In a sudden and surprising move yesterday, Harper’s Conservative government immediately closed the only Coast Guard station located in Canada’s busiest harbour. Since its initial announcement last year, the motion to close the Kitsilano Coast Guard station has been vocally opposed by the public as well as local government officials and first responders citing concerns for public safety. The timing of the abrupt closure coincided with yesterday’s B.C. throne speech and provincial budget announcement, a planned move in an attempt to bury the news of the highly controversial closure.
The Conservative government’s original plans for the closure of the Coast Guard station were initially for a spring 2013 shut down. However, yesterday’s February closure was earlier than originally announced and comes during the winter months when most emergency calls to the base are made.
More importantly, it was an abrupt notice for station staff who first found out earlier in the day through a shipping notice website that the base had been closed. They subsequently received a phone call soon after that confirmed the online notice and notified all 12 full-time employees of where they were reassigned to in the region and where to report to beginning today.
In the past, the Kitsilano Coast Guard station has responded to most of the marine distress calls made in the region. The station responds to an average of 300 marine distress calls per year. It is busier than the Sea Island Coast Guard station in Richmond, which receives an average of 250 calls annually.
The Sea Island station is now expected to cover the marine waters that were once covered by the Kitsilano station. Critics have accused Harper’s federal government of their disconnect with the needs and realities of the West Coast and for ignoring all the evidence that points against the station’s closure.
It takes just 5-10 minutes for the Kitsilano station to respond to an incident in the high-traffic Vancouver Harbour. In a dire comparison, it will take 35-minutes for first responders from the Sea Island station to reach Vancouver Harbour – an area encompassing English Bay, Burrard Inlet, False Creek, and Port Metro Vancouver: Canada’s largest and busiest port. The Sea Island station is 17-nautical miles (31-kilometres) away from the Kitsilano station at the mouth of False Creek in English Bay.
The Harper government has also tried to appease vocal critics of the Kitsilano station closure with a new seasonal inshore boat rescue service stationed at Stanley Park from May to September. It is to be manned by one Coast Guard manager and two amateur students paid $14 to $18 per hour. Last month, as one additional measure for Port Metro Vancouver, it also proposed to move the Coast Guard’s auxiliary station in Indian Arm to a new location under the Second Narrows Bridge in upper Burrard Inlet.
However, critics have rightly decried that short of a full-fledged Coast Guard station at Kitsilano, the federal government’s plans are grossly insufficient and comes at the great expense to public safety. Altogether, this will still be a severe drop in service and coverage. It is not a question of whether someone will die as a result of the Kitsilano station’s closure, but a question of when. The closure will also severely strain the limited marine units of the Vancouver Police Department and the Vancouver Fire Department.
Officials in the Harper government have claimed the Kitsilano station closure will save $700,000 each year. Its closure is solely a budgetary savings measure, even though $700,000 is merely a drop in the bucket for the federal budget that will come at the expense of a major and vital local emergency service at Canada’s busiest and largest harbour.
Is it really worth playing Russian roulette with people’s lives? Will the savings really be as “significant” as $700,000 once you subtract the costs of new and beefed up (but still insufficient) Coast Guard services to make up for the gaping hole in maritime coverage caused by the Kitsilano station’s full and permanent closure?
In other news, the Harper federal government also announced yesterday its creation of the Office of Religious Freedom within the Department of Foreign Affairs. The cost? $5-million annually.
What are your thoughts on the Kitsilano Coast Guard station’s abrupt closure? Let us know by commenting in the comments section below.
Written and researched by Kenneth Chan, a Columnist at Vancity Buzz. Follow Kenneth on Twitter at @kjmagine.
Featured photo credit: Patrick Tam
Earlier this month, John Cummins (a former federal Conservative MP in Harper’s government and the current leader of the BC Tories) sent a letter to Prime Minister Harper to voice his concern and opposition over the Kitsilano station’s closure. However, the letter’s sound reasoning and advice fell on deaf ears. Here is his letter:
Dear Mr. Prime Minister:
I write to you today with regards to the impending closure of the Canadian Coast Guard search and rescue station at Kitsilano.
You have demonstrated over the course of your career, as both a Member of Parliament and as Prime Minister, a clear understanding of, and sympathy for, issues of concern to British Columbians. It is with that knowledge in mind that I request you reconsider the federal government’s decision to close the Kitsilano station.
All of us are aware, of course, of the great fiscal challenges that today face the Government of Canada. We also are fully supportive of the efforts initiated by you and your government to keep spending under control, to eliminate the deficit and to reduce our national debt.
It is my sincerest hope that provincial governments across the country – including my own province of British Columbia – follow your lead in having the courage to make difficult, and sometimes unpopular choices so as to restore Canada’s fiscal health and prosperity.
That said, some public services are so vital, so essential to the safety and well-being of Canadians, that they should receive special consideration when funding reductions are contemplated and implemented.
One such public service, I believe, is the Canadian Coast Guard station at Kitsilano.
There are many compelling reasons why the Kitsilano station must remain open and operating.
1. The Kitsilano search and rescue station each year responds to an average of 350 distress or emergency calls, saving many lives.
Moreover, tens of thousands of British Columbians who traverse or otherwise utilize the waters of False Creek, English Bay, Burrard Inlet and/or the Strait of Georgia on a daily basis have reassurance for their safety because of its presence with a professional rescue crew and vessels available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
2. The public – and particularly mariners whose livelihoods depend on the sea, as well as recreational boaters – are overwhelmingly supportive of keeping Kitsilano Station’s lifesaving resources intact.
They do not agree with the senior management of the Canadian Coast Guard’s view that a hovercraft based on Sea Island in Richmond – approximately 35 minutes travel time away from Vancouver – is an adequate way of protecting Canada’s busiest harbour.
In favourable conditions, a delayed or lengthy response by Sea Island hovercraft can easily be the difference between life and death.
3. The travel-time between Sea Island in Richmond to False Creek English Bay, Burrard Inlet or the Strait of Georgia is vitally important – and especially so during ‘out-ofseason’ months – because of the low survivability rates in extremely cold water.
Many fatal boating accidents occur in the winter when boating or water-accident victims find themselves suddenly plunged into water at temperatures considerably lower than those in summer-time.
Individuals in distress are hit quickly by panic and shock, and many succumb to cardiac arrest or hypothermia. Cold water, it has been noted, can rob the body of its’ heat 32-times faster than cold air.
Accident victims and their rescuers are advised that all efforts must be given to getting out of the water by the fastest means possible.
The hovercraft based at Sea Island in Richmond, which does not have all-weather capabilities, is incapable of responding as promptly to accidents or other events of distress as the existing Kitsilano station.
4. It has been argued by your government that part-time members of the Coast Guard Auxiliary – aided by summer-students with two months of training – are an adequate substitute or replacement for the highly-skilled and professionally-trained personnel with the Canadian Coast Guard search and rescue force.
This is patently untrue. Moreover, the proposed replacement of a year-round, professionally-trained, 24-hour search and rescue service, with a May-to-September, three-person inshore rescue team is plainly inadequate to the proven needs of British Columbia’s boaters, mariners and other water users.
5. Will there actually be any cost-savings achieved by the closure of the Kitsilano search and rescue station? This assertion is highly-debatable – and even if true, small potatoes in the grand scheme of things.
Some estimates are that the station’s closing will be as little as $700,000 – before accounting for the costs of the May-to-September part-time service. And that means actually savings for Canadian taxpayers may be as low as $500,000.
Yet even that estimate does not include additional expenses – operating and capital – for the new hovercraft based at Sea Island in Richmond. It not only is possible, but very likely, that closure of the Kitsilano station will have no – I repeat, no – cost savings for Canadian taxpayers.
You and your government – our Government of Canada – has done much for B.C. in recent years. Across our great province, British Columbians are deeply appreciative of the federal government’s stewardship of the national economy, as well as your personal and on-going attention to the needs of British Columbians.
But the closure of the Kitsilano Coast Guard Station has become an enormous concern for our province, with political representatives from all B.C. parties united in calling for it to remain open.
Prime Minister, I urge you to as you have done in the past, in the best interest of British Columbia, intervene and keep the Kitsilano Coast Guard Station open. I believe the B.C. public will thank you for it and time will show that it was the right decision.
I would be pleased to speak to you privately about this issue at anytime, with you or your staff.
B.C. Conservative Party