Snowdusters Club and Coast Guard agree to communicate better at icebreaking time

MANITOULIN—While the coming of the Canadian Coast Guard’s icebreaking vessel the Samuel Risley brought good news in terms of northern Georgian Bay’s ice coverage, the annual coming of the vessel also rankled with members of the Manitoulin Snowdusters Snowmobile Club.

The Expositor was contacted by Snowduster executive member Brad Middleton after the front page story of the Risley’s recent trip to McGregor Bay and the Lafarge plant on March 20.

According to Mr. Middleton, the Risley was the main topic of discussion at the snowmobile club’s March 20 meeting.

“Not only did the icebreaker destroy the popular snowmobile trail from Little Current and eastern Manitoulin over to Killarney for the rest of the snowmobile season, but our club thinks it was jerked around, and perhaps even lied to, by the Coast Guard,” Mr. Middleton wrote in an initial email to the paper.

He noted that the Snowdusters had heard the icebreaker would be making its annual trip in mid-March and so contacted the Coast Guard specifically seeking this information. An email back from the Coast Guard failed to give the answers sought, instead saying: “Thank you for your email dated 05 March 2013, requesting information on icebreaking services. Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s Icebreaking Program ensures the safe movement of marine traffic through or around ice-covered Canadian waters by carrying out the following activities: providing ice information and proposing routing advice to vessels transiting through ice-covered waters; organizing convoys and escorting ships through ice-covered waters; freeing vessels trapped in ice; keeping shipping channels open; breaking ice from entrances to ports and harbours and clearing ice from wharves; monitoring ice conditions and water levels to assess the risks of blockage and flooding; preventing the formation of ice jams on the St. Lawrence River; ensuring the delivery of supplies to isolated Northern communities; and contributing to Canadian Arctic sovereignty through the presence and operation of Canadian icebreakers in arctic waters. Please contact the office for more information.”

Mr. Middleton explained that the day the ship entered northern Georgian Bay, Snowdusters secretary Sue Middaugh received an email from the Coast Guard stating the Risley would be in the McGregor Bay waters that same day. “When our club secretary frantically called the Little Current radio station to get them to put this dangerous situation on the news/air immediately, the radio station stated that they had just been notified by the Coast Guard a few minutes earlier,” Mr. Middleton explained.

The Expositor also received this email from the Coast Guard dated Tuesday, March 12 at 4:30 pm, less than 24 hours before the arrival of the vessel in northern Georgian Bay. The notice was posted to our website the following afternoon.

“Once the ice is broken up by the ship, snowmobilers who are unaware of the new situation could go plunging into open water before they could get stopped,” Mr. Middleton said. That’s outrageous.”

The Expositor contacted Carol Launderville, communications advisor with the Coast Guard, about the Snowdusters’ concerns. Ms. Launderville explained that the press release was sent when it was because that’s when it was approved.

Ms. Middaugh also contacted Algoma-Manitoulin-Kapuskasing MP Carol Hughes with her concerns on the lack of notice surrounding the Risley’s mission to the area.

She began by explaining the popularity of the picket line between Little Current and Killarney, especially this winter as the ice thickness made travelling (relatively) safe.

“Our club’s issue is with the lack of notification to us by the Coast Guard when the icebreaker was coming in last week,” Ms. Middaugh wrote in an email. “I made several calls this winter to the Coast Guard asking for timely notice when the icebreaker was coming through. They had my email, home phone number and even my cell phone number. Each time I spoke with them I stressed the importance of the safety issue in letting us know when they would be coming through.”

Ms. Middaugh explained that she called the Coast Guard on March 7, asking for a date and was told it would not be for at least two weeks. She then reviewed her contact information and was given a promise that plenty of notice would be given to the Snowdusters.

“I stressed the safety issue that we were worried about,” she continued. “If someone had gone out in the morning to Killarney and returned that afternoon or even that evening they would not have known about the open water.”

Ms. Middaugh, on behalf of the Snowdusters, called on the MP’s office for help in the matter, which Carol Hughes agreed to. Ms. Hughes told The Expositor Monday that she had not yet addressed the icebreaker issue, but planned on speaking with Department of Fisheries and Oceans Minister Keith Ashfield directly. “I certainly think it’s problematic—there certainly are serious concerns as well as a lack of communication, and not on the part of Ms. Middaugh,” Ms. Hughes said.

Once these concerns were brought to light, however, the Coast Guard was quick to set up a conference call with Mr. Middleton, which included himself, Ms. Launderville, John Bartley (operations officer), and John Leclair (regional director of fleet) on Thursday, March 28.

Mr. Middleton explained the conference call began with the two parties agreeing that the goal was problem solving, not finger pointing. He told the Coast Guard representatives that he realized they were operating within their mandate to keep commercial shipping in the Great Lakes moving, with the assistance of icebreaking ships were necessary. However, both parties agreed that there were two issues at stake: public safety and liability.

Mr. Middleton also expressed concern over the “insufficient notification time” and the two groups came to an agreement on this with the following to be done in future: Fisheries and Ocean will give a minimum of 72 hours notice before the icebreaker comes into McGregor Bay; notice will be given to the Manitoulin OPP, The Manitoulin Expositor and Manitoulin West Recorder and local radio stations; Fisheries and Oceans will liaise with Lafarge to see if the company can give more lead time in future; Fisheries and Oceans will look to the Snowdusters to assist in this situation by putting up proper signage on the picket line (permanent signs as well as temporary signs) as well as monitoring ice thickness once the icebreaker has gone through.

Mr. Middleton also noted that he received some potential bad news for snowmobilers using the popular trail. According to Fisheries and Oceans, there has been indication by Lafarge that it intends to do commercial shipping in January of each year, as well as March.

“I ended by expressing gratitude to Fisheries and Oceans on behalf of the snowmobile club here on Manitoulin, firstly for their cooperation in solving the problem and secondly for recognizing the hazardous situation that can arise from icebreaking activities,” Mr. Middleton said following the meeting last week. “I was most impressed with Fisheries and Oceans when they even went so far as to try and break a different passageway through McGregor Bay that does not interfere with the snowmobile trail.”

Alicia McCutcheon