Higher southern population led to decision to move OPP helicopter

A CH-146 Griffon Helicopter in action on a previous search and rescue mission.

SUDBURY—The reason the province of Ontario decided to move the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) search and rescue emergency helicopter from Sudbury to southern Ontario was due to population numbers.

This is according to Nickel Belt MPP France Gelinas, who has obtained a copy of the internal review of the decision into the review looking into the relocation of an OPP search and rescue helicopter from Sudbury to Orillia. Northern Life reported in its Thursday, March 24, 2016 edition that in speaking in the Ontario legislature last week, Ms. Gelinas said the review was supposed to explain the rationale behind moving the  helicopter, but she said it failed on all accounts.

“I’m proud to say that after $30 in fees and months of waiting, I finally received the report,” Ms. Gelinas told Northern Life. She explained the only reasoning given in the 30 page report is that there are more people in southern Ontario than in Northern Ontario. Therefore all of the resources should be in southern Ontario.”

“I have read with great concern the comments made by Nickel Belt MPP France Gelinas in regards to the copy of the review she has obtained looking into the relocation of the North’s only OPP search and rescue helicopter from Sudbury to Orillia,” said Jim McLean, of Kagawong, who is the ARES district emergency coordinator. “According to Ms. Gelinas, the report indicates that the reason for moving the essential service is that there are more people in southern Ontario than in Northern Ontario.”

“The OPP has said it will save about $250,000 as well as expanding the available operating hours of the two helicopters, of which both are now located in Orilllia,” said Mr. McLean. “Operating in the North, the OPP is tasked with maintaining the services they are mandated to provide. They face many challenges, long distances, adverse weather conditions and limited resources; for this we are all very grateful. Removing the immediate availability of the OPP helicopter will not only add precious hours to a search and rescue incident, but increase the risks to all involved.”

Mr. McLean said, “the only way we can hope to get the provincial government to reverse this decision is for all the municipalities and citizens of the North to put the pressure on their respective Members of Parliament and keep it up.”

In the spring of 2015, the OPP had said the move would save $254,000 and allow them to expand the operating hours of the force’s two helicopters, both of which are now based in Orillia.

However, the decision has received criticism for several reasons, one being the Orillia base is located in a snowbelt and aircraft are frequently grounded in winter due to storms. When that happened in the past the Sudbury helicopter could still respond to calls in southern Ontario.

The helicopter is often used to locate people with dementia and or stranded in remote locations, both common occurrences in Northern Ontario where the population is older and the land mass much  bigger, reported Northern Life. Sudbury MPP Glen Thibeault asked for the review and was supported by Premier Kathleen Wynne. But the helicopter left Greater Sudbury airport last summer during the Pan Am Games in Toronto and has not returned.

“Does all of this mean that a human life in Northern Ontario is less than one in the south?” asked Brian Parker, a Billings Township councillor. “In Northern Ontario we face more severe winters and road conditions with the area provincial roads highway maintenance contractor having been charged and fined last year for not keeping up standards.”

“It’s time the province treated Northern Ontario as a whole and not a separate entity with little or no service,” said Mr. Parker. “The government needs to act for the whole province, not just by the largest voting area.”

If the population is the guiding principle for the provincial decision, Ms. Gelinas told Northern Life it could be used to justify taking away other services key to Northerners. “According to the government, we should not have a university or a hospital or a cancer treatment centre because you know what? There are fewer people in Northern Ontario than in southern Ontario. This is the only rationale that they could put forward.”

However, Ms. Gelinas said people in the North reject that decision, pointing out she has received copies of resolutions from various municipalities, such as Billings Township locally, and the Manitoulin Municipal Association,  opposing the province’s decision. “They’re all telling the minister the same thing. Bring the OPP helicopter back to Sudbury Airport to protect the lives of Northerners,” she told Northern Life.