Canadians have always been a seafaring people. Whether fishing for a living or merely relaxing, millions of Canadians spend time aboard boats on the country’s three oceans and countless lakes and rivers.
As beautiful and serene as boating can be, it is also fraught with danger. On Canada’s West Coast, for example, the Maritime Search and Rescue program responded to more than 2,000 calls in 2015. Most of those — nearly 1,800 — came from pleasure-craft boaters, compared to fewer than 200 incidents a year from commercial, fishing, government and other vessels.
Fortunately, Canadians are protected by the federal Maritime Search and Rescue program, jointly administered by the Canadian Coast Guard and the Royal Canadian Air Force. When boaters encounter difficulty, highly skilled search-and-rescue technicians are ready to come to their aid.
However — as members of the Senate Committee on Fisheries and Oceans are discovering in our study of marine search and rescue — it has become increasingly difficult for the coast guard and air force to recruit and retain search-and-rescue technicians. It seems to me that when governments encounter difficulties attracting the best and bravest to these lines of work, they need to re-evaluate what they are doing.
The committee recently concluded a fact-finding mission to Victoria and Comox, B.C., to learn how search and rescue services are conducted in the Victoria Search and Rescue Region, which covers British Columbia and Yukon. It is one of the most demanding regions of the country, owing to its rugged coastline, unpredictable weather and vast expanses of sparsely populated areas.
Canada’s Maritime Search and Rescue program is divided into three regions with bases at Victoria, Trenton and Sydney. Committee members have taken similar fact-finding missions to the Atlantic region in October 2016 and March 2017.
Several factors contribute to the challenges of recruiting and retaining search-and-rescue techs, including the rigors of the training. To become a technician, recruits go through a physically and mentally demanding program. There's not much that can be done about that; training has to be tough because the job is too.
But people who might be inclined to become technicians are sometimes drawn to other lines of work — especially in private-sector transportation companies — by more attractive salaries, better living conditions and greater stability.
In light of these difficulties, we heard that the federal government should consider ways to make it more appealing for people to become a search and rescue technician — and to stay in that field once trained.
We also learned about alternatives to government funding of search and rescue. Canada’s program is aided by the Canadian Coast Guard Auxiliary, a private, not-for-profit organization whose members volunteer their time and sometimes use their own vessels to assist in search-and-rescue operations. The auxiliary receives $5 million a year in federal funding. That includes money for the organizations, such as the Victoria-based Royal Canadian Marine Search and Rescue, which provides volunteer service on the West Coast. The $1.3 million in federal funding it receives is a bargain considering the value of the service it provides.
In the United Kingdom, the volunteer Royal National Lifeboat Institution performs a comparable role, but financial backing from private donations keeps it afloat. In Denmark and Norway, voluntary auxiliary groups also rely on private fundraising.
Committee members discovered that Canadians involved in maritime emergencies believe they could respond faster by taking the “search” out of “search and rescue.” That’s what’s behind a suggestion we heard to make it mandatory for pleasure crafts to have personal locator beacons aboard — like the devices mountain-climbers or back-country skiers carry — so they can be found quickly during emergencies.
The committee was reminded of the wealth of knowledge Indigenous peoples have about oceans, lakes and rivers. More money can be invested in First Nations communities to make use of this valuable knowledge. In B.C., for example, Indigenous peoples already play an important role in search and rescue because they are often the first on the scene when something happens. Formal search-and-rescue training, however, requires candidates to travel to a college in Sydney, Nova Scotia. A search-and-rescue college on the West Coast would allow British Columbians to train closer to home.
This is just a sample of the input the committee has gathered during its study.
As chair of the committee, I am looking forward to offering recommendations to the government so we can strengthen Canada’s Maritime Search and Rescue program, a vital program that saves lives and assists people in distress.
Senator Fabian Manning is chair of the Senate Committee on Fisheries and Oceans. He represents Newfoundland and Labrador.
This article appeared in the March 29th, 2018 edition of the Vancouver Sun