CORNER BROOK It is now up to the judge to decide if there was any wrongdoing on the provincial government’s behalf when it decided to relocate the air ambulance service in St. Anthony to Happy Valley-Goose Bay in March 2010.
Lawyer Jim Bennett, who has since become the Liberal legislature member for St. Barbe, continues to represent the Town of St. Anthony, the St. Anthony and Area Chamber of Commerce and a concerned citizens committee in their fight to have the air ambulance service restored on the Northern Peninsula.
Last fall, Bennett argued his case before Justice William Goodridge in the Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador in Corner Brook. However, the court had not allotted enough time to hear the government’s side of the issue.
On Friday, it was time to hear from government lawyer Rolph Pritchard. He tackled Bennett’s case firstly by questioning the validity of the three clients Bennett was representing.
Pritchard said the Town of St. Anthony is the only incorporated entity of the three and it was unclear what kind of standing the chamber and the citizens committee have before the court. He then went directly after the issue itself from several points. Bennett had argued the relocation of the service violated a transfer agreement that was put in place in 1981 between the provincial government and the International Grenfell Association.
Pritchard said there was no breach because the airplane that was relocated in 2010 was not the same aircraft included in the original transfer of assets from the association to the province in 1981. According to Pritchard, former health minister Jerome Kennedy and the provincial cabinet had the authority to make the decision and there was no evidence that their power had been abused, there was no violation of the law and no evidence of any political misconduct or corruption.
Bennett had raised the question of whether the decision was made by Kennedy alone or if he had cabinet approval since there is no record of the decision being made in any minutes of cabinet meetings.
While Kennedy was not compelled to testify before Goodridge, a discovery of him indicated the reasons why government decided to make the move. There had been three serious incidents in Labrador involving tardy response times in the months leading up to the decision. An analysis of the service had indicated that more flights originated out of Goose Bay, that the population base in Labrador was bigger than that of the St. Anthony area and Goose Bay was more centrally located geographically in the region serviced. With the large amount of ongoing industrial activity in Labrador and the growing likelihood of the Lower Churchill Falls hydroelectricity development becoming a reality, government decided that Goose Bay would be a better location for the air ambulance service. Pritchard said the rationale behind government’s decision is evidence of the very opposite of malice or bad faith.
Bennett had also argued that the residents of St. Anthony had their right to vote democratically violated by this decision. He said the decision was made by the Progressive Conservative government after cabinet minister Trevor Taylor resigned from representing the St. Anthony area district and the seat was subsequently filled by Liberal candidate Marshall Dean in a tightly contested byelection.
Prior to that, a committee of government and health officials had agreed that the status quo — an air ambulance service based out of St. Anthony — was acceptable. After the byelection, a new review of the service was ordered and consultant Wesley Drodge, in a report Bennett said was “massaged and manipulated” by government, recommended the relocation. Pritchard said Bennett has not clearly shown that a breach has occurred or how the events of the air ambulance decision are related to the alleged breach.
Bennett said the only remedy for the situation is for government to reinstate the service in St. Anthony while maintaining the transferred service in Goose Bay.
Pritchard said Bennett’s argument was not articulated well, making it difficult to see how such a solution would be appropriate.
Goodridge did not give a specific date as to when he would file his decision on the application before him, but it will likely be weeks or months before he does so.