Andrew Parsons admits 'smaller presence' on N.L. highways as death toll surged
Justice minister says 'misleading' to blame fatalities on reduced enforcement
Justice Minister Andrew Parsons has changed his tune on the impacts of the deployment of large numbers of police to Labrador this summer, telling CBC News that the mission and other factors led to a "smaller presence" of officers during an especially deadly period on the province's roadways.
When questioned in September, Parsons said, "There was no linkage whatsoever between Muskrat Falls deployment and people being on the ground."
When asked the same question Thursday, he responded:
"The information I received since that time confirms there was in fact a smaller presence on our roadways this past August."
That's despite the fact Parsons says he was told by the RCMP that the deployment "would not have an effect on regular operations."
He stressed that other factors such as officers on leave and vacancies also contributed to the shortage.
The RCMP has declined repeated interview requests on the issue.
A $10M operation
Parsons estimated that 120 police officers were sent to Labrador this summer in response to what he called "huge concerns" by the RCMP relating to the transport of massive transformers from Cartwright to Happy Valley-Goose Bay.
Other sources inside the RCMP have put the number of officers closer to 160.
The equipment was part of the controversial Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project, which had been the target of tense protests in the period leading up to the shipment.
Parsons said he was not involved in the decision to deploy the extra officers, but did sign off on the funds needed to carry out the mission, which he estimates at roughly $10 million.
The money will be paid by taxpayers, over and above the roughly $73 million budgeted for the RCMP this year.
Of those deployed, Parsons said "half or less" were officers from Newfoundland and Labrador, with the remainder coming from other provinces.
He said a small number of RNC officers were involved.
Many factors to blame, says Parsons
Parsons was reacting to numbers released by the CBC this week that suggest highway enforcement efforts took a sharp decline in August.
Figures obtained through an access to information request reveal that the number of Highway Traffic Act tickets issued in August 2017 was more than 40 per cent lower than during the same month a year ago.
To say that that deployment led to unfortunate tragedies … I think is misleading actually.- Andrewe Parsons
An analysis of the data showed that the number of speeding tickets written by the RCMP dropped by 50 per cent during the same period.
The reduced presence coincided with an alarming spike in fatal accidents, with 18 deaths over seven weeks, beginning in early August. Prior to August, there had been seven highway deaths in 2017.
Parsons said it would be wrong to suggest that having fewer officers on the roads resulted in the spike in deaths.
"The fact is that there were … some people from traffic services division that were in Labrador. But to say it was completely due to Labrador is not accurate one bit. And to say that that deployment led to unfortunate tragedies we saw on our roadways … to say that there's a huge correlation here … I think is misleading actually."
He said distracted, aggressive and impaired driving, along with road conditions and lower rates of seatbelt usage were big factors in the death toll.
"It was a very terrible month for a number of factors," he said.
"While there is no doubt we had fewer officers on the road this August, I don't think there is a direct correlation here to say that has caused a loss of life. I think to put that as the main reason is irresponsible."