Nfld. & Labrador

Dead Labrador boy's family slams DND search 'failure'

The family of a 14-year-old boy found dead off the coast of northern Labarador are asking why the Canadian Forces waited to look for their son due to weather when a private helicopter was able to land on the scene in the same conditions.

Family dismisses military's explanation for delay, citing private chopper


  • Inuit government describes teen's death a preventable tragedy
  • DND proceeds with investigation into response for help

The family of a 14-year-old boy found dead off the coast of northern Labarador are asking why the Canadian Forces waited to look for their son due to bad weather when a private helicopter was able to land on the scene in the same conditions.

Canadian military officials had said poor weather was to blame for their inability to launch a search and rescue effort for Burton Winters, who was reported missing on Sunday night.

But a statement Saturday from Rod and Natalie Jacque, the father and step-mother of the Makkovik teen, gives a scathing critique of the Department of National Defence's response to their crisis.

The statement casts doubt on the department's explanation and rails against "poor decision-making." The department has since launched a probe into the incident and response time.

"How is it that a civilian helicopter arrived on the scene, yet a Search and Rescue helicopter did not?" the family asks, noting that "the civilian helicopter which had first arrived was neither equipped nor capable for a search and rescue situation" and that the civilian chopper crew "only offered to help because Search and Rescue had not yet arrived."

Weather 'below limits for safe operations'

Winters' body was found Wednesday, a day after the Canadian Forces joined the search for him.

Rear Admiral Dave Gardam said the weather was too poor on Monday morning, when a call for help was first received by the military, for any aircraft to be dispatched.

"Given the weather conditions, which were below limits for safe operations of an aircraft, our aircraft were not able to operate in that environment," Gardam told reporters in Halifax, as the Canadian Forces responded to questions about whether the military could have done more to have found the boy.

The Department of National Defence offered condolences and said:

"The Chief of Defence Staff has commenced an investigation into this matter and as such the Canadian Forces are currently reviewing the complete sequence of events as well as the factors that were at play in the coordinated efforts to locate Mr. Winters in Makkovik, including weather and poor visibility.

Our search and rescue teams are professional, well trained, and dedicated to saving people and preventing loss of life or injury."

The teen's family dismissed those answers and said they want to know more about what they described as "someone else's failure to do their job."

"This is not the time for excuses!" the family statement said. "This is the time for someone to step up and take responsibility... to ensure that this doesn’t happen to another innocent family." 

RCMP said Winters had walked for 19 kilometres through rough snow and jagged ice, after he abandoned his snowmobile. He was about seven kilometres from shore, although police said his tracks showed that the path was following the shoreline. His snowmobile was found about 11.5 kilometres outside Makkovik.

Meanwhile, Gardam also noted that searchers were using a privately owned aircraft to search for Winters in the early period of the search.

"Just so it's clear, under this type of search and rescue, we are called to provide services if civilian aircraft cannot be used," Gardam said.

"Civilian aircraft were capable of flying during the day when the weather improved and there was no subsequent request for us."

But on Tuesday evening, the Canadian Forces did send both a fixed-wing aircraft and a helicopter into Makkovik.

Gardam said factors such as poor visibility played into the ability to send aircraft, including from the military base in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, in central Labrador.

"We have to manage a very large area, and it's a balancing act on how you manage weather, resources, aircraft availability [and] crew rest," Gardam said. "It is very much like a ballet and it has to be managed that way."

'Totally unacceptable'

Meanwhile, the leader of Nunatsiavut, the Inuit government that provides many public services on Labrador's northern coast, said the death of Burton Winters was a tragedy that could have been averted if the military had responded earlier.

"There are many questions that may never be answered as to why this tragedy occurred, but we have to ensure something like this never happens again," president Jim Lyall said in a statement.

Lyall said Nunatsiavut is demanding a permanent search and rescue presence in Labrador.

"We truly believe that Burton would still be with us today if the search and rescue response time had been quicker," Lyall said.

"We understand the calls for search and rescue were made shortly after the boy went missing, but the air support out of Gander and Goose Bay were not available. That is totally unacceptable."