HAPPY VALLEY-GOOSE BAY, N.L. - The death of a former grand chief of the Innu Nation while hunting in Labrador has renewed calls to improve Canada's search and rescue protocols, a provincial politician said Saturday.
Randy Edmunds, a Liberal member of the legislature, said the death of Joseph Riche has raised questions about the availability of helicopters.
Riche died either Wednesday or Thursday after his canoe overturned while on a hunting trip in the Park Lake area, about 80 kilometres southeast of Happy Valley-Goose Bay.
Major James Simiana, a spokesman for the Royal Canadian Air Force, said three Griffon helicopters based at the air force base in Goose Bay were not available to assist in the search, so a Cormorant helicopter from the base in Gander was called in.
He said one Griffon helicopter was going through maintenance, a second was out for modifications and the third had a cracked windshield.
Edmunds said it would have taken a helicopter from Goose Bay roughly 40 minutes to reach the site, while the aircraft from Gander — a town more than 1,000 kilometres away — took more than three hours.
"To have to wait for an aircraft to come from Gander, it just blows my mind," said Edmunds who was in the community of Makkovik in Labrador. "I'm just so disappointed. I can't bring words to it."
The military announced last April that a third Griffon helicopter would be added to the fleet at Goose Bay.
Edmunds said having at least one of those aircraft serviceable at all times should be a standard procedure.
"We can't tell search and rescue when we're going to have a tragedy. We can't forecast an accident," said Edmunds. "To learn that all three were down was certainly overwhelming."
But Simiana said the system did work as it should have, as search and rescue is the primary purpose of the helicopter from Gander, while the Goose Bay helicopters are normally called upon to support such aircraft.
"When required, we do engage as many assets as we can possibly bring to bare to hopefully provide a satisfactory outcome," said Simiana from Ottawa.
"At the end of the day, the unfortunate reality is that reality does intervene and those aircraft were not available to provide support to the dedicated primary (search and rescue) assets that did in fact respond."
Simiana said the Cormorant did airlift a member of Riche's hunting group to a hospital for treatment.
He added that another Griffon helicopter from the Bagotville base in Quebec was flown into Goose Bay Saturday morning.
Earlier this week, Defence Minister Peter MacKay announced just over $1 million over two years to improve radio communications for ground search and rescue in Newfoundland and Labrador.
Edmunds said the province's residents have lost confidence in the search and rescue system since the death of Burton Winters last January.
The 14-year-old boy went missing while snowmobiling in Makkovik. He was found dead three days later.
Two Griffon helicopters were both briefly out of commission for maintenance or repairs when the military was first asked to help in the search on Jan. 30, the morning after he went missing.
The military later said bad weather was also a factor and that a Cormorant helicopter wasn't dispatched because it might have been needed for a marine rescue.
A Griffon and an Aurora plane arrived on Jan. 31 after local searchers made a second call to the military for help.
Winters' family still wants a public inquiry into whether he could have been saved.
— By Aly Thomson in Halifax