Nfld. & Labrador

N.L. triggers search and rescue inquiry 9 years after death of Burton Winters

An inquiry into ground search and rescue operations, first promised by the Liberal Party in 2015, doesn't yet have a start date, but the commissioner announced Thursday formal proceedings would begin "very soon."

Commissioner expects to wrap proceedings in June

James Igloliorte, a former provincial court judge, will lead the inquiry into ground search and rescue in Newfoundland and Labrador. (Government of Newfoundland and Labrador/Youtube)

An inquiry into ground search and rescue operations in Newfoundland and Labrador over five years in the making has begun, the province's justice and public safety minister announced Thursday afternoon.

The announcement came amid a flurry of promises this week — and 12 financial commitments by Thursday afternoon alone — from the Liberal government, which is expected to trigger a general election this week.

"Today we take another important step in improving ground search and rescue in our province with the formal establishment of this inquiry," Minister of Justice and Public SafetySteve Crocker said.

He did not give a start date for the commissioner to begin formally gathering facts and holding hearings.

The public safety minister emphasized that the inquiry would focus on policy rather than investigate any single search and rescue case, including its catalyst, the January 2012 death of Burton Winters, 14.

"This inquiry will look different from most recent commissions of inquiry, like the Muskrat Falls project and … the Donald Dunphy death," Crocker said. 

Last July, the department tapped a former provincial court judge, James Igloliorte, to undertake the examination and issue a final report. During Thursday's announcement, Igloliorte said the COVID-19 pandemic had pushed back the timeline of the proceedings.

"We spent a long time doing our consultations and research, and we are ready to go," he said. 

Igloliorte said he expects to begin interviews and hearings "very soon" in Makkovik, and wrap up the inquiry by June.

Informal hearings — one of them dedicated solely to Burton — will make up the bulk of the inquiry, the department said in a release. Igloliorte will also undertake interviews and surveys, and consider written submissions. 

The budget for the inquiry is $1.5 million, Crocker said.

Tony Wakeham, PC MHA for Stephenville-Port au Port, criticized the Liberals' timing of the dozen or so announcements made on Thursday. 

"It's amazing how they can come out on one day, and announce all this money, and then go to the polls," Wakeham said.

The family's lawyer told CBC on Thursday that he knew the announcement was forthcoming, but had hoped for a start date in 2020. He said the family was notified Thursday morning that the inquiry would be declared.

Inquiry was 2015 Liberal campaign promise

The government initially announced this inquiry on Dec. 4, 2018, and first promised one when the Liberal Party came to power in 2015.

The Winters family has repeatedly asked the province for an inquiry since Burton's death, to explain why it took two days for military aircraft to be dispatched to help with the ground search.

It took three days for rescuers to find Burton's body. He died after his snowmobile got stuck on sea ice outside of Makkovik, Labrador. 

Burton Winters, 14, died while lost on sea ice in Labrador in 2012. It took two days for air rescue to begin searching. (CBC )

Crocker stressed Thursday that Igloliorte will not investigate his death or any single incident, but rather look at the overarching mechanisms and provide recommendations to streamline operations. 

Igloliorte said the inquiry is limited in what it can cover. 

The Winters' family lawyer, Tommy Williams, told CBC in August that he'd like to see the inquiry examine the jurisdictional boundaries of search-and-rescue missions. Missing people on land are handled by provincial authorities, while missing people at sea are federal. 

Scope of inquiry evolved 

Williams told CBC after the announcement that he's been lobbying for an inquiry for the last three years. The family, he said, has waited much longer.

"It's been very troubling because this matter comes up every six or 12 months," he said. "They get enthusiastic over the fact matters are moving ahead, they kind of relive everything once again ... and then it's put off."

He said the family brightened when the department appointed Igloliorte last year.

"We've had a very different tone with government since then," he said, noting the department had been in contact with Winters' relatives to update them.

Tommy Williams says the family of Burton Winters is pleased the inquiry into search and rescue services has begun. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

Williams said he and the family had initially pushed for an inquiry into Winters' death specifically. "That was obviously the predominant thought from the family's perspective," he said. "When government finally sat down and put their mind to it, they saw that this was a larger issue."

But they understand the shift in objectives, he said.

"The family are certainly not being selfish over this. They realize that a number of families in this province go through the tragedies that they went through ... so they are quite content that this is going to be a little larger in scope," Williams said.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Jeremy Eaton