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This article was published 1/6/2017 (806 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
In response to reports Ottawa is shutting down Coast Guard operations in Gimli, the area's Conservative MP is calling on the Trudeau government to make its intentions public.
James Bezan, the MP for Selkirk-Interlake-Eastman, called on the Liberal government to ensure the funding and capabilities are in place to maintain the Coast Guard’s operations at the Gimli harbour.
"The Government of Canada must commit to keeping this Coast Guard Station open. To ensure the safety of the Canadians that use Lake Winnipeg for business or pleasure, the Gimli Coast Guard station must be open, active and fully funded," Bezan said in a statement Thursday.
In Gimli, word of the closure has been swirling around town for the past week. Most reports suggest this will be the last season for the Coast Guard, after 40 years of service in Gimli.
Mayor Randy Woroniuk said federal politicians aren't returning his calls, but he's spoken with Coast Guard staff, who said they have all been issued redeployment notices, meaning they can take transfers to Coast Guard jobs in the east or west coast.
Word is the RCMP are stepping into the breach after the Coast Guard winds up.
"That's what I heard... They're done at the end of the season. The RCMP... are taking over the lake next summer, and (the) Coast Guard are gone," Woroniuk said.
If that's true, Woroniuk said, the least Ottawa could have done was pick up the phone and give him a "courtesy call."
The local rural municipality supported Ottawa's plans under Stephen Harper to redevelop the Coast Guard station despite local objections. The million-dollar station with storage facilities broke ground last fall, and nobody is sure where construction will go from here.
"From a safety perspective, I don't believe this is well-thought-out," the mayor said.
"The bureaucrats in Ottawa don't realize how treacherous this lake can be. The Coast Guard, they've been doing a great job keeping our commercial fleet and recreational boaters safe.
"The RCMP do not have the capacity to provide that level of service... to be on call, to rescue people. They have a hard enough time staffing what they need on land, never mind having people out on the water," the mayor said.
"I have no problem saying this lake terrifies me at times. It's a very shallow lake, and when the winds pick up, you can hurt yourself. This isn't the Lake of the Woods or Falcon Lake, where you can drive around a 16-foot boat. It's not like that," the mayor said.
Gimli, the last Coast Guard station left on the lake, took 200 calls last year alone. It also provides navigational markers and leads search and rescue missions on the lake. There's nobody else organized to take over the functions, sources told the Free Press.
The head of the Gimli Yacht Club, Charlie Burns, said recreational boaters are worried.
"At this point, we're very concerned. We've been hearing discussions about this, that Lake Winnipeg, by not being an arm of the ocean, is not considered part of the Coast Guard," Burns said. "We've heard about it through word of mouth, and if it's confirmed, that's very unfortunate."
"Lake Winnipeg is larger than Lake Ontario, and we have a huge number of boaters. We depend on the Coast Guard to keep everybody safe. The Coast Guard maintains the buoyage system, and they have the facilities and equipment to be able to rescue anything throughout the lake, and boaters depend on that," Burns said.
So far, there's been no announcement from Ottawa, and federal officials have yet to respond to calls for comment.
In his statement, Bezan echoed local concerns and speculated if the Coast Guard is pulled from Gimli, then the days of Coast Guard service in places like Kenora could also be numbered. But for now, his sources tell him Gimli is the only Coast Guard Station facing imminent closure.
"Gimli is the only one in Manitoba. My understanding is notices have been given to employees at the Coast Guard station in Gimli, that they will not be coming back at the end of the season," Bezan said in a phone interview.
Other sources, however, told the Free Press Kenora was also going to lose Coast Guard service after this season.
Gimli is the biggest harbour between Sarnia in Ontario and Vancouver.
"So if they're shutting down Gimli, I wouldn't be surprised if they're shutting down Kenora, as well. That would be a travesty," Bezan said. "We want the government to rethink this."
This week, the Trudeau government announced plans to add four new lifeboat stations on the British Columbia coast as part of a $1.5-billion national strategy to improve "marine safety and responsible shipping." Three more stations are planned for the Atlantic coast.
About 1,000 families depend on Lake Winnipeg for their livelihoods, including commercial fishing, Bezan said. Lake Winnipeg fisheries account for 75 per cent of the province's $17-million commercial fishery, and the Coast Guard's services are an essential backstop for industry.
"They provide markers that provide for safe passage. You still have freighters going up and down the south basin, serving places like Victoria Beach and Winnipeg Beach. They also serve places like Dauphin River and going up to places like Nelson House and Oxford House, and all these communities depend on safe passage," Bezan said.
There is currently one Canadian Coast Guard vessel, the Vakta, stationed at Gimli Harbour. Vakta and her crew are on duty 24/7 during the summer season.
Under Stephen Harper's Conservative government, Bezan played a key role in landing the contract to build the new station in Gimli.
Construction started last fall, but it appears work on the site is suspended. Bezan said cement pads were poured in preparation for work this spring, but nothing seems to be happening on the site.
Alexandra is a veteran news reporter who has covered stories for the Winnipeg Free Press since 1987. She held the medical beat for nearly 17 years, and today specializes in coverage of Indigenous-related issues. She is among the most versatile journalists on the paper’s staff.
Updated on Thursday, June 1, 2017 at 6:47 PM CDT: Final edit