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Tragic death spurs questions about military SAR

Feb. 3, 2012, St. John's - Canada's chief of defence staff is investigating why it took military aircraft nearly two days to join the search for a lost Labrador boy who died as he walked over ice and snow.


February 3, 2012
By The Canadian Press

The 14-year-old boy was reported missing Sunday from the Labrador community of Makkovik.

His body was found Wednesday on the frozen Labrador Sea, about 19 kilometres from his snowmobile. Police say snow was falling and it was around -10 C as the boy walked in the wrong direction – away from Makkovik – until he collapsed.

His name has not been released by the RCMP at his family's request.

NDP justice critic Jack Harris, who has urged Ottawa to speed up military search and rescue response times, raised the tragedy Thursday in the House of Commons.

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"The government is closing down rescue co-ordinating centres, and helicopters take two days to start searching for a lost boy," he said during question period.

"How can a search and rescue helicopter be available to transport the Minister of National Defence but not ready to search for a lost teenaged boy on the coast of Labrador?"

Julian Fantino, the associate defence minister, extended condolences to the boy's family.

"I can inform the House that the chief of defence staff has commenced an investigation," he said.

"Search and rescue crews react as quickly as possible every time. We will get the answer and it is forthcoming."

RCMP Cpl. Kimball Vardy, commander of the Makkovik detachment, oversaw the search, which started Sunday at about 7:30 p.m.

He was told Monday by RCMP support services that military aircraft were held up by weather conditions and maintenance issues, he said in an interview.

The community then contracted a Universal helicopter out of Goose Bay, which arrived by noon Monday, Vardy said.

In an earlier interview, Harris said he was shocked that the military response took so long.

"If there's a problem with these helicopters, there should be a replacement there ready to provide that service," he said from Ottawa. "This is further evidence of the failure of the Canadian Department of National Defence to give priority to the protection of Canadians.

"I'm worried that we have another tragedy that could have been prevented," Harris said. "I don't know the time of death or anything. But Canadians in the North, Canadians at sea, Canadians everywhere need to be able to rely on the Canadian Forces support."

Officials at the Defence Department did not immediately return a request for comment.

Randy Edmunds, a provincial Liberal from Makkovik who knows the grieving family, was onboard a privately chartered helicopter that found the boy Wednesday. A military aircraft equipped with heat-detecting capability did not arrive until Tuesday night, he said.

"Knowing that there are aircraft ready to dispatch, with trained personnel and with search and rescue equipment on board, would be a good thing to be able to depend on," Edmunds said Thursday from Makkovik.

The teen left his grandmother's house Sunday in the Inuit community before heading about 11 kilometres out on the sea ice, police said. Searchers were not able to reach his abandoned snowmobile because of ice conditions.

It's not clear if the machine broke down, ran out of gas or got stuck in the ice, police said.

Edmunds said Makkovik and other remote communities need to know they can count on military search and rescue services.

"There's a bit of concern mostly for future situations," he said.