News / Vancouver

Sinking the Coast Guard’s B.C. divers could spark protests, union warns

As some members lambast Liberals' 'hypocrisy,' former diver tells Metro he’s not surprised by the closure but worries about the agency's search-and-rescue capacity.

A Canadian Coast Guard hovercraft, based out of the Sea Island Station in Richmond, travels on the waters of English Bay in Vancouver, B.C., on Saturday, June 13, 2015. The dive rescue team based at that Station has been shut down.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

A Canadian Coast Guard hovercraft, based out of the Sea Island Station in Richmond, travels on the waters of English Bay in Vancouver, B.C., on Saturday, June 13, 2015. The dive rescue team based at that Station has been shut down.

A union representing Coast Guard members is hoping the agency bends on its decision to end its B.C.-based dive rescue team — reminding the Coast Guard of protests and even civil disobedience it faced over similar cuts in 2012.

The decision, announced last Thursday, will see seven members of the 26-person crew at its Sea Island, Richmond hovercraft base laid off, and the rest reassigned to non-diving roles.

But concerns continue to surface about the decision last week, particularly questions about whether marine safety could face a dead reckoning once rescuers are no longer able to enter sunken, capsized or submerged vessels and vehicles, known as “penetrative dives.”

The cuts could save nearly $500,000 a year, the federal agency’s Western assistant commissioner Roger Girouard said, though he estimated likely less.

That’s comparable to the estimated $700,000 that the former Conservative government of ex-Prime Minister Stephen Harper hoped to save by shuttering the Kitsilano Coast Guard station in Vancouver — sparking protests and a 2015 Liberal promise to reverse the closure.

Axing a similarly costly facility just south feels like “hypocrisy,” argued Dave Clark, the Pacific region vice-president of the Union of Canadian Transportation Employees, which represents Coast Guard members. Clark said the union and its members are planning to fight the latest cut.

But not everyone is supportive of spending Coast Guard funds on a dedicated dive team.

Metro spoke with a former Coast Guard diver of 20 years who moved into other agency roles shortly after the dive team first formed, Capt. Tony Toxopeus — who backed protests against the Kitsilano closure. He told Metro he wasn’t surprised in the slightest about the move to discontinue the team, but hoped the dive knowledge gained wouldn’t be entirely wasted when staff are reassigned from the team.

“It became a big thorn in the Coast Guard’s side,” Toxopeus said in a phone interview. “The hovercraft unit is a great operation … but costs a horrendous amount of money to operate even without having to add on extra divers.

“If they could look at me in the eye and promise me that the money they’re going to save on that program would be properly spent on search and rescue on the West Coast here, it wouldn’t be a bad decision. But you know what? They’re going to end up putting that money in the bucket somewhere and who knows where it’ll end up getting spent.”

But former Kitsilano base officer in charge Fred Moxey said the dive team proved its worth: "There is nobody else who does underwater rescues in Vancouver," he told Metro. "If this happens, and they shut down the base, it’s really limiting their effectiveness in saving people’s lives."

Girouard said in a phone interview the team “started as a pilot program” but gained “a life of its own” as it grew and became more trained and specialized. But it’s not part of the Coast Guard’s “core mandate.”

“The roots of it go back almost a generation,” he said. “It went hand in glove with the hovercraft.”

Girouard said the fact that it’s the only such station in the entire Canadian Coast Guard’s operation — leaving fellow ports elsewhere in the country to handle marine emergencies successfully without such capacity — singled it out when the federal Liberal government called for a staffing and budget review.

“That’s exactly the situation that Prince Rupert and Halifax face,” he said. “There’s a sense no doubt there’s a diminution of capability, but it’s been a rare and unique capability that’s very rarely ever been employed.

“Not to suggest there haven’t been some saves in 20 years or so, there have and I’ll acknowledge that, but its rareness gave it some scrutiny.”

Clark and other members warned of the safety consequences of the decision, for instance in past cases where cars fell into the ocean and needed a diver to rescue a passenger — or recover their body.

“At the end of the day, we hope nobody drives off the end of a pier,” Girouard replied, “but if a vessel or vehicle does end up capsized, response will occur and the team will do its best from the surface-side.

“Then there is some onus on somebody inside to try to effectively escape.”

As for what the Coast Guard union’s plans are now the closure appears imminent, Clark hinted that the answer may lie in the protests — and even a 24-hour sit-in civil disobedience — five years ago over Harper’s closure of the Kitsilano Coast Guard station.

“I would suspect, just like the Kitsilano campaign, we’ll be doing pretty much the same thing,” he mused.

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