POLITICS

Plane crash shows poor aviation safety, weather equipment on reserves: chiefs

01/11/2012 02:06 EST | Updated 03/12/2012 05:12 EDT
WINNIPEG - Aboriginal leaders say a plane crash that killed four people on a remote northern Ontario reserve shows the need for better aviation standards, emergency response and weather equipment in isolated native communities.

Grand Chief Stan Beardy, who represents dozens of northern Ontario First Nations including North Spirit Lake where the crash occurred, said that reserve doesn't even have a beacon to guide pilots in poor weather.

Like many of his communities, Beardy said, the reserve is only accessible by plane yet doesn't have the same navigational equipment available in the rest of Canada.

The reserves aren't asking for much, he said.

"Basic navigational guides at the landing strips would be very helpful. A lot of those communities don't have beacons so it's all visual flying," said Beardy, head of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation. "We should be entitled to the same basic standards of navigational equipment that is available anywhere else in Ontario and Canada."

Witnesses say the Keystone Airlines plane that crashed Tuesday was trying to land in a blizzard. Residents who rushed to the crash site frantically tried to put out the flaming wreckage with snow but couldn't save four of the people trapped inside.

One of those killed was the president of Aboriginal Strategies Inc., an administrative service for First Nations based in Winnipeg.

"The staff of Aboriginal Strategies is deeply feeling the loss of part of our family," vice-president Lydon Olfert said in a release.

"Our president, Ben van Hoek, and accountant Collete Eisinger died ... We grieve with their families and extend our deepest condolences."

Aboriginal Strategies employee Brian Shead was the lone survivor and was in stable condition in a Winnipeg hospital.

"He's doing well and recovering every day," his wife, Tracy, said in a brief statement. "We are very grateful that he is alive."

Transportation Safety Board investigators arrived at the scene Wednesday.

The plane was not equipped with a cockpit voice recorder or flight data recorder. It was landing at an airport where there is no control tower and there wasn't any radio contact with the plane after it left Winnipeg. Officials with the airline said the weather reports they had were "acceptable" but the closest weather station is in Red Lake, hundreds of kilometres away.

Beardy said the crash has resonated beyond the small, close-knit reserve to dozens of other isolated communities which depend on air travel. Most don't have their own weather-sensing equipment, which can be deadly, he said.

"They don't have by-the-minute, by-the-hour weather forecasting. As we all know, especially this time of year, the weather changes on very short notice and it's very localized. With technology, if we had some support, we could improve the safety of air travel in the far north."

The crash also underlines the need for better emergency response in remote communities, Beardy added. Like many small reserves, North Spirit Lake doesn't have its own fire truck or ambulance.

"That's why we're hit so hard," Beardy said. "We keep thinking what if there had been some support to try to put the fire out? Or if you could have rushed those people out quickly to somewhere, maybe they could have lived. Those are 'what-ifs' that are haunting a lot of people."

Grand Chief David Harper, who represents northern Manitoba First Nations, said many of his communities don't have their own weather equipment and pilots don't know what they're flying into. The technology exists to equip all remote sites with weather monitors, which would make flying safer for residents, he said.

"We pay for Nav Canada," said Harper, head of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak. "It's included in our air fares so why not put these up?"

The federal government also needs to step up and help make remote communities less reliant on risky air travel, he suggested. A lot of remote communities depend on winter ice roads for cheaper shipments of food, fuel and supplies. But warmer winters have meant roads that were typically open for 60 days are now sometimes only usable for about 20.

The federal government must help construct more permanent routes to give people an alternative to costly air travel, Harper said.

"We've got to look at roads being built into all the remote communities. Ontario and Manitoba are probably the last communities that don't have all-weather roads...This is the time of year when you don't want to fly."

Keystone Airlines has had two other recent crashes.

The airline was involved in a high-profile crash when one of its planes ran out of fuel and crashed into a busy Winnipeg intersection in 2002. One passenger eventually died of his injuries.

The pilot was convicted of dangerous operation of an aircraft, one count of criminal negligence causing death and four counts of criminal negligence causing bodily harm.

Keystone was also grounded for a week and fined.

Two years earlier, a Keystone plane crashed in the Assiniboine Forest carrying eight people. No one was killed.

Transport Canada ruled the crash occurred when an engine lost power and water in a fuel tank froze.