After more than a decade of helping create and build Haida Gwaii’s volunteer ground search and rescue group, it was the endless emails, paperwork and growing administrative burdens from the B.C. government that finally did founder Chris Ashurst in.
The 50-year-old president of the Archipegalo Search and Rescue tendered his resignation recently, saying he’s done dealing with the high-handed attitude from bureaucrats in Victoria at the Ministry of Emergency Management and Climate Readiness (EMCR), who increasingly dump massive requirements on his plate, and then threaten to dissolve his team and replace him if he doesn’t agree to their demands.
“I’m a volunteer,” said Ashurst. “At the end of the day, I choose how to spend my extremely precious time resources. And when it feels like I’m being treated as an employee, and it piles on, I’ve been saying I can’t do this any more.”
Ashurst is not alone.
Frustration and anger at ministry officials
Months of frustration and anger at senior officials in EMCR spilled over this week, as search and rescue groups across the province signalled to the BC NDP government they are done being mistreated by ministry staff.
They say they will no longer stand for a three-year moratorium on training, continued denials of new technology, ultimatums on new policies and persistent threats they might lose provincial funding unless they do exactly what they are told by top ministry officials.
Collectively, the community forms the backbone of the system responsible for saving more than 1,500 people a year who are lost, hurt or in need of help outdoors.
The movement threatens to topple the executive at the BC Search and Rescue Association, once an advocacy group on behalf of volunteers who critics say has been browbeaten into submission by the province.
There is momentum afoot for some search and rescue groups to splinter off onto their own. Others are trying to force the association board to resign. A petition to reinstate Dwight Yochim, the association’s executive director who was fired a week ago by the board amid steady pressure from EMCR executives, has more than 500 signatures.
Yochim’s termination was the spark that ignited the week’s dramatic events.
He penned a public letter to the premier, outlining mistreatment by the provincial director of search and rescue and assistant deputy minister. Initially it was signed by four other search and rescue groups. The list of endorsers is now more than 10 pages long.
“I had an overwhelming response,” said Yochim. “Unfortunately, the messages were confirming that they too had the same bullying.”
Yochim urged Eby to meet with actual on-the-ground volunteers, and bypass both the executive of the BC Search and Rescue Association and EMCR.
Premier ‘profoundly concerned’ about allegations
“I’m profoundly concerned by the allegations that were raised in this letter,” Eby said, when asked by Northern Beat this week.
“Search and rescue teams across our province are people, often volunteers, who maybe get a call in the middle of the night to go out and put their lives at risk to rescue someone who’s in trouble. They deserve all of our support to ensure that they can do that job effectively.”
Bowinn Ma, the minister responsible for emergency management, is on maternity leave. Acting minister George Heyman, who is also B.C.’s Environment Minister, has pledged to hold meetings on the issue.
“They have his commitment, and my commitment, that we will address these issues and ensure they get the support that they need,” said Eby.
BC Search and Rescue Association’s president, Chris Mushumansk, dismissed Yochim’s letter as not representative of the views of his organization.
“I’ve been at the table with EMCR over the past year and beyond for hundreds of hours resolving some challenging topics,” Mushumansk said in a statement.
“Certainly from time to time there is a difference of opinion, however we have a resilient working relationship. The team at BCSARA commits to examining any concerns and working collaboratively with EMCR.”
The concerns, though, are not new.
‘Ministry of No’
Search and rescue groups have been fighting the province’s three-year moratorium on new training, which they say has left entire parts of the province without critical skills like tracking, flat-ice rescues and K9 search capabilities.
Some have taken to nicknaming EMCR as the “Ministry of No” because it continually rejects requests to use new technology such as drones and video scanning software.
Yochim said when an advisory council of 12 search and rescue members, the RCMP and municipal police recommended B.C. authorize a new tool called Artemis — which can help ping the location of cell phones even in areas without service, and is already authorized by the federal government — the ministry’s response was not only negative, it was hostile.
“They actually called my president and complained for two hours that I had spent time with our advisory council making that recommendation,” said Yochim.
“The response from EMCR was not to say, ‘Oh this was an interesting tool.’ It was to complain that we were even suggesting it. They are the ministry of no.”
Increased paperwork, unrealistic deadlines
The situation dramatically worsened around a year ago when the BC NDP government formed the new Ministry of Emergency Management and Climate Readiness, said Yochim.
Since then, senior bureaucrats have sought to bring the volunteer search and rescue community to heel. No longer are they asked for advice, they are simply told what to do and threatened if they don’t do it, said Yochim. Paperwork has increased dramatically, with unrealistic deadlines that threaten to overwhelm the capacity of the volunteers.
The BC Search and Rescue Association gets around $6 million in funding annually from government, which is distributed to 78 search and rescue agencies, who then make up the difference on actual expenses with local fundraising.
Yochim said EMCR senior staff routinely threaten to cut off funding if any reports are late, or ministry directives are questioned — even though the association is an independent entity, and the on-the-ground people are volunteers, not ministry staff.
“It’s not a way to show respect for the volunteers and the work they do,” said Yochim.
Search and rescue groups have also been fighting for months to get clarity about new legislation that requires them to register with the province. The ministry has had to twice extend deadlines, amid pushback and refusals to sign.
“There really is no plan by the province in the event SARs across the province suggest they won’t sign,” said BC United MLA Lorne Doerkson.
“The notion you would send something like that out, without a plan B, on the off chance this did not work out well, is concerning to say the least.”
“I think that the premier is going to have to very much take this seriously,” added Doerkson who represents the Cariboo Chilcotin riding. “He is going to have to understand fully what the relationship is between the bureaucrats of the province and certainly the ministry.”
‘I didn’t sign up for this’
Back in Haida Gwaii, Ashurst said his refusal to sign on to a ministry’s new requirements sparked threats.
“I added up the pages of documents they expected me to sign off on and it was a few hundreds pages of dense legalize and legislation and policies and training guides,” he said.
“I’m like, no, I didn’t sign up for this. I have no time for this. I’m not signing this.
“Then the phone calls started coming in, oh we are going to shut your team down.
“I’ve been working for 10 years, doing all the work getting this team and resources ready to go, and now they are like maybe we just fly in another team from a completely different region to do your search and rescue for you? No, you are not.”
Ashurst said the premier will have to take a long hard look at the way EMCR is behaving.
It’s not entirely clear what happens next in the province’s search and rescue community. It appears to have reached a tipping point of dissent, sparked by bureaucratic arrogance and ineptitude within the highest ranks of EMCR.
“I think the public trust the volunteers more than they do the bureaucrats,” said Yochim.
“The volunteers have their own safety in mind… they go out of their way to find the best, most efficient way to find the subjects and get them down safely. And they are successful, despite EMCR, not because of it. And that’s a sad statement.”