Nfld. & Labrador

Family of Burton Winters welcomes news of progress in search-and-rescue inquiry

The family of a boy who died on the ice in Labrador hopes to get answers from an inquiry into search-and-rescue operations in the province.

Family hoping for closure, says lawyer Tom Williams

Search-and-rescue resources in Newfoundland and Labrador will be under the microscope at a public inquiry. (Victoria Joint Rescue Coordination)

It's been eight painful years since Burton Winters passed away on the ice outside Makkovik. The 14-year-old boy left his snowmobile after it got stuck and walked 19 kilometres before succumbing to the conditions.

Search-and-rescue teams didn't reach him in time, and now there will be an inquiry that will, in part, look at the reasons they didn't save Burton in 2012.

The inquiry has been a long time coming — promised and delayed, promised again and delayed some more — but the family is relieved the provincial government has finally appointed a commissioner, signalling a move to get things underway within the year.

"They were so relieved that the appointment of a commissioner has been made," Tom Williams, lawyer for the Winters family, said Thursday. "They've been waiting eight years since this tragedy occurred to get some answers on it."

Williams will have to apply for standing to be part of the inquiry and bring forward the concerns of the Winters family.

Burton Winters was 14 when he died on sea ice on the coast of Labrador in 2012. (Submitted)

The inquiry won't be entirely about the Burton Winters case, but rather an overarching look at search-and-rescue resources in the province. Williams says other things, like the recent deaths of four people at sea off St. Lawrence, could also end up being part of the inquiry.

"A lot of people think this is the Burton Winters inquiry. I think that needs to be cleared up," Williams said. "This is about search and rescue."

Tom Williams, lawyer for the Winters family, will be applying for standing to take part in the inquiry. (CBC)

One of the major issues he hopes gets tackled is the jurisdictional boundaries of search-and-rescue missions. Missing people on land are handled by provincial authorities, while missing people at sea are federal. 

Williams said that should be explored in the case of Burton, who left home on the land but ended up on water.

He hopes the family can get some closure from the inquiry process.

"I think the fact some of the questions they've had for eight years could be answered.… That in and of itself could bring some closure," Williams said. "Every time there's an incident, they relive it."

Retired judge James Igloliorte of Hopedale has been appointed commissioner. More details are expected to be released in the fall, once the terms of reference have been drafted. The inquiry is expected to last less than six months.

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