Vancouver-South MP Wai Young defends closure of Kits Coast Guard base

Conservative MP for Vancouver-South Wai Young is defending what many in Vancouver consider the sudden closure of the Kitsilano Coast Guard station.

The station was scheduled to close this spring, but Vancouver politicians and residents were hoping the decision would be reversed. On Tuesday afternoon, the station closed with no notice.

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"February is spring in Vancouver," said Young, when asked about the timing of the closure. "Quite frankly, some politicians have politicized this when it was all over the news and everyone knew it was set for closure."

The Conservative government announced last year the Kitsilano base, which has 12 staff and two search and rescue vessels, would close this spring as part of an estimated $900,000 budget cut. The government said the Coast Guard could rely on the Sea Island hovercraft stationed near the Vancouver International Airport and a new "inshore rescue boat" during the summer, as well as continued work with five Royal Canadian Marine Search and Rescue units.

Spring begins March 20 on the 2013 calendar.

Young rejects arguments the closure could result in loss of life. She said during a surprise drill last week using the new system, the Coast Guard also received a real emergency call and handled both incidents successfully.

"They've had more than six months to prepare for this," said Young. "The Coast Guard are experts on search and rescue and as far as I know no one from Vision Vancouver is. So I find it really interesting people like [Vision councillor] Kerry Jang is commenting."

Young said she's received only had a handful of phone calls from constituents regarding the closure, including several from residents in favour of the move.

"But I've had hundreds and hundreds of calls about the park board joint operating agreement issue," said Young, of a recent move by the park board to centralize services at community centres. "You tell me what's important to the people of Vancouver."

Christine Collins, national president for the Union of Canadian Transportation Employees, hopes it won't take multiple deaths before the station reopens.

Collins was "shocked" to receive an unexpected phone call Tuesday afternoon from Deputy Coast Guard Minister Jody Thomas telling her the station would close that day.

"I received a courtesy call from the deputy minister at 4:30 Ottawa time to let me know they were closing the station down effective immediately," Collins told the Courier during a phone interview from her Ottawa office. "Shortly after, the manager went down to tell the employees where to report today [Feb. 20]."

Collins said while there is concern about employees losing jobs, the more pressing fear is that someone will lose their life in English Bay, an area popular for boating, sailing, watersports and swimming.

Collins noted the timing of the sudden closure wasn't lost on anyone involved. The announcement was made as the B.C. budget was presented in the Victoria legislature.

NDP MLA for Vancouver-West End Spencer Chandra Herbert is also concerned lives will be lost as the result of this decision.

"They're hoping people will forget about this in time," said Chandra Herbert, "But it's only going to take one horrific accident before we're proven right. You have to ask, what's the cost of a life?"

In an official statement Mayor Gregor Robertson said, in part, "Today's closing of the Kitsilano Coast Guard station is a sad day for Vancouver, and this decision leaves our city and its harbour with significant unresolved safety concerns. It is tremendously disappointing that the federal government has chosen not to listen to a broad consensus of marine safety experts who consistently expressed their concerns about the clear dangers posed by this closure."

Vancouver Fire Chief John McKearney said marine rescues are part of ongoing multi-agency tactical exercises, which demonstrate that the successful model must include a rapid response by the Coast Guard.

"To suggest to our citizens that these exercises or any real emergency no longer requires a rapid response by the Coast Guard is simply incorrect," McKearney wrote in an email.

sthomas@vancourier.com

twitter.com/sthomas10

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