NunatuKavut Community Council President Todd Russell attended the national search and rescue conference in St. John's to push for further support in Labrador. (Elizabeth Whitten/CBC)
Almost two years to the day since Todd Russell's nephew and a crewmate died at sea, the NunatuKavut Community Council president was in St. John's to attend a national search and research conference.
Marc Russell and Joey Jenkins went missing on Sept. 17, 2021 while fishing off the coast of Mary's Harbour. Their fishing vessel, the Island Lady, was last seen that afternoon. No distress calls were received.
Family members of the two men have been pushing Ottawa for inquiries into vessel safety and changes to search and rescue efforts ever since.
Russell advocated once again on Saturday for more life-saving infrastructure dedicated to Labrador.
"This will be important — yes, for the Innuit of NunatuKavut — but for all people who use this land. Who are on the water. Or who take to the skies. It is so, so important," Russell told CBC News from inside the Delta Hotel in downtown St. John's where the conference is being hosted.
He said he's attending the conference to keep fighting for services and investments.
Russell was also there as a guest to speak during a panel dedicated to the Inquiry into Ground Search and Rescue for Lost and Missing Persons in Newfoundland and Labrador, which was headed by retired judge James Igloliorte.
But there have been some improvements in recent years that Russell also highlighted. Not too long ago, he said, there were no ground search and rescue teams south of Happy Valley-Goose Bay.
"Today I can report that there are now three teams of ground search and rescue in coastal communities: Cartwright, Mary's Harbour and in Forteau," he said.
"So that is a huge step forward and so I was here today to raise up that work."
Specifically, Russell said he would like to see a fully operational search and rescue base established at 5 Wing Goose Bay.
"We don't have one lifeboat station on the entirety of the coast of Labrador, not one for thousands and thousands of kilometres of coastline. Not one," said Russell.
"We're here fighting to say that our people deserve and must have a world class search and rescue system."
Exacerbating issues around search and rescue is also the impact of climate change, which is a pressing issue on Labrador, he added.
In addition, the gap in these types of services in Labrador is also tied into reconciliation, he said.
"Some of this is unique and specific to Indigenous peoples, in the sense of how we use our land and where we're at and the relationship that we have with our resources and our land. Our waters. Our ice. Our air," he said.
Russell added that type of information is fundamental in search and rescue operations.
"We certainly see ourselves very much as a part of this work, strengthening that work, helping to improve that work so that we have the best search and rescue system in the world. And why not? We can have it, right here."
Conference Coming Home
All told about 425 people headed into St. John's for the weekend's conference.
The city was meant to host the national conference in 2019 but Newfoundland Labrador Search and Rescue Association president Harry Blackmore said that was delayed until this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
He explained the conference gathers people in the sector from all over the country, as well as the United States. Not only are there presentations but it's also an opportunity to network and talk with vendors.
Newfoundland and Labrador Search and Rescue Association president Harry Blackmore said the annual conference is a time to network and also socialize. (Elizabeth Whitten/CBC)
"There's some serious stuff here, but we all try to make it fun," Blackmore said.
"This is our time, I guess, to relax from search and rescue missions themselves. So everybody here is having a good time."
Blackmore said the conference had a good turn out, considering people are still weary of travel due to the pandemic.
He said people will leave St. John's and head home with new connections and awareness of the technology that's now available. He added the technology is rapidly changing, too.
During the pandemic, he said, it was difficult to recruit new members, but this year approximately 30 people are going through the training.
"You got to realize we don't go out on sunny bright days looking for you. Usually it's driving rain or snow," Blackmore said.
"Now we have 30 people in our own team right now wanting to join. So we'll hopefully get them through [training] and we'll start again next year and then taking a few more."
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