05/23/2012 06:22 EDT | Updated 07/23/2012 05:12 EDT

Feds would co-operate with a provincial Winters inquiry

Federal cabinet minister Peter Penashue says Ottawa would by necessity co-operate with a provincial inquiry into the death of Burton Winters, if Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Kathy Dunderdale calls one.

Family and friends of Winters have wanted an inquiry into the search for the 14-year-old Makkovik resident, whose frozen body was found outside the community on Feb. 1, three days after he went missing.

In an interview with CBC News, Penashue said it is not the place of the federal government to call an inquiry, but said the federal government would take part if the provincial government called one.

"We would not be in a position not to co-operate," Penashue said during an interview recorded Wednesday for On Point with David Cochrane. The full interview will air on Saturday's program.

"This is a legally initiated process and everyone would have to co-operate."

Premier Kathy Dunderdale, though, has for weeks insisted she does not have the authority to call one into how federal officials handled calls for help to find Winters, who Makkovik residents believe got lost on sea ice after he took a wrong turn while returning home after visiting family.

"I have no authority to institute an inquiry into the federal government's activities to have access to the kind of information that we would need," Dunderdale told the house of assembly in March. "I can call on the federal government for such an inquiry [and] that may very well happen."

Dunderdale has since expressed doubts about whether an inquiry is even needed, and earlier this month refused to meet with the Winters family because they wanted a retired search and rescue expert to attend. Dunderdale said the meeting was turning into what she called a public relations stunt.

Rather than pushing for an inquiry, Dunderdale has been asking for explanations from Defence Minister Peter MacKay. On Tuesday, Dunderdale vented that she has been unsatisfied with the responses she has received so far, and alleged that the federal government did not live up to its "humanitarian responsibility" in the matter.

Feds will comply: Penashue

Penashue said he does not believe an inquiry is necessary, that internal federal reviews have been good enough.

Penashue told CBC News that if the province nonetheless proceeds with its own inquiry, federal officials will comply.

"Everyone knows that if you call an inquiry, everyone has a legal responsibility to participate," Penashue said.

Questions have been raised about how various authorities dealt with the Winters search, including the amount of time the Canadian military took in putting an aircraft into the mission, the decisions made by Newfoundland and Labrador's emergency officials, and finally the initial reaction from RCMP in St. John's.

Dunderdale has brushed aside criticism of how provincial agencies handled the Winters case, although Department of National Defence recordings obtained by CBC News through access to information legislation raised questions about the provincial response.