated helicopter fully equipped to search and rescue standards at the airport nearest to offshore oil activity and that it be available on a 24-hour basis with a crew trained in all aspects of search and rescue.
Madam Speaker, I welcome this opportunity to speak to the need for additional search and rescue services in Newfoundland and Labrador. I thank the member for Brossard—La Prairie for seconding the motion.
Newfoundlanders and Labradorians are no strangers to tragedies at sea. In fact, our history is such that in small fishing communities there were so many men lost at sea that it was common that numerous women were left to raise large families without the support of a spouse.
I grew up in a historic fishing community where there were many homes that had at the very top something called a widow's walk. When boats went to sea, they were gone for extended periods of time and no one really knew when they would be returning because it was usually when there was no more room to put the fish they had caught.
More often than not, wives would go up to the widow's walk and look out to the ocean to see if there were any boats returning. When a boat was spotted, the women would watch in fear that a flag would be flying at half-mast, indicating someone had died while at sea, and hoping it was not their husband, son or brother because members of families often fished together. A boat returning was a good sign because many boats had been lost at sea with all hands, as the local papers would say.
Newfoundlanders and Labradorians have a hate/love relationship with the sea, hate because of how dangerous it can be and love because it has provided a livelihood for thousands of years to the fishery. Now, in addition to the fishery, many Newfoundlanders and Labradorians are earning a living from the most recent industry we associate with the sea, and that is the oil industry.
Contrary to Alberta, where the oil is located on land, the oil resources that Newfoundland and Labrador is known for are located as far away as 350 kilometres offshore. This means that the method of travel for those who work offshore in the oil industry is usually by helicopter. To fly from St. John's, where the helicopter company is located, to the offshore oil platform takes approximately three hours.
Newfoundlanders and Labradorians are no strangers to work. In fact, they are proud, productive people who want nothing more than to earn a living and provide for their families. Newfoundlanders and Labradorians have travelled in search of work for many years. Many went to work building high rises in New York, more went to Boston and of course we all know about the out migration of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians to provinces like Alberta and Ontario.
Always in search of work, is it any wonder that when oil was discovered offshore Newfoundland and Labrador, it was considered a godsend. Not only did it mean employment, but it meant being able to live and work at home, to spend time with their families. It was not long before the comfort and satisfaction turned to worry and fear.
Prior to the use of floating production platforms offshore Newfoundland and Labrador, there was a fixed production platform called the Ocean Ranger, which was drilling in the Hibernia oil field. The Ocean Ranger commenced drilling on November 26, 1981 and on February 14, 1982 the it sank, claiming 84 lives.
I do not have to say how devastating that was, not just for the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, where the majority of those who worked on the Ocean Ranger were from, but for others throughout the country, North America and Europe, where some of the workers lived and were experienced in the oil industry. They were from Alberta, Texas, Norway and Scotland.
Following the loss of the Ocean Ranger, with everyone on board, a royal commission was put in place to look into the tragedy and to make recommendations to ensure, to the extent humanly possible, that such a tragedy would never occur again.
One of the recommendations was that a full-time search and rescue-dedicated helicopter be stationed at the airport nearest to ongoing offshore drilling operations and that it be readily available, with a trained crew able to perform all aspects of the rescue.
Does that sound familiar?
My motion is almost word for word that recommended 24 years ago, following the sinking of the Ocean Ranger which claimed 84 lives, twenty-four years ago, and we are still waiting to have the recommendation enacted.
The fact that the recommendation has not been acted upon was particularly upsetting when, on March 12, a helicopter carrying workers to the Hibernia offshore oil platform and the SeaRose floating production storage and offloading vessel crashed into the sea, taking all but one life. Of the 18 people on-board the helicopter, two survived the crash; however, only one survived the ordeal. Of the two who survived the crash, one, a young woman, drowned.
Needless to say, in the wake of yet another tragedy associated with the offshore oil industry, many questions have been raised about the adequacy of military search and rescue services in Newfoundland and Labrador.
At the time of the tragedy, search and rescue helicopters located in Newfoundland and Labrador were involved in training exercises in Nova Scotia. As a result, nearly two hours passed before they were able to get to the crash site.
While we will never know if any of the victims would have survived the crash if search and rescue had arrived at the site earlier, loved ones who lost family and friends in the tragedy will always have questions. I know because two of the men who lost their lives were from my riding of Random—Burin—St. George's.
While I do not know the father of the young woman who drowned, I have heard him speak and wonder if his daughter could have been saved. He has said the question will remain with him forever.
Those who work in the industry refer to the “golden hour”. It is that first hour after an accident or a sinking at sea. They say if people are not spotted or rescued in that first hour, their situation will begin to deteriorate very quickly.
I have complete confidence in the capabilities, knowledge and commitment of the people who serve at the 103 Search and Rescue Squadron, in Gander, Newfoundland.
Let me be clear. The purpose of my motion is to expand search and rescue services in Newfoundland and Labrador, not to reallocate or relocate existing equipment and personnel. The intent of my motion is as it says, to establish a fully-equipped, long-range helicopter service that is closer to the offshore oil activity.
It would also be prudent of the government to upgrade the present search and rescue service in Gander to a 24/7 operation, in light of the tragedy that occurred just six short months ago.
What is required is an infusion of money to make the level of search and rescue services adequate to meet the needs that exist, not just in the fishing, export and tourism industries in Newfoundland and Labrador, but in the oil industry as well.
Response time to tragedies at sea must be improved if we are to avoid, as much as it is possible to do so, more loss of life in what can be a very dangerous working environment.
Safety, not money, must be the issue in responding to this motion.
The federal government has an 8.5% stake in Hibernia alone. So, think of the revenue that accrues to the government. It is more than enough to enhance the search and rescue services in Newfoundland and Labrador if the government does indeed consider money to be an issue.
I am hoping that is not the case. I am hoping that the government will indeed see the common sense approach of doing what is right, under the circumstances. When I think of the families who lost loved ones, the tragedies I mentioned and, probably more important today, those who work offshore in whatever industry, I had no choice but to bring forward this motion and try once again after 24 years to get a helicopter station closer to the offshore.
We do not know, had the recommendation of the Royal Commission on the Ocean Ranger marine disaster been acted on 24 years ago, whether more recent tragedies would have had different outcomes. I prefer to not have to wonder about that should future tragedies occur. I am sure that those who work offshore feel the same way.
I am told that fear is not uncommon among those who work offshore and certainly not among their families. They are living with the fear of losing a loved one whenever they leave to board a helicopter to take them offshore. They are living with fear whenever they hear of a circumstance that could mean the loss of a life. They are living with fear when they hear and remember what has happened in other circumstances.
Unfortunately, our history has taught them to be fearful. We have an opportunity to do what is right. I would say that now is the time, but really, it is long past the right time. It must be done and it must be done now. It is imperative that the government respond to this motion in the affirmative.
Twenty-four years is a long time to wait to have search and rescue services enhanced as a result of a tragedy that took 84 lives at that time. Just six short months ago, we saw the loss of another 17 lives. How many lives must we lose? How many lives must we lose to the sea? While it is our history, it is not something that we should have to continue to experience.
The very dangerous environment of the offshore, whether one works on a fishing vessel, on a tourism boat, on a freighter importing or exporting product to or from the province, or in the oil industry offshore, is not a good environment to work in when someone is on a sea that becomes so volatile that they fear for their life. It is not a good environment when the winds are so high that one really does fear for their life.
It is important that all of these circumstances are taken into account. It is important that the government consider each and every one of them. More important, it is important that the government consider every individual who works offshore in an environment that is dangerous.
We have to respond in the affirmative. We have to recognize that this is important. We have to recognize that it is not about money. It is about safety and saving lives. Who would want to risk the loss of more life? We have an opportunity with this motion to make sure, to the extent it is humanly possible, that we never again face the tragedies that we have faced in the past number of years and, in particular, the past six months.