Honourable Senators, two airplanes have crashed in the Arctic in the past two months.
The first, the crash of a First Air Boeing 737 200 series, at Resolute Bay, within two kilometers of the airport, on August 20, in foggy conditions, claimed 12 lives.
This was devastating news for the people of Nunavut, a territory which relies heavily on air transportation because there are absolutely no roads connecting any of its 27 communities.
I want to thank Prime Minister Harper for deciding to continue his planned visit to Resolute Bay days after the crash, turning his visit into one of comforting bereaved community residents, DND first responders, and staff of the Polar Continental Shelf Project, who lost their beloved General Manager, Marty Bergmann, in the crash. The Prime Minister then went on to Yellowknife, where he met individually with families of victims in Yellowknife’s close knit aviation community.
And last week, a Twin Otter crashed in Yellowknife while returning from a mining camp at Thor Lake.
These shocking events remind us that air travel is the most common mode of transportation in the north, that our harsh climate and remoteness entails added risk, despite the very good safety records in northern aviation, and that although it covers a vast area, the north is a closely knit community which was greatly impacted by the loss of life. I myself knew people on both those flights.
Amidst the tragedy, there was what I consider miracles associated with these sad events – the first was that there were three survivors in the Resolute Bay crash – who were all seated near where the jet broke apart on impact. Canadians were touched to hear of the calm courage of Nicole Williamson, a geology student from Ottawa, who, amidst the chaos and horror, comforted 7 year old Gabriel Pelky, who lost her sister Cheyenne Echalook in the crash, while awaiting rescue.
And the second miracle was the fact that Operation Nanook, with very specialized equipment and personnel, was about to launch a rescue mission for a simulated air crash on approach in Resolute Bay when the crash occurred. Their ability to promptly respond undoubtedly was a critical factor in saving the lives of three seriously injured survivors. I am sure all Honourable Senators will join me in extending our deepest heartfelt sympathy to all those who lost family and friends in these tragic air crashes.
The Resolute Bay crash reminds us that the response times for search and rescue in the north must be improved. I believe that the increasing volume of air – there are over 430 polar flights across northern Canada every day – marine and land-based traffic requires new strategies to replace DND search and rescue capabilities based far away in southern Canada. Right now, response times are too long to save lives. The CFB Greenwood SAR base, for example, which provides SAR service to eastern Nunavut, is much closer to Cuba than it is to Resolute Bay; In 2001, it took 40 hours for a CFB Winnipeg SAR team to reach a small aircraft crash site in the Northwest Territories and by then three passengers, who survived the crash, had died of hypothermia.
I agree with Prime Minister Harper that it is not feasible for the Air Force to establish bases, purchase and maintain the specialized aircraft which are needed to respond to emergencies in the north.
I believe instead we should invite the private sector to establish infrastructure and provide appropriate aircraft to meet Search and Rescue needs in northern Canada, under Air Force Command and Control. This approach would build on our existing northern infrastructure and strong and growing aviation industry, and save the Air Force capital and O+M costs while allowing them to focus on Search and Rescue in southern Canada.
The tragic crash in Resolute should serve as a warning to Canada that we must improve our search and rescue capability in the north.