Tuesday, March 20, 2012

#28 Burton Winters

Today, my post is about Burton Winters, a young boy from Makkovik, Labrador, who was lost on the ice for 3 days until his body was found on February 1st.

It is not about him alone, but also about how his family and community have not faded away but are actively pursuing changes in Canada's search and rescue capabilities in Newfoundland & Labrador, that have stirred up my compassion, admiration and respect.

I have trudged through the parking lot of the Health Sciences Center during snowy weather, feeling like I was trying to make my way across the far side of the moon. I cannot, for one horrible moment, even begin to imagine what this 14 year old boy endured as he walked 19 kilometers, over 3 days, through a storm on the ice, trying to find his way home. If this story doesn't break your heart, you don't have a heart.

This link will bring you to the CBC's website, to an interactive timeline of events relating to the search for Burton Winters.

The basic story is this: At 1.30 p.m. on January 29th, Burton dropped off his cousin at his grandmother's house in Makkovik. He then got on his snowmobile to go home. This was the last time he was seen alive.

He was reported missing later that evening. His snowmobile was found late in the afternoon on January 31st. His body was found in the morning of February 1st, 19km away from the snowmobile, and 23km away from Makkovik, out on the sea ice.

What happened from a search and rescue standpoint from the time he was reported missing until the time his body was recovered is... I don't even know the words. "Completely unacceptable" is a fair start. "Horrifyingly negligent" fits, too.

For a little background 'flavor' relating to the Canadian Coast Guard's priorities in Newfoundland and Labrador, consider this... on March 12, 2009, when Cougar 491 helicopter was crashing into the north Atlantic 35km off the east coast of Newfoundland with 18 passengers and crew on board, 17 of whom died, THE ENTIRE CONTINGENT OF COAST GUARD RESCUE CAPABILITIES FOR NEWFOUNDLAND AND LABRADOR WAS IN NOVA SCOTIA, FOR TRAINING. All of them. Every helicopter, every person, everything. The province with the longest coastline in Canada, at 28,596km (17,769 miles) was left with NO coast guard rescue capabilities. And people wonder why the thought of calling myself a "Canadian" nauseates me...

Fast forward to January 29th, 2012. When the Joint Rescue Coordination Center (JRCC), in HALIFAX, OF COURSE, (Nova Scotia having a 7,400km coastline) was notified that this boy was missing, it advised that its two helicopters, based in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Labrador, were out of service. One was being repaired, and one was having a scheduled maintenance check done. A private helicopter joined the search instead.

It seems that once you call the JRCC, and they essentially put you 'on hold', as they did in this case, there is no requirement on their part to follow up to see if their services are still required. It is up to the requesting party, in this case the RCMP in Labrador, to keep calling the JRCC and asking. And asking. And asking. Unbelieveable. This is why they did not join the search for two days. No one called them back to ask them to come, again!! Once, it seems, is not enough.

Canada is an embarrassment.

Then, this guy appears...

Rear Admiral David Gardam makes his way to St. John's - which up until then he was probably unable to find on a map - to start putting some sort of spin on this debacle.

This is what he had to say...

First excuse -

"Gardam said poor visibility and a low ceiling prevented the military from dispatching a chopper from its base in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, NL, sooner."
So, people, what he's saying is this: if you're going to get lost, plan to do it only on clear, sunny days. They're not up to the challenge.

Can you imagine the AMERICAN Coast Guard coming up with a girlish excuse like that? Not in a million, billion years. 

Second excuse -
"We have to manage a very large area, and it’s a balancing act on how you manage weather, resources, aircraft availability, crew rest," Gardam said.

So, in case what he's saying is not clear to you, let me break it down... if you're a child lost on the ice, Gardam says they may not search for you because they have a big area to cover, and something else, somewhere else, MAY happen. It doesn't matter that it's ALREADY happening, to YOU.

Adding insult to injury, get a load of this metaphor...
"It is very much like a ballet, and it has to be managed that way."

This man needs to be court-martialed, for that lame, ridiculous statement, alone. It's nothing like a ballet. It's life or death. The life or death of a child. I hope he has nightmares of being lost on the ice for the rest of his pathetic, cowardly life.

Here is the article from a Halifax newspaper, from which I took these quotes. I didn't make 'em up, folks.

The federal Conservative government would have let this story die if it wasn't for the persistence of the Liberals and the NDP. You have no idea how much it chokes me to admit that, but it is the truth, and the truth must be acknowledged. The non-stop lobbying by the family of Burton Winters has also been instrumental in keeping this tragedy in the public eye.

One change has been forthcoming, that it is now the responsibility of the JRCC, once contacted, to continue to follow up to ensure their services are no longer needed, not to just sit there, painting their nails, waiting for the next call from Newfoundland and Labrador to which they can just say no and get back to their needlepoint.

Appropriately, the federal Liberals and NDP, the provincial Progressive Conservatives and Burton Winters' family acknowledge this as a first tiny step, but are not satisifed that this is all that needs to be done.

The best weapon that Burton Winters' family has is the fact that this child was aboriginal, and the aboriginals of this country have a very strong voice. I just hope it is strong enough.

Burton Ultimately Reunited Thousands Of Nflders & Labradorians
We Immediately Need These Essential Rescue Services

This sign is right - this tragedy has reunited Newfoundland and Labrador. I am certain that there cannot possibly be anyone who lives here who thinks that reducing our search and rescue capabilities is appropriate. It is strictly political, especially in the case of the upcoming closure of the Maritime Rescue Sub-Center in St. John's - which is moving... you guessed it... to Halifax... in that province with the 7,400km coastline.


So, to sum it all up... my heart aches for the loss of Burton Winters and the pain his family are suffering. I hope that they continue their fight to ensure search and rescue for this entire province is at the level it should be, and not part of a 'ballet', where we're constantly afraid that the guy in the tutu is going to land on his (Rear Admiral) arse, again. 



  1. As shocking as this sad story is, it doesn't surprise me that a high ranking Rear Admiral didn't have the courage to do the right thing in dealing with this tragedy and the aftermath. Some of these high ranking officials aren't always who we think they are or who we think they should be. My brother-in-law, a Captain in the Canadian Navy (Rt) for many years, is afraid of dead people. He couldn't be in the same room of his deceased parents or in-laws at their funerals, he can't look at a dead person. So to hear the excuses the Rear Admiral has made for the lack of help involving the search and rescue of Burton Winters doesn't really surprise me. The Rear Admiral may have the smarts to attain and hold his position in the navy but clearly there is something missing. Unfortunately for Burton Winters, his family and the community, the right and proper decisions that could have saved this young boy's life were not made. It's unconscionable. The military is only as good as the individuals running it. I will never forget that long walk in those horrid conditions that Burton Winters made before his death.

  2. I just watched this a few days ago on The Fifth Estate, as a mother this story horrified me. I have
    children and a grand daughter. What if this was them!!!
    I was really pissed off when the final reasons why they did not send help came to light.
    SHAME SHAME on the Rear Admiral. You call that a reason!!!!

    "Because maybe someone lost out at sea might need rescuing"...do your damn job man...there was someone
    who needed your help, where the hell were you!!!
    You FAILED..him and he paid dearly with his life as did his parents, family and friends. A community
    mourned him and I do as well now.
    So this is where my bloody tax dollars go too. Too mindless, unfeeling men in charge people like you.
    No thanks...Your FIRED!!!!

    This poor young man who tried desperately to get home was needing your help. I am so applaud by this.
    I told my husband it was neglect, and indifference to human life, Rear Admiral or should we call you
    an asshole. More befitting!!!

    When it came out that no one knew about the fact that a 2nd call had to be made to military search and rescue ,
    it was apparent where the fault lay.SHAME on you!!!

    For The Rear Admiral i hope you never have another good night sleep again, i hope you see this young man struggling to walk home in a storm
    all alone and so fearful. Freezing to death!!!
    SHAME on you Rear Admiral.

    I have in my past gotten my toes abit frozen, not to the point of being black and dead but to the point that once i
    got heat my toes were in so much pain i could barely stand it,but freezing them as well was painful. This was over
    30 years ago, i always have cold toes.

    I hope people say when they see you ..."Yeah, that's the guy who let that young man freeze to death instead of
    getting him help".
    SHAME on you Rear Admiral.


Your comments are welcome here! Just keep 'em clean, that's all I ask. I welcome differing opinions, but it IS my blog... I'm going to have the last word!!