House of Commons Hansard #113 of the 41st Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was cuts.


Search and RescuePrivate Members' Business

April 30th, 2012 / 11:05 a.m.


Jack Harris NDP St. John's East, NL


That the House acknowledge that Canada lags behind international search and rescue norms and urge the government to recognize the responsibility of the Canadian Forces for the protection of Canadians, and to take such measures as may be required for Canada to achieve the common international readiness standard of 30 minutes at all times, from tasking to becoming airborne, in response to search and rescue incidents.

Mr. Speaker, this resolution is one which is extremely dear to my heart based upon, in part, the place in Canada from which I come and the concern that all Newfoundlanders and Labradorians have about the importance of the availability of search and rescue for those who are lost at sea or in need of assistance from the Canadian Forces to protect them in circumstances of danger.

Search and rescue is a matter of great importance from coast to coast to coast. The third coast that we talk about is up in the Arctic where search and rescue is particularly difficult and important.

The motion says that the House acknowledge that Canada lags behind international search and rescue norms. That is something that I firmly believe is so and I will deal with that in my remarks. The motion urges the government to recognize the responsibility of the Canadian Forces for the protection of Canadians and to take such measures as may be required for Canada to achieve what is a common international readiness standard of 30 minutes at all times, from tasking to becoming airborne, in response to search and rescue incidents. The motion is worded in that way is to recognize that we do not have the kind of international standards that exist in the U.K., the United States, Australia, Norway or other countries that are our allies and that we would look to for benchmarking of standards.

I will never forget the testimony given by Mr. Philip McDonald. He testified before the defence committee meeting in St. John's on February 1, 2011. He was a fisheries observer on board the Melina & Keith II which, at about 5:30 p.m. on September 12, 2005, slipped beneath the waves. The eight crew members on board, including Mr. McDonald, ended up in the water. Two men drowned right away. The others clung to debris during the search and rescue efforts. Mr. McDonald was rescued by a boat. He said, “As they were hauling me aboard, I heard the loud noise of the Cormorant helicopter flying over. I jumped up on the deck and told the crew of the Lady Charlotte Star there were eight of us.” Two others were rescued shortly later. Unfortunately, the other four, Ivan Dyke, Anthony Malloy, Joshua Williams and Justin Ralph, were gone. He then said, “I saw a young man clinging to a piece of styrofoam just 20 minutes before I was rescued. He could not hold on any longer.”

So Mr. McDonald saw this young man drop below the waves 20 minutes before he was rescued. The Cormorant that left Gander to come to the rescue scene was tasked at 4:50 p.m. It became airborne at 6:10 p.m., one hour and 20 minutes later. When it arrived on the scene, it was 20 minutes past this young man slipping beneath the waves.

We have a standby time in Canada for the period 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. five days a week. They call that working hours. For the rest of the time during the week, on the weekends and after 4 p.m., what the Department of National Defence repeatedly and inexplicably in its reports called the quiet hours, the response standard is two hours. Most times, search and rescue teams do better than that. However, this is the only country I am aware of that has a two hour response standard after 4 p.m., in fact a two hour response standard at all. If this helicopter had left within 30 minutes from being tasked at 4:50 p.m., it would have been there considerably earlier. In fact, it would have been there long before this young man slipped beneath the waves.

A study done in 1999 by the National Search and Rescue Secretariat of National Defence stated that it had great difficulty with the approach to search and rescue. The team studying the readiness standby posture, 2 hour standby during quiet hours and 30 minute readiness capability during working hours, said that resource availability is the primary driver that determines the standby postures for all national search and rescue program departments.

That was in 1999. In 2007, when the Transportation Safety Board did its report on the Melina & Keith II, it talked about a review of the standby search and rescue posture and quoted the report. It said that the standby postures of primary SAR resources should be determined primarily through an analysis of demand for services. It went on to say that DND policy limits the 30 minute standby position to 40 hours per week, indicating that resource availability continues to be the primary factor in determining SAR responses.

What is the demand for services? I can refer to another report by the Department of National Defence, an unclassified copy dated 2005. A table shows coverage for incidents occurring during a three year period when different times were considered. It looked at various periods of standby time, to see how many incidents were covered.

When we look at the 30 minute standby for 8 hours a day, Monday to Friday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., only 17% of the incidents requiring search and rescue services occurred during that period. Over 80%, 83% by this calculation, of the taskings for search and rescue aircraft occurred outside the so-called working hours and during the so-called quiet hours, after 4 p.m., before 8 a.m. and on weekends. This was a fleet analysis determining what was required for fixed wing search and rescue, determining demand for services of search and rescue.

It looked at various configurations. It looked at 7 days a week, 16 hours a day, from 8 a.m. to 12 midnight, which would be 82% coverage. By changing the configuration and looking at how many hours of service there would be for this 30 minute standby posture, it could actually increase the coverage to 82%.

If we did what this motion called for and had a 30 minute standby posture, 24/7, we would have 100% coverage available in 30 minutes.

What does that mean? It means that we are not doing the job when it comes to making search and rescue aircraft available. I want to talk about the crews, pilots and search and rescue technicians. They are some of the bravest and most skilled people we have in our society, let alone in the military. These people risk their lives daily to save others. Unfortunately, some of them lose their lives in that task.

Just before Christmas of last year, an incident happened in the north where the search and rescue technicians parachuted in the dark through 40-kilometre per hour winds into 10-foot Arctic waves to rescue two Inuit men whose boat had become trapped in the ice while they were walrus hunting. The hunters and two technicians survived the ordeal but Sergeant Janick Gilbert did not. The tether connecting him to his life raft broke and by the time a rescue helicopter arrived five hours later he was dead.

Over the years, some of the bravest actions have been undertaken by search and rescue technicians in incidents such as this. They not only risk their life but sometimes lose it.

Other countries have greater abilities to conduct search and rescues. It is not the fault of the search and rescue technicians or the pilots that the helicopter was not there to save those who were lost on the Melina and Keith II . They were there ready to brave whatever elements existed to save the lives of those individuals. However, the resources, the system and the availability of aircraft are what determines how they are able to act.

Some international comparisons have been done, unfortunately not by the government because that does not see to be the benchmark, but by an individual by the name of Paul Clay of Seacom International Inc. who presented a report to the defence committee in St. John's. He provided information on the comparisons between Canada and other countries. In the case of Canada, it was 30 minutes by day and 120 minutes being the standard after 4:00 p.m., before 8:00 a.m. and on weekends. The government of the United Kingdom shows the ARF at 15 minutes by day and 45 minutes by night. The Republic of Ireland is 15 minutes by day, meaning 7:30 a.m. to 9:00 p.m., and 45 minutes after 9:00 p.m. Australia is 30 minutes by day, 30 minutes by night and 24/7 service provided by the royal Australian air force operated by CHC. The United States coast guard is 30 minutes day or night 24/7. Mexico is 40 minutes day or night. The royal Norwegian air force in Norway provides 15 minutes coverage day or night 24/7.

When we compare Canada to the U.K. and the Republic of Ireland with 15 minutes by day until 9:00 p.m. and 45 minutes at night, the common standard is that of Australia and the United States showing 30 minutes for the U.S. coast guard, 30 minutes for Australia and then 40 minutes for Mexico. We should have that standard for our people who are lost at sea.

Whether it is off the east coast of Newfoundland and Labrador, in the Gulf of the St. Lawrence, on the Great Lakes of Ontario, off the coast of British Columbia or in the Arctic, the fastest way to rescue somebody is to get in the air quickly. We are not doing that and that should be changed.

I call on the support of all members to ask the government to meet that international standard so that Canadians can be protected, as they should be.

Search and RescuePrivate Members' Business

11:20 a.m.

Ajax—Pickering Ontario


Chris Alexander ConservativeParliamentary Secretary to the Minister of National Defence

Mr. Speaker, I have some points of disagreement with the hon. member on the actual comparative timings that he has put forward but I will save my remarks in that regard for a speech I will be making shortly.

My question to the member is about the availability of aircraft. He has correctly and repeatedly identified aircraft as being one of the main factors determining the ability of the Canadian Forces and other responders to get to people in distress. We need many aircraft and we need them in the right places. The member opposite knows that full well.

Could the member explain to all Canadians why, if availability of aircraft is so important, his party has consistently voted against the procurement of new aircraft, whether it is helicopters, replacements for the Hercules or any number of aircraft whose role is instrumental in search and rescue across this country?

Search and RescuePrivate Members' Business

11:20 a.m.


Jack Harris NDP St. John's East, NL

Mr. Speaker, I hope all Canadians are listening to that kind of nonsense. We are getting a little sick and tired of hearing those kinds of remarks. We voted against our own salaries. We voted against your salary, Mr. Speaker. When we vote against the budget on a matter of confidence, which is what we do, it because we do not agree with the Conservatives' approach to the whole running of government. We vote against every item in that budget. It has nothing to do with picking out a particular thing and voting against it. The government and the member, I am sorry to say, have fallen into that same trap of illogic and disrepute, frankly, by trying to accuse the opposition of not supporting things that are good for Canadians, when people know full well that we want to see search and rescue given sufficient and better priority than it has been given. Nobody puts that on the floor for a vote, except we are doing it right now and we will see how that member votes when the time comes.

Search and RescuePrivate Members' Business

11:20 a.m.


Scott Simms Liberal Bonavista—Gander—Grand Falls—Windsor, NL

Mr. Speaker, one of the things that the parliamentary secretary points out is the voting records. As a matter of fact, the member for Random—Burin—St. George's presented a motion in this House asking for more resources for search and rescue in the Department of National Defence. Members will never guess what the Conservatives did. They voted against it. We can play that game all day.

However, my question for this particular member is, vis-à-vis the ground search and rescue effort across this country, which is primarily a voluntary one, would it not be ideal for the Department of National Defence, along with the Coast Guard, to up its standards so that ground search and rescue across this country, a teamwork of volunteers, could also be increased in its effectiveness?

Search and RescuePrivate Members' Business

11:20 a.m.


Jack Harris NDP St. John's East, NL

Mr. Speaker, I thank the member for Bonavista—Gander—Grand Falls—Windsor who has shown great interest in this issue over the years he has been here and, of course, Gander is the centre where the 103 Squadron Cormorants are stationed.

Ground search and rescue is part of the overall system. The Department of National Defence is the lead ministry and its minister is the lead minister for the whole system of search and rescue in Canada. Yes, I believe there ought to be a more coordinated effort. We saw the recent tragic loss of Burton Winters in Makkovik, Labrador, where there seemed to have been some elements of misunderstanding about what the roles of various parties were, as well as communication difficulties and very serious bureaucratic hurdles in the way of Burton Winters being rescued more quickly.

Yes, there needs to be more effort and integrating some of these services in a better way should also be a priority. However, we need to start by getting a helicopter or a Hercules in the air within 30 minutes to get to the place where the help is needed.

Search and RescuePrivate Members' Business

11:20 a.m.

Ajax—Pickering Ontario


Chris Alexander ConservativeParliamentary Secretary to the Minister of National Defence

Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to rise in the House on behalf of the government to respond to the motion in question and to the speech just made by the member opposite.

Unfortunately, the government will not be able to support the motion for reasons that I will outline at some length. However, it is principally because we do not agree with its premises and we do not agree with its conclusions.

On the premises, we do not agree that Canada lags behind international search and rescue norms. I must take this opportunity to defend not only the Canadian Forces and other Government of Canada agencies and departments involved in search and rescue, but also the provinces, territories, volunteers and municipal governments, all of whom play an outstanding role in meeting the very highest standards of response to search and rescue across the country. Just by the very phrasing of the motion, the member opposite has implied that somehow not just the Government of Canada, but all of those private, volunteer, civilian responders to search and rescue incidents across the country in every province and every territory are somehow lagging behind. We simply reject that premise.

We also do not think it is the place of the House, this member, or other members to determine what the actual response times of the Canadian Forces, or any other body, ought to be on these matters. The House has never set those standards in the past.

I see some members opposite expressing disbelief. They clearly have not read into this file. They clearly have not understood the proud history of search and rescue in this country and they clearly have not understood how other countries determine these things. It is not a matter for Parliament. In the case of the Canadian Forces, the standards are set by the Canadian Forces in accordance with their operational determinations on the basis of their resource base, and that is the way it should be. That is a best practice not just in Canada but around the world. It is one for which our friends and allies looked to Canada, and continue to look to Canada, for leadership and not for political interference in these matters.

Therefore, we will not be supporting the motion because it is both misleading and inaccurate. It is inaccurate because it suggests that a 30-minute response posture is prescribed by international search and rescue standards; it is not. It is misleading because it seems to imply that instituting a readiness standard of 30 minutes for the Canadian Forces would significantly improve the service provided to Canadians on the basis of the resource base the Canadian Forces have and on the budget they have, which it would not.

I believe it is important that I set the record straight on these two points today so that we can have a properly informed debate about Canada’s search and rescue services and how government investments can make the most meaningful contribution to their continued strength and improvement.

I would take this moment to add that we are engaged with the Canadian Forces in a constant campaign to improve service. A new helicopter was added in Goose Bay recently. The member opposite did not mention that. In the wake of the very unfortunate incident recently in Makkovik, there was a review, led by the Chief of the Defence Staff, which has resulted in an improvement to procedures in response to those very critical search and rescue incidents in the Arctic.

With respect to international search and rescue standards, Canada is a signatory to several search and rescue treaties: the International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue, the Convention on International Civil Aviation, the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, and the Agreement on Cooperation on Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue. Together these treaties set a framework for search and rescue. None of them has a mandate of a 30-minute response posture. That is because the international community recognizes that geography, varying characteristics of different countries, and the varying institutional structures of different countries dictate that each one must design a search and rescue system tailored to its own needs.

For example, it would be of little use to mandate exactly the same kind of search and rescue system for both a small, evenly populated European country with little or no coastline and for a country as huge as ours—surrounded by three oceans and with a population dispersed over vast distances.

Canada has built up its own traditions, its own institutional framework, its own best practices in the area of search and rescue, and they suit Canada. That is why it is a mistake to suggest that Canada lags behind some kind of international standard. In fact, it is even a mistake to suggest that other countries like Canada or remotely similar to Canada maintain a 30-minute response posture.

Of course, no country has exactly the same ties or features as we do. No country but ours has the longest coastline. No country has 18 million square kilometres of search and rescue responsibility.

In the case of Australia, for example, I must differ with the member opposite. Australia, another large country with long coastlines and a thinly dispersed population, has a military fixed-wing response posture of between three and 12 hours for search and rescue. That was not the kind of fact that the member opposite put before us. He put a different fact forward, but I think if he looked to military fixed-wing search and rescue response times from Australia, he would find the standard is much lower, and much longer than it is for Canada.

Contrary to what this motion suggests, it is generally accepted that each nation must design a search and rescue system that is uniquely tailored to its own needs and utilizes available resources in the way that best benefits its population. Canada has just such a system—one that serves Canadians extremely well.

And I would be happy to discuss the Canadian Forces’ role in this system, as well as why a move to a continuous 30-minute response posture is not in our country’s best interest.

When we talk about a response posture, we are referring to the maximum timeframe in which Canadian Forces can become airborne after being tasked. When it comes to search and rescue, Canadian Forces have two different postures: from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Friday, the posture is 30 minutes; after hours, at night or on the weekend, the response posture is two hours.

However, I want to make absolutely clear that regardless of their response posture, regardless of whether they are on base or at home, crews always respond immediately when a call comes. They do everything they can to get out the door and off the ground as quickly and effectively as they can.

During regular business hours, takeoff is routinely accomplished within 30 minutes, and response time is even better if the crew already happens to be in the air when the call comes in. After hours, Canadian Forces crews become airborne, on average, just over 60 minutes after the call comes in.

That is an impressive feat when you consider that they must first get to the base, evaluate mission requirements against prevailing conditions, start their aircraft and manoeuvre for departure.

And response time is even quicker during peak periods—such as periods of high-intensity seasonal fishing—when crews may be kept on base even in the evenings and on weekends.

When it comes to mobilizing a search and rescue response, the actual difference between the 30-minute response posture and the two-hour response posture is usually measured in minutes, not hours.

When we consider the vastness of Canada's area of responsibility as well as the complexity of our terrain and the unpredictability of our weather, studies have shown that the significance of these minutes usually pales in comparison to the significance of other factors that can influence mission outcome, such as the time between an emergency situation arising and the appropriate authorities being notified, the time it takes to cover the significant distance—which is often a factor—between the nearest base and the site of the emergency and the time it takes to find and recover the people in distress, which is often no easy task.

We can all mention any number of incidents in which an earlier response time might have changed the outcome or a tragedy could have been avoided if there had been a helicopter in another part of the country closer to the zone of the incident, but the disposition of the resources we have is on the basis of a statistical base that extends over years, decades, and indeed even centuries.

Some of these factors—such as the speed of notification and the mobility of our assets—can be influenced to one extent or another. Others—such as the weather or the characteristics of our Canadian landscape—cannot.

Members of our SAR crews, our SAR techs, want to save each and every individual who needs their help, and in the vast majority of cases they do just that.

Military assets are deployed for about 1,100 of the approximately 9,000 search and rescue incidents reported annually in Canada—meaning a minority, the more serious ones—but they help to save an average of 1,200 lives every year.

I also know that our SAR techs deeply regret those rare instances when weather, distance or a delay in notification prevents them from getting there in time.

But rather than focusing on the relatively narrow issue of response posture, as recommended by the motion before this House, we want to invest public resources where they will have the greatest possible impact on the safety and survival of Canadians.

Our latest plan is to acquire a new fleet of fixed-wing search and rescue aircraft, as promised in the Canada first strategy. We are supporting the Canadian Forces in deepening their partnerships with other departments at all levels, including federal, provincial and territorial. We are also strengthening our international search and rescue partnerships, particularly in the north, through joint initiatives like the Arctic search and rescue agreement that was signed under this government in 2011.

A huge amount of work happens every day to improve the effectiveness of search and rescue resources in this country. Unfortunately, this motion is not a contribution to that effort.

Search and RescuePrivate Members' Business

11:30 a.m.


Scott Simms Liberal Bonavista—Gander—Grand Falls—Windsor, NL

Mr. Speaker, I want to address some of the concerns that were just brought up. Actually, I am somewhat bemused by the comment that we should not debate the response time issue here because the member thinks perhaps we are not qualified or that this is not the place to do it.

I first came to this House in 2004 and I remember the debate about the Coast Guard. I am sure my hon. colleague for St. John's East will remember it. The Conservatives complained in the House for days on end about the fact that there was no fuel available for some of the Coast Guard ships in St. John's. The bureaucrats later said that it was not true, yet it was made a point of debate in this House. At some point the Conservatives will start practising what they used to preach.

Here we find ourselves in this debate. Why can we not debate response times? Why can this country not have a discussion about the resources that we have in the Department of National Defence and be informed about how we go about doing this?

I find it ironic on several levels. Another level is the huge announcement about the F-35 and how we are going to deal with this situation with the stealth fighters. While the Conservatives say that they have a Canada first defence policy, the F-35s get the attention but the fixed-wing search and rescue is floundering. Where is it going? What will it be? Who is going to get this contract? Will the Conservative put out a tender for this aircraft? They are flying 50-year-old airplanes on the west coast.

I think this is a good debate. The Conservatives talk about the F-35s and say that they have a Canada first defence policy; I cannot think of a greater Canada first defence policy than what we are talking about here today, which is search and rescue.

The Conservatives have signed international protocols. Just the other day there was an announcement that there was a new initiatives fund for ground search and rescue, which is a fund that was established many years ago. Why can we not debate this?

Perhaps this is a bold statement on my part, but Newfoundlanders and Labradorians now probably know more about the minutiae of search and rescue in this country than any other province and perhaps any other jurisdiction around the world. Why? It is because it is an issue. The Conservatives say in this House that we are not going to debate it. They complain that the NDP vote against defence policies, yet they do not even want to talk about it. It is absolutely ridiculous. Why can this House not be a place of discourse, a place to be informed about how it works?

The member had a point when talked about response times. He said it is just over 60 minutes on the weekend; it is actually less than that, at just over 50 minutes, and on weekdays the response time is just over 20 minutes. That is the result of good people on the ground and in the air. However, we are talking about the policy of 30 minutes, 24/7. That is our debate. To say that we are not allowed to or should not be talking about it is disgraceful to anybody involved in this issue.

We have some of the best search and rescue people in the world. There are just over 100 Cormorant helicopters around the world, and nobody uses these helicopters the way Canadians do. We are flying these things more than any other jurisdiction around the world, and it is because of our people who do this.

When I first got elected in 2004, there was an accident involving the Ryan's Commander. There was one individual, and I will not say his name, but he is currently a search and rescue technician, and this was one of his first missions out. He was lowered down from the wire to get to the ship when all of a sudden the wind came up; he was smacked against the boat and found himself floundering in the water. Can we imagine being lowered in the dark with just one spotlight from a helicopter, waves two or three storeys high, just dangling there, and all of a sudden becoming untethered and landing in the North Atlantic?

I bring that up because, my goodness, this is the perfect place to discuss what these people do. This is a question of resources. If the Conservatives want a Canada first defence policy, then they should make it about this country. They should make it about Canada first.

When we talk about a Canada first defence policy, there is no better example than our own search and rescue. We have the largest coastline in the world, and the biggest areas; there is no doubt about it. We have bases across the country, and now we require assets in the north as well. We require fixed-wing search and rescue. All of this comes down to one thing: to be ready and to be available.

That discussion has to take place right here, at the highest level, in order for us to understand its importance and how it works. We want Canadians to believe in a Canada first defence policy and to believe in better search and rescue for all citizens across this country, whether they live in the mountains, whether they live inland or on the lakes, or whether they live beside the North Atlantic or the North Pacific. If we are going to make this a better system for them, then let us discuss what kind of resources they need. We need to ask Canadians what they believe to be the number one priority in defence.

For the last six years I have argued that I do not think that search and rescue has been the priority, and that is a shame. This fixed-wing search and rescue issue has gone back and forth between departments and cabinet discussion here and there. Unfortunately, it seems to be a political football getting thrown back and forth, a hot potato that nobody wants to deal with.

We are talking about search and rescue. It is the very essence of the motion that my hon. colleague has brought to the House today. He and I and many people in the House have talked about this for years, and it is not just we who have been talking about it. I remember former NDP member Catherine Bell, from the Comox area; she was very passionate about search and rescue. The thing about search and rescue was that we all had a learning experience from it, and because we discussed it so much, we are having an informed debate.

Let us look at another element of search and rescue readiness: crew hours. Crews can be out on the job for a maximum of 15 hours, and then it has to come down. They have to be off the job. That element has not been addressed here, but we have to look at it in order to create a 30-minute readiness standard, 24/7.

We should be looking at best practices in other countries. Both of my colleagues brought up several illustrations. Why can we not stand in the House and talk about what those countries do best and how we can become better as a result?

We have talked about the search and rescue system in the Department of National Defence, but what about the Coast Guard as well? The government wants to trim the deficit; it wants to be more cost-efficient, as Conservative members would say. We have proven to them time and time again that closing down the maritime rescue sub-centre in St. John's is not the way to do it. A whole host of experts have told the government that if it wants to create efficiencies, that is not the way to go about it.

I ask my hon. colleague here in the House: was he aware that this was being considered? I certainly was not. I went with Conservative colleagues, NDP colleagues and the Bloc to St. John's to have a look at the sub-centre, and it was wonderful. Everybody loved the sub-centre. It was a great asset and it was doing wonderful work. Then, bang; down came the hammer, and it was gone.

Like many people, I was shocked. Where was the discussion then? Is that what this is about? The government is going to put resources here and will not have a discussion about it. All of a sudden the government is making this decision, even though the experts are telling it that it is probably not such a good idea, given the history of search and rescue on the east coast and given the history of the Coast Guard, DND and ground search and rescue with a team of volunteers.

I am disappointed, but I support the motion. If it furthers the debate, then so be it. If that is all it does, rescue is still going to be needed in this country.

I would tell my Conservative colleagues that if they are serious about a Canada first defence policy, then they should get on board and vote for the motion. Let us go forward and have a decent debate in the House, as we have been doing.

Search and RescuePrivate Members' Business

11:45 a.m.


Ryan Cleary NDP St. John's South—Mount Pearl, NL

Mr. Speaker, I stand with my colleague, the hon. member for St. John's East, in support of Motion No. 314.

Canada does indeed lag behind international search and rescue norms. That is an indisputable fact. I urge the federal government to do what it takes to achieve the international readiness standard of 30 minutes at all times, from tasking one of the military's Cormorant helicopters to becoming airborne. In other words, 30 minutes, wheels up, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, a search and rescue response time of 30 minutes around the clock.

As it stands, the wheels up response time for the military's search and rescue helicopters, the Cormorants that operate across the country, including out of Gander in my home province of Newfoundland and Labrador, are twofold, as we have already heard. Between Monday and Friday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., the wheels up response time is 30 minutes, but after 4 p.m. and on weekends and during holidays, the wheels up response time is 2 hours.

That is right, there is a search and rescue response time of two hours during evenings and on weekends and during holidays. Just imagine fire departments around the country operating with one response time during the day and another during evenings and on weekends. Canadians would not have it because it would make no sense. Lives would be put at risk and people would most certainly die.

A two-tier response time would not cut it in terms of fire on land, and a two-tier response time does not cut it in the North Atlantic where the survival time in the absence of a survival suit is measured in minutes.

Let us make no mistake and let there be no doubt, the Canadian military's two-tier search and rescue response time, inadequate search and rescue response time, has cost lives. It has cost the lives of Newfoundland and Labrador mariners and will cost even more lives if the search and rescue response time is not changed.

I might add that the Canadian Coast Guard has a 24-hour response time for its vessels of 30 minutes around the clock.

Before I became a member of Parliament, about one year ago today, I was a journalist. I was a reporter, a columnist and a newspaper editor. I know my way around a news story.

In September 2005, I was the editor in chief of a weekly provincial newspaper called The Independent, when a fishing boat went down, which happens, I am sorry to report, quite often where I come from. The Melina & Keith II, as the hon. member for St. John's East mentioned earlier, sank off Cape Bonavista on September 12, 2005, while fishing for turbot and shrimp. What struck me about the story from the get-go, what set off my spider sense as a newspaper editor, was the search and rescue response time. Therefore, I assigned a team of reporters to the story of the Melina & Keith II.

What we learned, after weeks of investigation, was shocking. Cutting to the chase, it took the National Defence Cormorant helicopters operating out of Gander's 103 Search and Rescue squadron approximately three hours and eight minutes, after the capsized vessel was located, to arrive on scene. In that three hours and eight minutes, four of the eight fishermen who were reportedly alive when the fishing boat went down had died. Four men, half the crew, died because search and rescue did not get there quick enough.

I am not sure if Canadians watching CPAC know this, but we are not allowed to use props when we give speeches in the House of Commons, which is too bad. I would like to show Canadians the front page picture, published in The Independent newspaper, of one of the survivors of the Melina & Keith II. The picture was of survivor Bernard Dyke who was 17 years old at the time when the ship went down. It was only his third trip to sea at that point. He was the youngest crewman on board. He is as fresh-faced in that picture as can be imagined. He was just a teenager to look at, but with a vacant look in his eyes, a vacant look that the photographer for The Independent captured in that front page picture.

Bernard Dyke of Eastport, Bonavista Bay survived after spending more than four hours in the North Atlantic waiting to be rescued. As the hon. member for St. John's East mentioned, four others were lost: Ivan Dyke, Justin Ralph, Anthony Malloy and Joshua Williams. Dressed only in a T-shirt and underwear, Dyke survived by clinging to an overturned boat. He held tightly to a piece of rope, ready to lash himself to the boat if need be, so his mother would at least have his body. This is what went through his mind.

Bernard Dyke told his story to The Independent. The boat went down in under a minute, just enough time to get out a mayday, but the search and rescue did not come nearly quickly enough. All eight crewmen were reportedly alive when the boat went down, although only the captain had on a survival suit. The men survived the first couple of hours sitting on the bottom of the overturned vessel. When the boat finally went down, the men survived in the water for another two hours or so by holding onto the overturned aluminum boat, but they did not all survive. Bernard Dyke watched as his friends and crewmen slowly floated away, as he described it, because the search and rescue did not come quickly enough.

A policy of a 30 minute wheels up during the day and a 2 hour wheel sup on evenings, weekends and holidays is not good enough, no matter what the Conservatives say. It is it not good enough for Bernard Dyke, not good enough for the four crewmen of the Melina & Keith II who were lost and not good enough for provinces like mine, Newfoundland and Labrador, where people live and die by the sea. The sinking of the Melina & Keith II is but one example of the inadequacies of the military search and rescue response.

The CBC's The Fifth Estate carried out a recent investigation into the death of 14-year-old Burton Winters of Makkovik, Labrador. The search and rescue did not come quickly enough for young Burton either, but that is another heart-wrenching story about another needless death, the death of a teenager who walked 19 kilometres before he lay down on the ice and died because help did not come soon enough.

According to The Fifth Estate's investigation, Newfoundland and Labrador is ground zero for search and rescue in Atlantic Canada. Most times, there are happy endings, but not all times. Each year, there are new examples of search and rescue gone wrong. Each year there are new example of people who perished, while waiting for search and rescue that never came. According to The Fifth Estate, there have been nine cases in the last eight years alone where people died waiting for search and rescue. How many lost lives will it take for the Conservative government to accept the fact that search and rescue response as it stands is not good enough? We will probably get to that number soon enough, the number of people who die because of inadequate search and rescue response.

This is another interesting fact. The survival odds in the North Atlantic are better for an offshore oil worker than for a fisherman. It is true. Cougar Helicopters, which service the oil industry off Newfoundland and Labrador, recently implemented a wheels up search and rescue response time of 20 minutes around the clock. As I have mentioned before in the House of Commons, when it comes to survival time in the North Atlantic, there is no difference between a fisherman and an offshore oil worker. The survival time is the same. Why then the two-tier response? It is not good enough.

How does the Canadian military's search and rescue response compare to other countries? The member for St. John's East mentioned this earlier as well. It is far behind. According to a report prepared for a House of Commons Standing Committee on Defence, Canada's SAR response posture places last in comparison to Australia, Ireland, Mexico, the United Kingdom and the United States. That is not good enough and it has to change, no matter what we hear from the Conservatives.

Search and RescuePrivate Members' Business

11:55 a.m.


Mark Strahl Conservative Chilliwack—Fraser Canyon, BC

Mr. Speaker, I thank the hon. member for St. John's East for providing me with this opportunity to express my esteem for search and rescue services. I also congratulate him on his re-elevation to defence critic. As a member of the national defence committee, I look forward to working with him again.

Coming from British Columbia, I have a unique appreciation of the reliability and efficiency of this service and of the extraordinary work of all those who contribute to it, whether professional or volunteer, in uniform or not.

I will take a moment to thank the RCMP, Kent Harrison Search and Rescue and Chilliwack Search and Rescue which just yesterday participated in a very difficult, very dangerous recovery effort after a tragic hang gliding accident in my riding of Chilliwack—Fraser Canyon.

We western Canadians are blessed with a natural environment of exceptional beauty. Enjoying the great outdoors has become a key part of our lifestyle and identity. Western Canada has also become a prime destination for visitors from all over the country and from abroad who want to take advantage of the unparalleled recreational opportunities that we have to offer, activities like skiing, rock climbing, kayaking, hiking or camping, to name just a few. However, while our lakes, rivers, forests, mountains, coastlines and island chains are among the most spectacular in the world, they are not without dangers. This is something that we can easily forget.

We sometimes also forget that our environment can make search and rescue operations particularly challenging. Fortunately, we can rely upon the dedication and expertise of search and rescue professionals. such as the two Canadian Forces SAR techs from 442 Squadron in Comox who parachuted out of a CC-115 to a plane crash site 130 kilometres southwest of Williams Lake, B.C. on January 22. Because of their actions and the response of the 442 Transport and Rescue Squadron, all four occupants of the aircraft were found alive.

Not all incidents are that extreme, but I think all of us from the west can think of many incidents where search and rescue services were called upon. Because of that, we appreciate the importance of ensuring the quality of these services. Therefore, I fully understand and share the desire of the hon. member for St. John's East to provide Canadians with the best system of search and rescue services possible.

However, I cannot support the motion that we are debating today. Focusing uniquely on the issue of Canadian Forces' response posture does not accurately reflect the nature of Canada's search and rescue system, nor the specific needs of Canadians.

We have already heard that there is no mandated international norm for response posture. Focusing solely on the Canadian Forces would also be a mistake because they are only one part of a larger system. What really matters to this government, and what I believe matters to Canadians, is having a search and rescue service that is well-suited to the specific challenges of our Canadian environment.

Therefore, in taking part in this debate today, I will speak to some of those particular challenges as well as help Canada's current search and rescue system do a good job of addressing them.

Canada is a uniquely challenging environment for search and rescue. As we all know, we live in an extremely vast country, with a land mass of almost 10 million square kilometres and the world's longest coastline. However, Canada's area of responsibility for search and rescue extends even further than that, totalling approximately 18 million square kilometres when the ocean regions for which we are responsible are included. Within this space, a relatively small population is dispersed over great distances. Needless to say, a country as vast as ours contains enormous geographical diversity.

What is more, the Canadian climate can be very hostile, with temperatures ranging from 35°C to -50.

Taken together, all of these characteristics make Canada unique in the world when it comes to search and rescue and to inherent challenges of trying to reach people in distress, of trying to cover vast distances quickly and then to locating and assisting people in hard to reach places and often under difficult conditions.

Such a unique environment calls for an equally unique search and rescue system. Fortunately, Canada has just such a system, one that is specifically tailored to meet the needs of Canadians and one that is very successful at quickly responding to emergencies and saving lives, at no cost to the user, I should add.

I will now take a few moments to explain that system so as to ensure the motion before the House is taken in the proper context.

Given the particular conditions and challenges of our country that I have just described, no single organization, not even one as versatile and responsive as the Canadian Forces, could possibly cover every inch of our territory all of the time.

Canada's search and rescue system is based on extensive collaboration and co-operation between numerous different departments, agencies, levels of government and other actors. This includes other federal departments and agencies, provincial and territorial governments, municipal and local organizations, commercial companies and volunteer organizations.

Co-operation among these various stakeholders helps ensure that, in every part of the country, local knowledge and expertise can be harnessed in support of search and rescue efforts. It also ensures that people and resources already in the area can provide as fast and effective a response as possible.

Of course, none of these organizations can operate in isolation. Instead, they work together and support one another within the framework of our comprehensive and collaborative approach. Within this context, the Canadian Forces play a crucial role in responding to many different emergencies but are by no means the only provider of search and rescue services. Together with the Canadian Coast Guard, they coordinate the country's response to air and sea incidents by operating the Joint Rescue Coordination Centres in Victoria, Trenton and Halifax. With respect to the provision of air search and rescue services, the Canadian Forces have primary responsibility in cases of downed aircraft and are responsible for providing air support to the Canadian Coast Guard in emergencies at sea.

However, the response to search and rescue incidents on land is different. In cases of ground emergencies, provincial or territorial governments lead the response, including the provision of air services, while the Canadian Forces' role is solely to provide assistance if and when it is requested by the local authorities. It makes perfect sense to rely primarily on local organizations, police forces, volunteer associations, commercial companies et cetera in cases of ground SAR because they have the knowledge, the resources, the expertise and the experience required to respond in the fastest, most appropriate way.

Of the approximately 9,000 search and rescue incidents reported annually in Canada, military assets are deployed for approximately 1,100 and help to save an average of 1,200 lives each year. However, operational statistics only tell part of the story when it comes to this government's commitment to search and rescue. Beyond the responses themselves, the Department of National Defence and, indeed, the government more broadly are actively engaged on a number of fronts to help improve the preparation and coordination of stakeholders as well as the availability of information and public education about the dangers of the Canadian environment.

Each year, the government invests millions through the SAR new initiatives fund to enhance the effectiveness, efficiency, economy and innovation of search and rescue response and prevention activities across Canada. On the international stage, Canada also continues to work with like-minded nations to discuss and review search and rescue efforts. For example, last year we organized and hosted the first ever gathering of specialists from eight Arctic Council nations, in Whitehorse. This year, we welcomed the defence chiefs of those same countries, in Goose Bay, to encourage closer co-operation in dealing with emergencies in the Arctic.

Through all of these programs and initiatives, the government is consistently taking steps to improve the search and rescue service in Canada not just by improving response times but also by improving the coordination and co-operation of stakeholders, by helping develop new technologies and practices so that authorities can be notified of emergencies faster and, perhaps most importantly of all, by providing funding to improve the availability of information and public education on the hazards of our Canadian environment so that fewer of these emergencies occur in the first place. We do all of this because we are committed to the quality of our search and rescue system.

Although I am happy to see that the opposition shares in this commitment, I cannot support the motion before us today.

For the reasons I have just described, I ask the opposition to expand its perspective beyond the narrow issue of military response postures to the broader realities of search and rescue in Canada and to support this government in continuing to find ways to invest our resources where they can make a real difference in the safety and survival of Canadians.

Search and RescuePrivate Members' Business



The Acting Speaker Conservative Barry Devolin

The time provided for the consideration of private members' business has now expired, and the motion is dropped to the bottom of the order of precedence on the order paper.

Opposition Motion—Health and safety of CanadiansBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

12:05 p.m.


Bob Rae Liberal Toronto Centre, ON


That, in the opinion of the House, the government, and specifically the Minister of Finance, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and the President of the Treasury Board, has failed to learn the painful lessons from Walkerton which proved that cuts to essential government services protecting the health and safety of Canadians are reckless and can cause Canadians to lose their lives; and further, that the House condemn the government for introducing a budget that will repeat the mistakes of the past and put Canadians in danger by reducing food inspection, search and rescue operations, and slashing environmental protections, and call on the government to reverse these positions.

Mr. Speaker, I will be sharing my time with the member for Wascana.

It is well known that the Conservative movement around the world bases its policy prescriptions on several key ideas, one of which is deregulation and the other of which is less government spending. I think it is fair to say that this government has been captured by this idea, as was the Harris government in Ontario.

It is important for the House to take the opportunity to understand, in the aftermath of the budget, the risks involved in following this ideology in a very stubborn way, such as we are seeing from the government.

It is ironic and nevertheless appropriate for this debate for us to point out that three of the senior ministers in the government were also senior ministers in the Harris government. It was during the time of that government in the year 2000 that there was an E. coli outbreak in the water supply of the community of Walkerton in the province, which led to the death of seven people, to 2,300 people falling ill and to the fact that even to this day some people are feeling the continuing effects of the E. coli outbreak.

As a result of that terrible series of events, the government of Ontario established a royal commission that was led by Mr. Justice Dennis O'Connor. Mr. Justice O'Connor found that, although one could point to individuals who had clearly failed to do their job, and subsequent charges were laid against those people, nevertheless there were broader responsibilities that needed to be established and spoken about.

In particular, Mr. Justice O'Connor found, and I am quoting from page 27 of his report where he said:

I am satisfied that a properly structured and administered inspections program would have discovered, before the May 2000 outbreak, both the vulnerability of Well 5...

which was the well in question that was contaminated

...and the PUC's unacceptable chlorination and monitoring practices. Had these problems been uncovered, steps could have been taken to address them, and thus to either prevent the outbreak or substantially reduce its scope.

He also concluded on page 30 of the report:

I am satisfied that if the MOE had adequately fulfilled its regulatory and over-sight role, the tragedy in Walkerton would have been prevented (by the installation of continuous monitors) or at least significantly reduced in scope.

In the course of his inquiry, Mr. Justice O'Connor pointed out the extent to which dramatic cuts were made in the Ministry of the Environment in the years after 1995, cuts that followed a period of restraint, admittedly, between 1990 and 1995, but were nevertheless a shift in philosophy.

There was a decision in 1996 to privatize the laboratory system, which would assess the quality of water, and continuing refusal of the government to implement a regulation that was suggested over and over again by several, including the Environment Commissioner of Ontario in 1996, that at the very least the private laboratories had the obligation to inform and to provide notice to the public health officer whenever there was a problem.

As it stood at that time, the only requirement was that the laboratories had to tell the very officials who were sending them the information.

What is interesting as well is that at the hearing, during the inquiry, the premier of the day, Mr. Harris, testified. He said:

I'm in a position to say, that at no time was any action taken by our government that I believe either jeopardized the health or safety of the people of this province or of Walkerton. I am in a position to say that.

He went on to say: time would we have approved or would I have approved, and I...don't believe our government would have approved, I don't know anybody that would, any reductions that would have jeopardized either the environment or public safety.

That is precisely what one would expect the premier to have said. If I may say so, it is precisely what we hear from ministers opposite when we challenge them with respect to the regulation of the food system and when we challenge them with respect to the changes in the search and rescue operations that are being shifted away from those areas that are closest to and best able to provide immediate response, to more centralized operations in Halifax and Trenton. Similarly, we hear from the Department of the Environment that the changes it is making are in fact going to improve the quality of the environment.

Perhaps we can be forgiven for taking with more than a grain of salt, but perhaps with several canisters, the comments we hear from members opposite when they say they can make these changes and they will have no deleterious effects, no negative impact on the health and safety of Canadians.

We do not have to go to other countries to find out what happens when deregulation goes too far. We do not have to go to other countries to find out what happens when the cuts in public expenditure, or when the reduction in the number of inspectors, or when the cuts in the numbers of people who are involved in an oversight and regulatory role, in fact, lead to loss of life. We do not have to go to the terrible examples around the world where regulatory failure has resulted in loss of life. We only have to go to Canada. We only have to go to the province of Ontario.

We do not have to look elsewhere to see negative outcomes and even loss of life. People have gotten sick not for a certain period of time, but for their whole lives because the regulatory system failed and cuts had a direct impact on their health. Of course, every time governments make those kinds of cuts, they will tell us that there will be no impact. They will keep saying that there will be no impact on the health and safety of Canadians.

We on this side are not simply skeptical. We are saying to at least let us learn the lessons of our own history. Let us at least understand that the kind of ideology that is rooted in this government is the same ideology that was rooted in the government of Ontario in the years 1995 to 2003 and that the consequence of that ideology had a significant impact on what really happened. People lost their lives. People died. People got very sick.

It is no exaggeration for us to say this: Let no one in Canada say that this Parliament did not warn the Government of Canada that the path it is taking us down on food inspection, on environmental protection and on search and rescue is a path that will have a direct impact on the real safety and security of Canadians, which is after all the fundamental purpose and objective of every government, regardless of its ideology.

Opposition Motion—Health and safety of CanadiansBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

12:15 p.m.


Peggy Nash NDP Parkdale—High Park, ON

Mr. Speaker, I thank the leader of the Liberal Party for his commentary, reminding us of some very important history in the province of Ontario and the potential impact of the budget that the government has brought in recently.

I would also like to ask him if he thinks, as part of that history lesson, that we can also draw a line back to the 1995 Liberal budget that drastically cut transfers to the provinces and then led many provinces to try to balance their books by cutting programs, such as the ones around water safety that he described? Does he also draw a link to past federal Liberal budgets?

Opposition Motion—Health and safety of CanadiansBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

12:15 p.m.


Bob Rae Liberal Toronto Centre, ON

Mr. Speaker, I have very clear memories of that budget as I was premier of Ontario at the time that it was introduced.

However, it is important to recognize that different provinces managed those cuts in different ways. Not every province decided to cut its welfare benefits by 22%. Not every government, on the immediate impact of the federal transfer cuts, decided to cut its own revenues by cutting taxes saying that the approach that was being taken was being put in place.

I am sure the hon. member will recognize that every government in the country, in the years between 1990 and 1995, had to make some very tough decisions about how to deal with the deficit. We had to make them in Ontario and other provinces had to make them. The federal government did as well. I can say that at the time I did not relish the changes that were brought about in the 1995 Liberal budget but I think everyone recognizes that how each province responded to those was a matter of choice for those provinces.

The argument that one might hear from the Conservatives in Ontario, that the devil made me do it, is a completely nonsensical argument. It did not have a similar impact in other provinces. We did not have a similar collapse of the regulatory regime in other provinces that we had in Ontario.

What we have in Canada today, however, is a direct imitation of that approach and that philosophy, which is why we are pointing out the risks and dangers of it.

Opposition Motion—Health and safety of CanadiansBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

12:15 p.m.

Oak Ridges—Markham Ontario


Paul Calandra ConservativeParliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Canadian Heritage

Mr. Speaker, the leader of the third party talks about the devil making us do it. Actually, it was not the devil who made us do it. It was a terrible NDP government from 1990 to 1995, which the leader of the Liberal Party led, that forced a lot of changes in the province of Ontario. That, combined with an awful federal Liberal government that unilaterally cut $25 billion in transfers for health and social programs, was a big problem.

That member seems to forget that when he left office in the province of Ontario, it was spending $1 million more an hour than it was taking in, more than a million people were on welfare and hope and opportunity had been lost in the province. We can combine that with a federal Liberal government that had just come through a decade of darkness or was in the midst of a decade of darkness to our military. Is the Liberal Party not just doing the same thing it did on H1N1, which is making people frightened for no reason whatsoever?

Why will the Liberals not simply support this government and all of the good measures that we have brought in in this budget, whether it be the record investments in health care, the investments in the armed forces, the investments we making across the economy to bring the budget back into balance, which will continue to protect the Canadian taxpayers, and all the measures that we are doing? Why will they not support us instead of spreading—

Opposition Motion—Health and safety of CanadiansBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

12:20 p.m.


The Acting Speaker Conservative Barry Devolin

Order, please. The hon. leader of the Liberal Party.

Opposition Motion—Health and safety of CanadiansBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

12:20 p.m.


Bob Rae Liberal Toronto Centre, ON

Mr. Speaker, I knew the parliamentary secretary was going to raise that issue, which is why I would ask him to have a look at Justice O'Connor's report that points out that the reckless Rae administration reduced public expenditure in the ministry of the environment from $363 million to $271 million.

The difference between the government that I led and the Harris government was that nobody died on our watch. People need to ask themselves what the consequences will be of their actions? This is something the government is not prepared to accept.

I will not carry on a debate with respect to what happened between 1990 and 1995. The deficits that were run up in recent years by the current government are far larger than anything ever seen in the province of Ontario. The government has increased spending by over 40% of those five years. The Rae government increased it by 18%. The kinds of comparisons the member is making are nonsensical.

Opposition Motion—Health and safety of CanadiansBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

12:20 p.m.


Ralph Goodale Liberal Wascana, SK

Mr. Speaker, I am happy to have the opportunity to continue this debate on an important subject matter in terms of what governments can and should properly do to protect the public health and safety of Canadians. As the member for Toronto Centre has just said, that is the fundamental obligation of every government, regardless of ideology.

The problem we see with the particular government at the federal level in Canada today is that it simply presumes too much about its mandate. It exaggerates and overreaches. Yes, the government happens to have a majority of seats in the House of Commons, but it does not have a majority of support among Canadians. The Conservative government received 40% of the vote from 60% of those who voted. That means its mandate amounts to 24% of the eligible voters who cast votes in the last election. That is a very modest mandate.

In fact, that kind of a mandate, a minority of overall support, is not uncommon in Canada. However, what it says to the government that wins is that it must be a little modest in interpreting the mandate it has been given. It must not exaggerate, overreach, engage in false bravado or engage in triumphalism because that leads to bad governance. It leads to an attitude of impunity and that leads to the kinds of problems that we see with the cuts to public health and safety that the government is imposing in this latest budget.

The government's attitude of impunity, of overreaching and exaggerating its mandate leads to excessive and obsessive behaviour. We have seen that with the Minister of International Cooperation, the Minister of Industry and the Minister of National Defence. We see that in the way the Conservatives are treating the whole issue around the robocalls and the election scandal that the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada is now investigating. The government simply dismisses this as irrelevant and trivial.

We see the consequences of this attitude of impunity in the abuses of parliamentary procedure and process where the Conservatives never answer questions in question period. They take the important business of parliamentary committees and move it behind closed doors in secret sessions. They have used closure to ram through their legislation more times in four or five months than most majority governments used in four or five years.

We see it in the omnibus legislation and the very budget bill that is before Parliament right now. It is legislation that lumps so many matters together that Parliament cannot possibly debate, discuss and consider those matters in any serious way that Canadians would expect.

We see that attitude of impunity in the way the Conservatives deal with an issue like the F-35s and the keeping of two sets of books, as has been revealed by the Auditor General. We see it in their failure to be candid with Canadians and tell the truth about the real cost of that particular transaction.

Most problematic, we see this attitude of impunity reflected in the government's unbridled application of its ideology. Rather than taking into account the varied and diverse views of Canadians and allowing everyone to have their say to ensure those views are properly respected and reflected, we have this rigid application of ideology that simply drives the government's minority position down the throats of Canadians. Nowhere is that more obvious than in the cuts that the Conservatives have chosen to make in this budget.

We can talk about the cuts to health care, old age security and in so many other areas, but most particularly I want to focus on the cuts to search and rescue, environmental science and protection, and food inspection. The government seems to think that those things are less important than its pet projects where it lavishes spending on, for example, the acquisition of the F-35, without any kind of competitive tendering process, and the downloading of expenses for jails onto the provincial levels of government. Jets and jails are the government's pet projects. The Conservatives seem to think that things like the environment, food inspection and search and rescue are expendable.

The Conservatives are cutting $56.1 million from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency's budget. They say that all of it will come from the back office and that we will not notice any front line difference. In fact, these so-called savings will be coming from the firing of at least 344 personnel from the already understaffed CFIA food inspection branches across the country, the very jobs that exist to protect Canadians from unsafe food products.

The government is also planning to implement a new policy with respect to food labelling. We might call it eat at our own risk. This policy will rely on the self-policing of food safety by industry and by individual Canadians rather than trained public servants. It is like saying that if people think they have an E. coli problem they should look it up on the Internet and maybe they can find help there. Those cuts will put the health and well-being of certain Canadians at particular risk, including those who can suffer potentially fatal allergies and serious health conditions like Crohn's disease, celiac disorder or diabetes, individuals who rely on the CFIA to ensure the accuracy of food labels to protect their health.

Those are not the only cuts that the government is making with respect to the CFIA. Last year, it took $33.5 million from its budget, including $17.5 million from increased inspections and inspectors. This is a dangerous policy. The purpose of our motion today is to point out that danger so that the government can reflect on these issues and change its mind before it is too late.

We have mentioned the environment. The government is chopping $88.2 million from the environment portfolio while making the empty promise, which the member for Toronto Centre mentioned, that it will maintain “the highest possible standards for protecting the environment”. In fact, these cuts are being made by the firing of government scientists who oversee environmental assessments and monitoring, as well as cutting some 30 staff from the environmental emergencies program.

The government is also gutting environmental legislation and weakening several environmental laws. It is silencing dissent from environmental non-governmental organizations and continues to muzzle government scientists working in the field of the environment, at least those who still have their jobs. It has also cancelled the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy.

Food inspection is one area, environmental science and environmental protection is another where the government is being penny wise and pound poor as it cuts away at those things that protect the quality of life and the safety of Canadians in this country.

The government has also decided to close the St. John's and Quebec City maritime search and rescue coordination centres. These cuts are a direct attack on the safety and security of everyone who makes their living at sea. Despite the government's blandishments to the contrary, it is highly unlikely that the centres in Halifax and Trenton will be able to make up the difference and handle the increased workload caused by the St. John's and Quebec City closures.

If the Conservatives can spend over $30 million on a commemorative program for the War of 1812, then surely they can keep vital centres like the search and rescue coordination centres open to serve Canadians and to protect Canadians' lives in and around places like St. John's and Quebec City.

The cuts that we are facing with the government today, as the member for Toronto Centre so graphically illustrated, mimic directly the kind of behaviour that we saw in the Ontario provincial government leading up to 2000 when that government decided to make a collection of decisions cutting back on environmental protection and on water safety in the province of Ontario. That decision by the Harris government led directly to the tragedy in Walkerton in 2000. That is not simply a political statement. That is the explicit legal finding by Mr. Justice Dennis O'Connor when he investigated that matter in a public environment. We need to ensure that kind of thing does not happen again.

Opposition Motion—Health and safety of CanadiansBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

12:30 p.m.

Ajax—Pickering Ontario


Chris Alexander ConservativeParliamentary Secretary to the Minister of National Defence

Mr. Speaker, my question relates back to the issue of search and rescue, which we were discussing in this House earlier today, before this current debate began. However, there is an important point to be made here because there has been a collapse in the logic of the member for Wascana. We are not surprised to hear that from someone like the member for Toronto Centre. When an old socialist sells out to big capital, logic collapses in all kinds of ways. However, we do need to know whether the member for Wascana agrees with the following facts.

Search and rescue on the sea and in the air is a lead responsibility of the Canadian Forces and the Canadian Coast Guard. Does the member agree that the base funding for resources and equipment of these proud Canadian services is 30% to 40% higher today than it was in 2006 under his government, and therefore that search and rescue services on Canada's three coasts for anyone in peril at sea or as a result of an air accident have been enhanced considerably under this government? Does he agree with those facts?

Opposition Motion—Health and safety of CanadiansBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

12:30 p.m.


Ralph Goodale Liberal Wascana, SK

Mr. Speaker, the government has taken a decision to close centres in Quebec City and in St. John's. The services provided by those centres cannot easily be transferred to other locations as far away as Halifax or Trenton. As well, the Quebec City location offers the absolutely vital service in the French language, which is also critical in that region of the country in particular. The member simply cannot escape the reality that his government has made the decision to cut back on search and rescue and that is not in the best interests of Canadians.

Opposition Motion—Health and safety of CanadiansBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

12:30 p.m.


Andrew Cash NDP Davenport, ON

Mr. Speaker, this debate is a very interesting one and I would like to thank my hon. colleague from Toronto Centre for bringing this motion into the House and enabling us to remind Canadians about the close association, not just in ideology but in action, between the government here and the government of Mike Harris in Ontario. A government in an era which can only be described as disastrous for the province of Ontario and the tragic circumstances which culminated in the deaths of seven innocent people is the clearest and starkest example of what happens when hard right-wing ideology trumps science, good public administration and common sense.

So I would like to thank the hon. member for giving us this opportunity. I wonder if he could comment further on what we are seeing today. We are seeing the government defending the Mike Harris years. One would think that any sound politician would run for the hills rather than defend that egregious government.

Opposition Motion—Health and safety of CanadiansBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

12:35 p.m.


Ralph Goodale Liberal Wascana, SK

Mr. Speaker, the Conservative government really cannot help itself from falling into the very trap to which the hon. gentleman has just referred. It is a government that embraces the same ideology and embraces a number of ministers who were at the table when the fateful decisions were made in Ontario. At least three members on the front benches of the current government were in that government. The decisions taken at that time, in the 1990s, led to the shortchanging of the environmental system in Ontario and the water protection system in Ontario. We were all assured that these decisions would have no negative consequences whatsoever. However, the reality is that there were negative consequences. Again, that is not just the expression of a political or a partisan point of view.

This whole matter was thoroughly and completely investigated by Mr. Justice Dennis O'Connor. His report is very revealing. In paragraph after paragraph, he links the consequences at Walkerton to decisions taken by the Harris government in Ontario. He says very clearly that if those decisions had been otherwise, then there would have been every likelihood that the tragedy in Walkerton could have been avoided.

The purpose of this motion today is to say let us learn that lesson from history and ensure that, in this country, that kind of thing cannot happen again.

Opposition Motion—Health and safety of CanadiansBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

12:35 p.m.

Glengarry—Prescott—Russell Ontario


Pierre Lemieux ConservativeParliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Agriculture

Mr. Speaker, I am very disappointed with the motion that the opposition has decided to debate in the House today. Suggesting that the minister responsible for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, CFIA, would do something that would endanger the health and safety of Canadians lacks credibility and reflects poorly on the opposition itself. Spreading fear among Canadians by suggesting that budget 2012 will make their food unsafe is irresponsible. I find it most regrettable that the opposition is attempting to achieve political gain by undermining the confidence of Canadians in the safety of their food. I believe it shows very poor judgment on the part of its members.

Protecting the health and safety of Canadians has been and remains one of our government's most important priorities. Canadians know this. They know that their food is safe and they have confidence in our food safety system. Therefore, it is with great pleasure that I take this opportunity to set the record straight, focusing specifically on the impact of the budget on the work of the CFIA and food safety within Canada.

The recent budget will not reduce Canada's investment in food safety or diminish the role of the CFIA. Our government believes that it is possible to find savings, find efficiencies and cut red tape within the CFIA without putting the health and safety of Canadians at risk. Both before and after our most recent budget, all food products produced or sold in Canada must meet our high safety standards. Before elaborating further, allow me to provide some context for food safety in Canada.

Our food safety regime is a partnership among governments, industry and consumers. At the federal level, Health Canada works with stakeholders to establish policies, regulations and standards relating to the safety and nutritional quality of all food sold in Canada. Once Health Canada sets these policies and standards, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency enforces them.

In addition, the CFIA is responsible for protection of the animal and plant resources base in Canada on which the production of safe food depends. As members may recall, the previous four federal budgets invested significantly in our food safety system, enabling the agency to hire additional inspection staff. In fact, not only did our previous budgets sustain funding for our food safety programs, they increased funding.

For example, budget 2011 provided an additional $100 million in funding for the agency to build science capacity and enhance training and inspection tools for inspectors. Unfortunately, the opposition members voted against these changes. They profess to be concerned about food safety in Canada, but every time we put forward a positive initiative and increase funding for food safety they vote against it. These are significant investments in our food safety capacity. It just does not make sense that after having made such significant investments the government would then set about to undermine the progress that has been made.

In fact, the exact opposite is true. Budget 2012 provides an additional $51 million over two years to the CFIA, the Public Health Agency of Canada and Health Canada for continuing key food safety activities. In other words, the recent budget is strengthening, not weakening, this government's commitment to the health and safety of Canadians.

The opposition members call for more money and food safety. We have put more money into Canada's food safety system and, against all logic, they have voted against the very initiatives that they asked for. They do this every time. The opposition members voted against the $100 million increase in budget 2011. They voted against the $51 million increase in budget 2012. I believe that when it comes to food safety Canadians do not understand what the opposition is doing or trying to accomplish. The very actions of the opposition members betray them.

Like all federal departments and agencies, the CFIA is contributing to the government's deficit reduction action plan. However, the CFIA has not and will not reduce staff or cut programs that would put the health and safety of Canadians at risk. Indeed, budget 2012 is supporting the CFIA's drive toward modernization and will allow the agency to focus its key resources where they are most needed.

For some reason, the opposition does not want to acknowledge that Canada's food safety system was recognized as superior in a food safety report on OECD countries. I will happily quote again from that report for my colleagues.

It states:

The nation's food safety is ranked as superior based on factors such as the rate of food-borne illness, inspections, education programs, use of agricultural chemicals and strategies on bioterrorism, risk management and food recalls.

For some reason this independent, third-party report is not credible in the eyes of the opposition, which is why I am here to speak to this motion today.

The changes to the CFIA following the budget reflect four key principles. First, the CFIA will focus on programs that are important to Canadians. Second, it will modify programs to reflect current scientific knowledge. Third, it will improve service capacity and cut red tape for industry. Fourth, it will increase efficiency.

Let me explain how the agency will apply those principles.

Canada has one of the world's best food safety systems. We must not only maintain and improve that system, but also preserve the confidence of Canadians and our trading partners in our ability to protect consumers. How will we do that? We will focus on what is really important.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency will focus on its core mandate: safeguarding Canada's food supply, plant and animal resources and consumers. As such, the agency must take a close look at all activities that do not fall within that mandate and that should be turned over to other qualified individuals or organizations.

For example, Canada has always worked with the provinces on meat inspection. That partnership will not change. All meats produced in Canada, in both federal and provincial institutions, must comply with the health requirements set out in the Food and Drugs Act.

In accordance with its mandate under the Act, the CFIA inspects federally regulated facilities. In principle, the provinces are responsible for inspecting facilities that they regulate. On the ground, however, the division of labour is not quite that clear.

While most provinces fulfill their own meat inspection responsibilities, the CFIA has been handling these activities in British Columbia, Manitoba and Saskatchewan on a contract basis. This has been going on for a number of years now on a limited cost recovery basis. This inspection activity has been focused on verifying compliance with provincial standards in these provinces. However, as announced last August, the CFIA is returning meat inspection responsibilities to these three provinces.

I want to emphasize that CFIA is not abandoning its responsibilities, but rather returning certain tasks to their rightful owner. When Canadians buy meat at the local grocery store, they may look at the brand, the price, the best-before date and the nutrition label. I do not believe for a moment they wonder whether the meat plant was inspected by a provincial or federal authority. What is important is only that the product was inspected by a qualified inspector and that it was deemed safe.

The CFIA has no legislated obligation to inspect provincially regulated meat plants, and the agency has judged the time right to focus on its primary role of federal inspection activities. During the transition, of course, the CFIA will continue to work closely with its provincial counterparts as they put in place their own inspection services, and the food safety system will continue to protect Canadians.

The integrity of the food safety system will certainly not be compromised by returning provincial meat inspection duties to where they belong. Indeed, budget 2012 positions the CFIA to focus on its core responsibilities, and that is what is most important to Canadians.

The second principle guiding implementation of the budget is a focus on the latest science. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency is Canada's foremost science-based regulator. It uses science when making program decisions. Due to its very nature, however, science is constantly evolving, and the agency must keep pace.

To that end, the CFIA is adjusting some programs so that its activities, equipment and facilities reflect the most current scientific knowledge. It is also consolidating its scientific expertise in better equipped facilities. This will support collaboration and make more effective use of laboratory resources.

Let me provide some concrete examples of what this means in practice. On the west coast, the CFIA will move some of its activities at the Centre for Plant Health in Sidney to the research station in Summerland, run by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. Combining expertise at one facility in British Columbia will enhance capacity to serve the grapevine and tree fruit industries. Moreover, it will ensure the agency's vital work takes place in a better equipped facility with a larger pool of scientists. Together, the team will take the greatest care to conduct its work effectively. That includes working in an appropriately secure environment that reflects the associated pest risks.

In Atlantic Canada, the CFIA is consolidating some services within its own network of laboratories. Specifically, the agency will transfer testing and diagnostic activities in St. John's to laboratories in Charlottetown and Dartmouth, and for good reason. The facilities in Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia are more modern and better equipped to handle the complex food and plant testing required by the industry.

As someone who has studied science, I know many people still entertain romantic notions of innovation. These often revolve around a professor working alone in a lab who has a eureka moment that changes history. This is not reality. Science usually moves forward in increments and more often than not demands close collaboration for success. That is why the consolidation of the agency's laboratories in Atlantic Canada hold so much potential. The move will create enhanced pools of expertise in two geographic areas instead of three. This will allow scientists and diagnosticians to work together more closely and promote greater effectiveness.

As its third principle guiding implementation of budget 2012, the CFIA is determined to improve service and to cut unnecessary administrative costs for industry. To do that, the agency is harnessing new technologies that will provide another tool to help industry create compliant labels. These changes will have no impact on food safety, but they will reduce costs for both government and industry alike.

Unlike the opposition, our government knows that money can be saved without affecting food safety and, in addition, that Canadians expect us to use their tax dollars prudently.

This tool, called the self-assessment labelling tool, will give producers, manufacturers and retailers the information they need to apply federal regulations correctly. In the process, it will reduce the amount of time needed for agency staff to answer routine questions. As an added benefit, if they so wish, consumers can also use the tool to learn more about labelling and rules that companies are required to follow.

Let me be as clear as possible. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency will continue to verify and enforce all food safety and consumer protection labelling requirements, including those related to ingredients, allergens, nutrition, compositional standards and mandatory labelling. It will simply do so more efficiently and effectively.

It is possible to save taxpayer dollars and improve service. I know this is difficult for the opposition to grasp, but this is exactly what we are doing.

In addition, a mandatory pre-market registration of labels is currently required for processed food. This practice, however, duplicates routine oversight activities that the agency already carries out in the marketplace. I want to stress that these changes do not effect food safety. Indeed, all this requirement has ever done is slow down the entry of new products into the marketplace.

These savings are definitely good for taxpayers and our food safety system and they do not effect food safety.

I repeat: CFIA inspectors will continue to verify labels, take samples and conduct analyses to ensure that no allergens are present and that the list of ingredients indicated on the label is complete. They will also continue to investigate public complaints.

The agency will also repeal the regulations that limit the size of food containers. Thus, the industry will be able to profit from new formats and new packaging technologies and will be able to import new products from abroad. When all is said and done, these measures will provide consumers and the industry with greater choice.

Increased efficiency is the final principle that will guide the implementation of budget 2012. Thus, I am pleased to announce that the agency will work more intelligently without sacrificing its commitment to food safety.

The CFIA carefully examined all activities that were not directly associated with food safety or animal or plant health and made some smart adjustments. For instance, the agency will now spend less time on grading and quality assurance activities that have no impact on food safety, such as for seeds and fertilizer. Accordingly, the CFIA will work with the private sector, industry and other stakeholders to develop other delivery mechanisms when it makes sense to do so.

It is important to remember that, since 2006, our government has invested significantly in order to improve our food safety system. In particular, budget 2011 allocated $100 million. Building on those commitments, budget 2012 allocates $51 million to primary food safety activities, including the activities managed by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

Yes, like all federal departments and agencies, the CFIA will contribute to the government's deficit reduction efforts. I can assure the House, however, that these budget reductions will not affect food safety. On the contrary, the changes brought about by the budget will only strengthen the agency's work.

Budget 2012 will allow the CFIA to realign its efforts and resources in accordance with its basic mandate and the programs that are truly important to Canadians. It will also allow the agency to make better use of its scientific expertise, to launch new initiatives that will improve services and reduce red tape for the industry, and to streamline its integrated operations so that it can work more intelligently. In short, we should be congratulating the CFIA on having transformed challenges into new opportunities.

This government is proud that Canada has one of the best food safety systems in the world. Be assured that we will not tarnish our reputation globally or undermine the trust and confidence of Canadians in the food they eat. Let me repeat. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency has not, and will not, reduce staff or cut programs that would, in any way, put the health and safety of Canadians at risk.

For all these reasons, the government does not agree with the spirit or the letter of the opposition motion. Indeed, the motion recklessly attempts to undermine the confidence of Canadians in our world-class food safety regime and it does so for the attempted gain of the opposition.

I urge all members in the House to join me in opposing this opposition motion.

Opposition Motion—Health and safety of CanadiansBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

12:55 p.m.


Frank Valeriote Liberal Guelph, ON

Mr. Speaker, what the parliamentary secretary has asked us to do is to trust that whatever the government says is, in some way, fact.

The government told us that the F-35s would cost $75 million a plane. Now the costs are at $120 million a plane, a budget that has bloomed $10 billion. It cannot be trusted.

The government tells us that we have strong environmental policies. We have not only become laggards in the international community, we have become environmental outlaws in the international community.

The member comes into the House to have us believe that everything is fine, that there will be no cuts to the front line. Yet that is not what the front line is talking about. That is not what the senior management of CFIA is talking about right now. It is telling its staff, “I don't know how you can take 10% out of your budget and not deal with the front line”.

Why this denial, why this camouflage, why all of this subterfuge? Why do you not tell us what you are doing and be honest with Canadians?

Opposition Motion—Health and safety of CanadiansBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

12:55 p.m.


The Acting Speaker Conservative Barry Devolin

Before I go to the parliamentary secretary, I would like to remind all hon. members to direct their comments to the Chair, rather than to their colleagues.

The hon. parliamentary secretary.

Opposition Motion—Health and safety of CanadiansBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

12:55 p.m.


Pierre Lemieux Conservative Glengarry—Prescott—Russell, ON

Mr. Speaker, I sit on the agriculture committee. We had the union bosses come in front of committee. They talked about cuts to food inspectors, in particular meat inspectors. I put forward this case of the three provinces of Manitoba, British Columbia and Saskatchewan, where right now federal inspectors do the work of provincial meat inspections. What if the federal government decides to transfer the responsibility for those inspections right back to the province, which is where they belong? That would mean 50-some inspectors would leave the federal payroll and be transferred to the province. It is not a cut. It is a transfer. It is a natural transfer of responsibility. It actually makes good sense.

Yet the union leader and my colleague on the other side would call this a cut. This is the kind of deception at play here. Some people are calling things cuts that are not necessary cuts.

I thank the member for his confidence that the government is operating at 100% efficiency. I take that as a compliment, but there are efficiencies that can be made within government. Canadians know that. They have asked that of the government. We are making those kinds of savings without compromising food safety.