Mr. Speaker, I rise in the House today to try to get the government to use some common sense.
If the government had some sense it would support the motion of the member for St. John's East, as I plan on doing. The government must recognize that in order to protect the lives of Canadian mariners, we need an effective communication system.
Here are some facts for the Conservatives. Through operations carried out by the Canadian Forces, every year we respond to 8,000 incidents, save on average more than 1,200 lives and rescue more than 20,000 people. And 25% of these annual incidents are covered by the four centres that are closed or are being closed.
I want to talk about the Coast Guard's search and rescue centre in Quebec City, the maritime rescue sub-centre St. John's, the Kitsilano Coast Guard station and the Rivière-au-Renard maritime radio station.
Canada is in last place, far behind Australia, Ireland, Mexico, the United Kingdom and even the United States, in terms of response times for search and rescue operations. In the west, the Kitsilano Coast Guard station employs 12 people and received nearly 300 calls in 2011. Since the beginning of the year, the station has responded to 70 calls and has saved 55 lives.
In the east, the Coast Guard's maritime rescue sub-centre in Quebec City employs nine people and responds to some 1,400 maritime incidents every year. Most of the calls related to those 1,400 incidents are in French.
The centre's coverage extends from Lac Saint-François to Blanc-Sablon and includes the Gaspé peninsula and the Magdalen Islands, covering approximately 148,000 km2 and 4,600 km of coastline.
The Quebec City centre is the Coast Guard's only officially bilingual search and rescue centre in Canada. I repeat: this is the only officially bilingual centre in Canada.
The maritime rescue sub-centre in St. John's was closed on April 30 even though it responded to over 400 distress calls every year, 25% of which were emergencies at sea. The centre covered over 900,000 km2 of ocean and just over 28,000 km of coastline.
This means that safety in over one million km2 of ocean and along 32,000 km of coastline in eastern Canada will be compromised despite the fact that many people participate in marine activities in the area aboard recreational craft, fishing vessels and transatlantic ships. The area is also home to gas and oil exploration and development. The Conservatives have clearly abandoned the region.
We see this with the changes to employment insurance: the Conservatives are severely punishing the Atlantic provinces. Closing the search and rescue centres will put the lives of Atlantic mariners at risk.
In my riding, Gaspésie—Îles-de-la-Madeleine, people are worried about this change in marine safety and are wondering why the Conservative government is abandoning them.
In situations of distress, the language of the caller must be understood by the search and rescue centre. It is not a good time to get out one's French-English dictionary. When the centres were transferred to Halifax and Trenton, the impact this had on the staff was obvious. We already know that the Coast Guard search and rescue station in Quebec City cannot close, precisely because the government cannot find people who can respond to the needs of fishers and mariners in my region in both official languages.
The Coast Guard search and rescue sub-centre in Quebec City is the only one that is officially bilingual. I have opposed this closure from the beginning, because I knew it would be very dangerous for the people of the Gaspé and the Magdalen Islands, who are primarily francophone.
Furthermore, I am not the only one who feels that way. Recently, the Commissioner of Official Languages indicated in his report that this service must be provided equally in both official languages and at all times. The commissioner is wondering how bilingual anglophone employees will be able to maintain their French when the francophone populations in Trenton and Halifax are only 3% and 4.7% respectively.
However, language is not the only problem related to these closures. All of the knowledge of the local environment is also being lost. This local knowledge is very important. It means being familiar with ocean currents, tides and the geography of the sea bed and the land. In addition to this geographic knowledge, there is also the knowledge of local people.
They have to know who is nearby for the rescues, and intervenors such as the staff at all 35 of Quebec's 9-1-1 centres with which the Quebec City maritime rescue sub-centre has maintained close ties over the years.
The closure of the Rivière-au-Renard marine radio station is a good example of the type of expertise being lost. The closure affects 16 employees, including 12 communications officers who know the region. This is an essential service that has been offered for more than 100 years, a service that provides help with navigation and rescues, and marine traffic communications management. This centre was responsible for a dozen or so stations in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. These will be transferred to Les Escoumins where the already very busy centre will be responsible for 18 stations. It is hard to imagine how people can listen to so much marine traffic and still be able to provide first-rate service.
The closure of the Rivière-au-Renard centre will result in the loss of roughly $1.5 million in payroll and other spinoffs for my region. The people of the Gaspé and the Magdalen Islands have faith in this centre's ability to rescue them in an emergency. The loss of this payroll will be heavily felt in a region that is already struggling.
With the government's policy, we do not know what will become of this expertise. The fact is that this local, bilingual expertise will be hard to maintain from Trenton or Halifax.
My question is as follows: why are they doing this? Why save money at the expense of fishers and mariners? They are putting the lives of mariners at risk to save how much money? How much are mariners' lives worth to this government?
It seems that endangering the lives of thousands of Canadian mariners is worth $1 million to the Conservatives. It makes absolutely no sense.
The Conservatives claim that they are saving money. They talk about saving $1 million just by closing the Quebec City centre. But they have not disclosed how much they will spend on relocating employees. What are the actual savings?
Closing all these centres will result in the consolidation of search and rescue operations under the joint rescue coordination centres in Halifax and Trenton, Ontario.
This means that these centres' caseloads will increase by the number of incidents normally covered by the centres that are closing. If the Trenton and Halifax centres do not receive additional resources, staff will be overworked. An increase in resources will result in an equivalent reduction in the expected savings. I believe that the savings will be paltry compared to the risk posed to thousands of mariners, fishers and recreational boaters.
I am therefore asking the Conservatives to support the motion of the hon. member for St. John's East because marine safety must be a priority, because the savings pale in comparison with the safety of mariners and because the Minister of Finance misled Canadians by saying that the cuts would affect only “back-office operations”. He even went so far as to refer to the rescue co-ordinating centres as call centres.
It seems clear to members of the NDP that marine safety is definitely not a back-office operation. The rescue co-ordinating centres are not call centres. On the contrary, these are front-line operations that save lives. It seems that the Conservatives do not realize that thousands of people rely on the sea to make a living and that their jobs are very dangerous.
This government is responsible for protecting these people. The maritime rescue sub-centres in Quebec City and St. John's, the Coast Guard station in Kitsilano and the marine radio station in Rivière-au-Renard are essential for ensuring these people's safety.
The federal government has an obligation to provide services in both English and French, particularly when people's lives are at risk. It is true. It is part of Canadian law. The risks associated with communication problems are simply too high.
Local expertise is essential for a quick response time and increased protection for thousands of Canadian mariners. Relocating these jobs puts this expertise and thus the lives of mariners at risk.
We absolutely must support the motion that is before us today. We know full well that the lives of the mariners and fishers in our region are being jeopardized in order to fulfill the Conservatives' ideological obligations.
Life is much too precious to allow something like that to happen. I urge all members of the House to support the motion before us.