Two St. John's MPs say they are astonished that the federal government allowed medical calls for help from ships off Newfoundland and Labrador to be routed to Italy, even for just a few days.
"I'm just shaking my head. You can't make this up," Ryan Cleary, the New Democrat MP for St. John's South-Mount Pearl, said Thursday, reacting to revelations that such calls were being directed to a Rome-based non-profit organization for several days this week.
"Someone has fallen asleep at the switch. Someone is not even at the switch."
The Department of Fisheries and Oceans says the transfer was only an interim move, and that the Canadian Coast Guard signed a contract late Wednesday afternoon — not long after CBC News contacted officials for comment — with the Halifax-based Praxes Medical Group, the same company whose services were suspended after the closure of the Maritime Rescue Sub-Centre in St. John's.
CBC News reported Wednesday that the marine-based calls for medical help were being routed to a group called CIRM Roma, which does not charge for its services.
CBC also reported on the frustrations of the crew aboard the Sherry Ann Chris when their calls for help for an ailing mariner led them to a language-challenged call with a doctor in Rome.
"This story is so over the top already. How do you react to it?" Cleary said in an interview. "[But] it is an insult. It's a slap in the face to Newfoundlanders and Labradorians."
'They don't matter'
Jack Harris, the NDP MP for St. John's East, said the transfer of calls to another country in Europe speaks volumes about the federal government's understanding of the challenges that fishing crews and other mariners face during a crisis.
"It's got to be one of the most outrageous things that I've heard," Harris said. "You know, it's essentially telling fishermen in Newfoundland that they don't matter."
It's not clear how the contract with Praxes Medical Group fell through the cracks.
The Department of Fisheries and Oceans said Canada has used CIRM on other occasions, and that the transfer of calls was interim.
'It's essentially telling fishermen in Newfoundland that they don't matter.' —Jack Harris, NDP MP
In an email to CBC News on Thursday, Praxes chief executive officer Susan Helliwell confirmed that the company's contract through the Maritime Sub-Rescue Centre was to have lasted until June 30, and that the company only learned this week that its services for covering Newfoundland and Labrador were no longer required.
"We agreed to extend our current contract to cover the whole Maritime region until the end of June. They have indicated they are going to issue a new RFP [request for proposals]
for this service shortly," she wrote.
The government closed the Maritime Rescue Sub-Centre, which began winding down operations last month, as part of its cost-cutting plans.
Cleary said the government's explanation does not hold up to scrutiny.
"Even if that's true, even if this was just for a day, even if this was just for a week, it's not good enough," he said.
"It doesn't cut it. Anything can happen at any time, and we've had too many examples — example after example after example — where search and rescue wasn't prepared, for whatever reason."