Coast Guard hysteria sinks lower

First it was the Kitsilano search and rescue station, and now Unifor is targeting an upgrade to the West Coast ship tracking system

Unifor president Jerry Dias (centre) and Ontario Federation of Labour president Sid Ryan (left) have vowed an attack ad blitz on the Conservatives

The Vancouver media’s frantic coverage of the Great Bunker Spill of 2015 has just about run out of fuel.

By late last week, the usually serious Globe and Mail was reduced to quizzing a U.S. expert who had at first told the CBC he thought the spill response was pretty good. But then he heard that it might have taken up to 12 hours until the leaking grain ship was completely under control, which would be not so good.

This U.S. expert admitted he has not “followed the Vancouver spill very closely,” and was basically speculating. But that’s OK, because the main purpose of this media frenzy is to feed the established narrative that the Harper government is gutting the Coast Guard while trying to ramp up heavy oil shipments to Asia.

Yeah, that makes sense. A University of Toronto philosophy prof recently suggested that Stephen Harper likes war. Maybe he likes oil spills too.

A retired captain from the now-closed Kitsilano Coast Guard station became the latest of a series of disgruntled ex-employees and union bosses to serve as the media’s go-to critics. He contradicted Coast Guard management at every turn, dismissing them as political appointees with little operational experience.

His claims about loss of spill response capability from Kitsilano are questionable at best. There was no talk of spill response when Kitsilano closed two years ago, because it was a search and rescue station.

Former B.C. Federation of Labour president Jim Sinclair held almost daily news conferences as it closed. People are going to drown, warned a parade of union spokespeople.

It’s been two years, and nobody has.

Premier Christy Clark and Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson were quick to summon TV cameras as oil-sheen angst spread through condo towers. They declared the Coast Guard response a failure before they had any real understanding of it.

Unifor, the union representing Coast Guard employees, has vowed a full-scale election advertising attack on the Conservatives this year. On federal budget day, Unifor protested the closure of the Ucluelet Coast Guard ship monitoring station. Similar stations in Vancouver and Comox are also closing this year, replaced by a new monitoring system run from Prince Rupert and Victoria.

I asked Industry Minister James Moore, the federal minister responsible for B.C., if this is a reduction in service. He said 1970s-era ship tracking equipment is being replaced with a new system that has already been deployed on the East Coast, to improve safety.

“These fears were also raised back in the ’60s and ’70s, when lighthouses were de-staffed,” Moore said. “I remember people saying, oh my God, this is going to be the end. And it turned out to be complete nonsense.”

Unifor operatives rushed to the media again last week with dire news of a half-hour outage of this new system, portraying this as evidence of a high-tech disaster waiting to happen. (Ships were told to monitor an old-school emergency radio channel for that uneventful half hour.)

What the union is really doing is ramping up its election propaganda, and intensifying efforts to protect redundant positions that are being replaced by new technology.

There was a similar media campaign last year targeting the consolidation of Veterans’ Affairs into Service Canada offices. There are serious problems with services to veterans, but union featherbedding would not help them.

The B.C. government is also introducing digital technology, eliminating hundreds of paper-pushing jobs in the process, with a mostly realistic response from unions.

But in this federal election year, realism will be in short supply.

Tom Fletcher is legislature reporter and columnist for Black Press. Twitter: @tomfletcherbc Email: tfletcher@blackpress.ca