As the region dries out from the worst flooding in living memory, a word of caution to anyone using the many waterways of the Mackenzie and Beaufort deltas: if you have an emergency on the water this summer, you may be on your own.
Inuvik’s regional search and rescue unit has lost 12 members this year due to an internal conflict and the outgoing unit leader said the remaining two volunteers are not yet trained to perform rescue operations.
Former Inuvik Marine Rescue Unit leader Paul MacDonald said 12 members, himself included, have been suspended from active duty following a vaccination policy implemented by the Canadian Coast Guard Auxiliary (CCGA) on March 1. The policy requires unit leaders to find out which volunteers in the unit are vaccinated against Covid-19 or not, and then suspend those who aren’t fully vaccinated from active duty. MacDonald said the unit had been practising safe Covid-19 protocols in all its operations, including social distancing and usage of personal protective equipment.
“They’re putting it onto the unit leaders of every unit in Canada in order to figure out what everyone’s vaccination status is,” he said. “My argument is that it is none of our business as unit leaders to request someone’s vaccine status, and I don’t want to hold medical information as the unit leader. I also don’t want to be responsible for someone saying, ‘Yes, I’m vaccinated’ and the rest of the town saying, ‘Well, no, they’re not.’
“So as of June 2, last Thursday, we were all suspended, which means that there is no search and rescue for the Western Arctic.”
For comparison, Inuvik Fire Department volunteers are under the town’s human resources mantle, which does not have an active Covid-19 vaccination policy.
CCGA Arctic director Brian McShane told Inuvik Drum the auxiliary expected the Aklavik Marine Rescue Unit, which is coming online this year with a new 28-foot search and rescue vessel arriving this summer, to pick up the gap in service. He also said the Tuktoyaktuk Marine Rescue Unit has a 28-foot vessel to put to use in operations.
“The Inuvik Marine Rescue Unit, although reduced in numbers, is being led by a highly experienced unit leader that has years of experience in the North with the Canadian Coast Guard Auxiliary,” said McShane.
However, MacDonald said that neither of the two members who were willing to provide their vaccination status to the CCGA and remain on active duty are sufficiently trained to carry out rescue operations on their own, and he estimated that the earliest they could be is next summer.
He added that the two volunteers would need to train 80 hours for the remainder of the year to get to that point, noting that because of the suspensions there were no longer any active trainers in the area and there is no financial incentive for undergoing training.
MacDonald has run the unit for the last 12 years. During that time, he said the frequency of calls for the search and rescue team has ebbed and flowed, with three calls for service last year, one call the year previous and 17 calls in 2019.
Inuvik Drum obtained a letter from the CCGA to the Inuvik Marine Rescue unit, which stated that the vaccination policy was recommended by the organization’s legal team to ensure it was in compliance with federal Covid-19 mandates. It noted the suspensions were a temporary measure to ensure the CCGA was following federal rules.
“The members are not terminated and do not need to return the equipment unless the unit terminates them,” says the letter, written by CCGA president Wayne Spencer. “The board indicated that these suspensions were only until the member was vaccinated or the federal mandate for vaccination is removed. The board also indicated that they are only suspended from active duty, not from the auxiliary.
“This is an important difference because these are valuable members and until the government gives us permanent direction, we need to remind these members that the suspension is only from active duty.”
Under Transport Canada’s federal Covid-19 vaccination mandate, proof of vaccination for employees is mandatory for all “marine operators with Canadian vessels that operate with 12 or more crew.”
Inuvik Marine Rescue Unit is a completely volunteer-run and operated organization. MacDonald added that among the suspended members are volunteers with 14, 15 and 22 years of service. He said over the last decade the society has fundraised for several pieces of rescue equipment, including three fully-operational vessels — a large landing craft capable of reaching Herschel Island and back on a tank of fuel, a 20-foot ocean craft and a Sea-Doo vessel for fast response — all of which operate in the rivers of the Mackenzie Delta as well as the open waters of the Arctic Ocean.
When fully crewed, MacDonald said the unit has responded to emergencies in as fast as three minutes.
With ongoing funding and encouragement for people in the NWT to go out on the land, MacDonald said he’s concerned there could be an emergency and no one to respond.
“You have everything from medical calls, so chest pains to people getting lost or people getting hurt,” he said. “There’s a whole gamut of things that happen out there that require help, and at the moment, they would have to call the RCMP and hope that the RCMP could go get them, or a helicopter, or that they could start up the Canadian Rangers and get them out there.
“But that’s depending on where it is. The assets that we have were designed for water and are all set up for an emergency — it’s an ambulance on water. While the Rangers have boats as well, it’s their personal boats.”
Other areas of the Northwest Territories have also been affected by the policy change. MacDonald said marine rescue units in Yellowknife and Hay River had also seen key members suspended under the new policy.
Acknowledging the reduction in volunteers, McShane said the CCGA is actively seeking to replenish its roster.
”We are working with the leadership in Inuvik to bolster their numbers and ensure necessary training is provided; keeping in mind that everyone, including our instructors, are all volunteers,” he said. “The CCGA is actively seeking members of the community of Inuvik who are willing and able to join the CCGA and help ensure that maritime SAR services are provided to mariners in distress. If you are interested in joining our team, or would like to find out more information on the CCGA, please call 1-866-429-7283 or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.”