Nfld. & Labrador

DND defends Burton Winters search decisions during inquiry

The Department of National Defence says it didn't send any air support on Jan. 30, 2012, because of poor weather and because some planes and helicopters were unavailable.

Representative says they didn't send any air support on Jan. 30 due to weather and a lack of assets

Burton Winters went missing on Jan. 29, 2012. He was found Feb. 1, 2012, after dying from the cold on the sea ice. The inquiry is looking into what happened in his search. (CBC )

A Canadian Armed Forces officer testified Wednesday that had Burton Winters been aboard a personal watercraft off the coast, searching for him would have been a federal responsibility — but as he had been travelling on a snowmobile, it was a provincial one.

As an inquiry into Newfoundland and Labrador's ground search and rescue operations continued in Makkovik on Wednesday, Lt.-Col. James Marshall of the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre in Halifax and the Department of National Defence testified about decisions made in the search for the 14-year-old Burton in January 2012.

The boy froze to death on the sea ice after abandoning his stuck snowmobile.

Burton's family, and others in the small Inuit community on Labrador's northern coast, believe the boy missed a turnoff on a trail and rode his machine toward the sea when he was snowmobiling from his grandmother's house. 

His machine became lodged into the sea ice, and Burton walked 19 kilometres south, away from the community, before freezing to death. On the inquiry's first day, searchers and Burton's family addressed the commission. 

On Wednesday, Marshall presented evidence and answered questions about the federal response. 

Federal lawyer Mark Freeman asked questions about jurisdiction in two hypothetical situations: if a personal watercraft went missing off the coast in the summer and if a snowmobile went missing off the coast in January. 

The inquiry into Newfoundland and Labrador's ground search and rescue operations is ongoing in Makkovik this week, opening with testimony about the search for Burton, seen in this family photo. (Submitted by Winters family)

Marshall said a personal watercraft would be a federal responsibility but a snowmobile would be provincial jurisdiction, as it was in the Winters case. 

The Winters family lawyer, Tom Williams, said the family doesn't understand that reasoning and Marshall said it's hard to reconcile but those were the policies at the time.

Lack of search and rescue assets point of contention

There were also a number of assets in the Atlantic region that were tasked to search and rescue, but many were not usable, Marshall said. There should have been two C-130 Hercules aircraft at CFB Greenwood but neither was usable at the time. 

The Happy Valley-Goose Bay area had two CH-146 Griffon helicopters, but one was out for service and the other had  an oil line leak.

A CH-149 Cormorant helicopter based in Gander was ready to fly, but Marshall said it wasn't dispatched for two reasons: poor weather and a lack of other assets. 

If the Cormorant helicopter had been sent, it would have taken five hours to get to Happy Valley-Goose Bay, and then would have been held up because of the weather, Marshall said. The helicopter's departure also would have left the region without resources in the event of an emergency for 27 hours. Marshall also said the Cormorant wasn't needed when private helicopters were able to fly.

Family lawyer Williams countered that there were no other calls for help to the JRCC at the time, and when Marshall said there were other helicopters closer to Makkovik in Goose Bay, Williams noted they were out of service due to mechanical problems. 

The snowmobile Burton Winters was driving became badly stuck in sea ice. The 14-year-old boy walked 19 kilometres before dying of cold. (RCMP)

"The system is set up such that an individual set up in Halifax can leave the Cormorant helicopter on the ground in Gander while a boy is lost in Labrador, while [the officer] might get a call for someone else," Williams said during the inquiry. 

"The only … resource wasn't dispatched and wasn't even brought up close enough," Williams said. 

DND defends not flying in Makkovik weather

Marshall said the weather in Makkovik on Jan. 30 also made it difficult to help, despite official documents saying there was a 600-foot ceiling of cloud cover at the airport and one mile of visibility, which is double the DND's requirements. 

Marshall said the ceiling wasn't enough because Makkovik is in a mountainous region. 

"A ceiling of 600 [feet] doesn't mean the same over the mountains." Marshall said. "We definitely could not have sent either helicopter or fixed wing the night of the 29th or morning of the 30th."

A private helicopter was able to get into the air at about 10 a.m. on the 30th, and Marshall said because it was a local helicopter, it would have been able to take off and stay under the cloud cover.

The DND did assist the search when it was called a second time at 4:59 p.m. on Jan. 31, 2012, after Burton's snowmobile was found.

The Griffon helicopter was dispatched after the oil line leak was fixed and the Aurora plane from CFB Greenwood was sent with a thermal radar because private helicopters could not search at night. The Griffon spotted footprints that eventually led searchers to Burton's body.

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Heidi Atter


Heidi Atter is a journalist working in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Labrador. She started with CBC Saskatchewan after a successful internship and has a passion for character-driven stories. Heidi moved to Labrador in August, 2021. She has worked as a reporter, web writer, associate producer and show director so far, and has worked in Edmonton, at the Wainwright military base, and in Adazi, Latvia. Story ideas? Email