Burton Winters picked as top news story of 2012

CBC readers have overwhelmingly picked the death of Labrador teenager Burton Winters, and the controversy over the search to find him, as the most compelling story of the year.

CBC readers overwhelmingly pick Labrador coastal tragedy as year's most compelling story

Burton Winters, 14, died when his snowmobile broke down on ice outside his home community of Makkovik in late January. His body was found three days after he was reported missing. (CBC )

Burton Winters, the Makkovik teenager whose death this winter sparked outrage and calls for an overhaul of the search and rescue system, has been picked as the top story of 2012 in a CBC Newfoundland and Labrador audience survey.

In fact, votes for the story were overwhelmingly high, as it gathered more than three times the number of votes than the next highest contender, the controversy over Bill 29 and government changes to access to information legislation. 

Winters, 14, froze to death after his snowmobile broke down on the ice just outside his Labrador community, after he had evidently missed the right turn on the trail home on the afternoon of Jan. 29. His body was found Feb. 1, after military personnel were finally brought in to search.

While his death was tragic in its own terms, the story triggered powerful emotions as details emerged about how the search for Winters was — and was not — managed. Both federal and provincial officials came in for steady and sometimes withering criticism about their roles in the search.

The Winters story, which included such revelations that he had walked for 19 kilometres over rocky ice before lying down to die, inspired songs, numerous protests and an investigative documentary on CBC's Fifth Estate.

However, frequent calls for an inquiry went unfulfilled throughout the year.

More than 7,500 votes in all were cast in our survey for the stories that our audience found important, resonant or memorable. Readers were allowed to pick as many or as few as they liked (hundreds of participants voted only for the Winters story) over a two-week period in December.

Here is the rest of the Top 20. Our thanks to everyone who took part.


2. Bill 29

The governing Tories ushered in sweeping - critics called them draconian - changes to the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act. In short, the changes give the government powers to exclude more information than before about how it goes about its work, including details on how it spends its money. Bill 29 triggered a filibuster in the spring, and brought strong criticism from outside observers. "While [developing] countries' governments are passing strong access-to-information frameworks and working to improve government transparency, with Bill 29 the Newfoundland government is moving in precisely the opposite direction, towards greater secrecy and less openness," wrote Michael Karanicolas, legal director of the Centre for Law and Democracy, in a letter sent in June to then-justice minister Felix Collins.


3. Peter Penashue's campaign spending

Labrador MP and federal Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Peter Penashue spent months dodging questions about spending on his campaign in the 2011 federal election. Documents filed with Elections Canada showed he had exceeded his spending limits, and later revealed that he may have received a direct contribution from Pennecon, a St. John's construction company, in violation of federal law. Penashue said rookie mistakes had been made during the campaign, while lawyers with the Conservative Party of Canada started handling the matter on his behalf.


4. Ray Newman acquitted

In a court decision that shocked many, Newman, 35, was declared not guilty of second-degree murder in the 2009 slaying of his estranged wife, Chrissy Predham Newman, 28, whose body was found in her Airport Heights basement apartment. Newman's lawyers succeeded in having consecutive parts of the Crown's evidence excluded, including DNA evidence, with Justice James Adams castigating the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary for "egregious" mistakes that included not reading Newman his rights. The police said there are no other suspects in the case.


5. Elijah Porter

It was just a Timbit soccer medal, but it meant the world to members of Canada's men's relay sprinting team, who were disqualified from bronze medals at London's Olympics. Elijah Porter, 10, offered his participation medal to them in a story that went viral on social media and brought the Paradise resident national media attention. Members of the team also surprised Porter at his home in September.

6. Muskrat Falls

It was a story that dominated headlines from January through December, straight through to the signing of a federal loan guarantee in November and official sanctioning a week before Christmas. While critics swear the Lower Churchill hydroelectric project is a boondoggle that will saddle future generations with both debt and high energy prices, Premier Kathy Dunderdale insisted the project — which is expected to generate its first power in five years — is the best option for meeting domestic energy needs, and for providing a means of exporting power to other markets without having to go through Quebec.

7. Tropical storm Leslie

On Sept. 11, Leslie hit eastern Newfoundland with hurricane-force winds. By the time she moved off to sea, she had been downgraded to a post-tropical storm, having exhausted much of her power over the island. Despite tearing off roofs and uprooting trees, Leslie proved significantly less damaging than hurricane Igor in 2010.

8. Marine rescue sub-centre closure

In April, after months of protests that failed to persuade the federal government to change its mind or at least delay its decision, the doors closed to the Marine rescue sub-centre in St. John's. Advocates, union representatives and local politicians saw the closure as a poor sign for the commitment to search and rescue services.

9. Warm weather all over

After the Fogust and Juneuary of 2011, 2012 brought Newfoundland and Labrador sunny weather and a number of records for warm temperatures. Why, it even felt like we had distinct seasons!

10. Blaketown beating

It was, sadly, not the only violent incident involving adolescents this year, but it was probably the most notorious. In October, a girl was beaten near a schoolyard in the small Avalon Peninsula community of Blaketown, while a group of other teens looked on. In a contemporary twist, the event was recorded on cellphone video and shared on social media, bringing into focus the provincial government’s attempts to curb bullying.

Also in contention

We asked readers to assess almost 50 other stories. Here are the next 15 in their choices.

11: Febreze sprayed on Twillingate student, 10, after teacher dislikes smell of capelin his mother fed him for lunch. 12. Federal job cuts hit numerous departments and services, including the Canadian Coast Guard, Parks Canada and Service Canada. 13. Moose, what moose? Shocked central Newfoundland driver continues commute without realizing she survived collision. 14. Ron Hynes, iconic St. John's singer-songwriter, battles cancer diagnosis. 15. Italian non-profit group fields marine medical emergency calls after closure of St. John's rescue centre. 16. Lanier Phillips, survivor of 1942 Pollux-Truxtun disaster off St. Lawrence, dies at age 88. 17. Eastern Health eliminates 550 positions, describing the organization as riddled with inefficiencies, unnecessary overtime and questionable costs. 18. Privacy breaches rock regional health authorities; several employees fired for inappropriately accessing files. 19. Henry Goodrich drill rig shuts down after 'near miss' in August. 20. Fish plants in seven communities, such as Black Tickle, Burin and Port Union, are declared permanently closed in May, in a dark milestone for the fishing industry. 21. Gas-sniffing returns as a serious public health issue, especially among adolescents, in Natuashish. 22. Highway 63 in Alberta claims lives of three members of Newfoundland-raised Wheaton family, as concerns mount about highway outside Fort McMurray.  23. Tom Osborne leaves PC caucus to sit as an independent. 24. Leo Crockwell is convicted of charges laid after 2010 standoff with RCMP at family home in Bay Bulls. Crockwell, who fired several lawyers, insisted on representing himself at Supreme Court. 25. IceCaps make it to the quarter finals of the Calder Cup in debut season at Mile One in St. John’s.