Big Yellow Taxi

Why Peter McKay’s “taxi” ride in a search & rescue helicopter strikes a nerve in Newfoundland.

Cormorant CH-149 helicopter

For centuries, families in Newfoundland and Labrador have grieved for those who went to sea and didn’t come home.

The risk continues. Fishing is among the most deadly jobs in the country, and the dangers inherent in travelling to the offshore oil rigs were made clear in the 2009 helicopter crash that killed 17.

Against this backdrop, search and rescue (SAR) is never just about dollars and cents for people in the province. There has been heated debate and raucous protests about the appropriate level of protection. All of which explains why the controversial helicopter ride by Peter MacKay, the ranking political minister in Atlantic Canada, touches such a hot button.

“In the context of cutbacks to basic [rescue] services, that’s pretty hard to swallow,” said Earle McCurdy, president of the Fish, Food and Allied Workers union. “Since 1973 there’s been 193 Newfoundlanders lost their lives in the fishery.”

What makes people really upset is that McKay took a helicopter that was really needed elsewhere.

Search and rescue for the province is handled out of a central location in Gander, where 103 Squadron gets twice the national average of distress calls. There, approximately 50 military personnel and 26 civilians, a unit that calls itself “Outcasts” and features on its badge a rescue dog named Albert, operate three Cormorant CH-149 helicopters.

Each of these choppers – the same type that fetched Mr. MacKay – can carry 12 stretchers and operate in icy conditions. A base spokesman could not be reached Friday afternoon, but the squadron’s website speaks proudly of covering “the lower Arctic, the Maritimes, Newfoundland and Labrador and all offshore waters in the region,” with round-the-clock capability.

But dissenting locals argue that the base is too far from the busy waters off the southeast part of the province, and that overnight response time is sub-par.

Military standards require that SAR crews be airborne within 30 minutes of receiving a call that comes in on a weekday, between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. But the rest of the time they have two hours to get in the air. The latter standard falls below international norms and, given that work at sea doesn’t necessarily align with office hours, has sparked much criticism about a two-tier system.

Yeah, if I was a fisherman, I would be upset at McKay using the helicopter as well.  The Calgary Herald has this

Taking a search-and-rescue helicopter out of service to pick him up at a fishing lodge is, frankly, appalling. As opposition members asked Friday, would MacKay use an ambulance as a taxi?

In e-mails uncovered under access-to-information requests, search-and-rescue personnel crossed their fingers after the request came in to pick up MacKay and hoped for "a slow night" so that the helicopter – one of three stationed in the area – wouldn’t be needed for a rescue mission.

This is worse than Canada’s top general using government jets to whisk him about the country.

This is like taking a fire truck off the street and using it as a limousine for a cabinet minister.

The issue is not that cabinet ministers should never use military aircraft. Pilots need to log airtime to stay sharp. If a minister can hitch a ride, it’s not a big deal. But when a minister orders one up when he’s on a fishing vacation, and there is a chance that public safety could be compromised by diminished search-and rescue capabilities, that is inexcusable.

MacKay has long argued that he used the helicopter as part of a planned search-and rescue exercise in July 2010, but recently released Defence Department e-mails suggest otherwise. One military official said in an e-mail that they would use the "guise" of a training mission to explain why the helicopter was sent to pick up MacKay.

The e-mails are damning. They show officials scrambling to accommodate MacKay’s request to be picked up at a private fishing lodge at the end of a vacation and expressed concern that the Cormorant chopper might be needed for a real rescue mission.

I am a big Peter McKay fan but I am starting to wonder if Harper should drop him from cabinet on this one.  I know it won’t happen but this was an abuse of power.  This is how governments lose power.  It’s why we got tired of the Liberals and it’s why Canadians will grow tired of the Conservatives.  It’s not usually a big thing, it’s things like McKay’s user of a helicopter,  the Conservatives lying about Irwin Cotler and Clement’s G8 legacy fund.  It death by a thousand self-inflicted cuts.

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