By Ossie Michelin
APTN National News
They’re calling him the boy that united Labrador.
Burton Winters died after walking 19 kilometres from the place where his snowmobile became stuck on the frozen sea near his home of Makkovik, on the North Coast of Labrador.
For four days, people along Labrador’s coast frantically searched for the 14 year-old.
What people are wondering about is why it took two days for a military search and rescue helicopter, based in Gander, Nfld., to join in the search.
Calls were initially made to the military, but many are still wondering why the RCMP and the military didn’t place a higher priority on finding the boy.
Now a social movement is sweeping across Labrador, demanding not just answers but changes.
People are now demanding a full time search and rescue unit be based in Labrador, named in honour of Burton Winters.
They say in order to patrol Labrador’s 294,330 square kilometers of land and 7,886 kilometers of coastline a reliable round the clock search and rescue team is needed.
Their campaign is called “He Walked This Far,” referring to the final hours of Burton Winters life as he walked nineteen kilometers in the dark and bitter cold trying to find his way home.
Since Winters’ death, candle light vigils have been held in every community in Labrador. Hundreds of letters have been written to the government and provincial call-in radio shows have been flooded with talk of what happened to Winters and the response from the federal government.
On Valentine’s Day, thousands of people turned off their lights for one hour to show their support for Makkovik and the family of the boy and to help them imagine the last few hours of darkness the teen experienced before he died.
Over 100 people showed up to a protest that was held in front of Conservative Labrador MP Peter Penashue’s office in Happy Valley-Goose Bay.
Children carried signs asking if they were lost in the wilderness would SAR come looking for them. The protestors had a surprise meeting with MP and federal cabinet minister Peter Penashue who promised to take their concerns to Ottawa and respond back to them in the coming weeks.
Roxanne Dyson-Rideout was one of the organizers of the protest. While she knows government officials have heard their demands, she just hopes their cries are falling on sympathetic ears.
“I know that they’re listening, there’s no way that they can’t be listening to us we’re being loud about this. It’s such a very important topic to us, it’s a very important issue,” said Dyson-Rideout. “I know that they’re listening but going through with their words in another thing these are the people we elected to represent us I’m going to support them 100 per cent if they decide to go and take this issue further.”
People in Labrador know better than anyone how treacherous winter weather on the coast can be. While snowmobiling is part of everyday life, getting stuck on the ice as night time temperatures drop and blizzards spring up unexpectedly can be dangerous even for the most seasoned hunter.
“I think so many of it touched people in Labrador because being out on the ice and being outdoors is a lot of the part of the way we live. It could have happened to anyone of us,” said Dyson-Rideout.
To date over 26,000 people have joined a Facebook group calling for search and rescue unit to be based in Labrador and people are signing up by the thousands every day. Labrador’s population sits at 27,000 people.
“I had no idea, I knew we would get a lot of support but like 25000 members it’s amazing,” said Jackie Compton Hobbs, one of the group’s administrators.
Looking at the discussion board of the group it seems that almost every member has been touched by Labrador at some point in their lives. They understand that living in Labrador is not always easy, and that in times of crisis Labradorians support each other.
“It just speaks volumes. Obviously people are supporting from all over the world and you know it’s awesome it’s amazing, every community in Labrador will have held a candle light vigil by Saturday,” said Compton Hobbs, “There’s hundreds and hundreds of people supporting this group, I’ve seen politicians on there, there’s young, there’s old there’s everybody on this group supporting.”
Those that know and love Labrador call it the Big Land. Those same people will also tell you the Big Land is unforgiving, and what happened to Burton Winters could have happened to anyone. For anyone living in
Labrador the land is a part of who you are and no matter the dangers experiencing the Big Land is as essential as breathing.
People in Labrador will still continue to snowmobile, to boat, to hunt, and to fish. However people want to know when they go out on the land that they are safe; that there they have the same kind of protection as anyone else living in this country. They hope that Burton Winters’ death was not in vain, and that his tragic end will help others from ever having to experience a tragedy like this again in the Big Land.
While Burton Winters was only able to walk 19 kilometers before his life ended, his story is still circling the world.
A nationwide moment of silence is being called for on March 4. Grassroots organizers are asking people across the country to turn off their lights for one minute at 9 p.m. Eastern for the boy that walked this far.