The boy who walked into his­tory

The Compass - - OPINION - Bur­ton K. Janes lives in Bay Roberts. His col­umn ap­pears in The Com­pass ev­ery week. He can be reached at bur­tonj@nfld.net

Prior to Jan. 29, 2012, the name of Bur­ton Win­ters was known to fam­ily and friends in and around the northe r n Labrador com­mu­nity o f Makkovik. Since that fateful day, how­ever, his name is known far and wide. In­deed, the events sur­round­ing his death have re­ver­ber­ated through­out the na­tion and else­where.

The 14-year-old boy left home on his snow­mo­bile and trav­elled over the un­sta­ble sea ice. When his ma­chine be­came stuck on the end­less ex­panse of white, he be­came lost. De­ter­mined to reach home, he walked 19 kilo­me­tres through the track­less snow. Even­tu­ally, ex­po­sure on the ice leading to hy­pother­mia claimed his young life.

Four days later, searchers lo­cated Bur­ton’s body. Early on, cru­cial er­rors were made, er­rors that point to the mas­sive short­com­ings in Canada’s search and res­cue sys­tem.

In the aftermath of Bur­ton’s death, his story was chron­i­cled by Michael Friis Jo­hansen, a jour­nal­ist who has called Labrador home since 1990. In ad­di­tion to writ­ing for a va­ri­ety of me­dia out­lets, he is also a colum­nist for Transcon­ti­nen­tal Me­dia.

His book, “The Boy Who Walked,” is a tract for our times, ev­i­denced by the sub­ti­tle, “The Death of Bur­ton Win­ters and the Pol­i­tics of Search and Res­cue.” His is a de­scrip­tive treat­ment of the al­most un­think­able tragedy.

My good friend and fel­low au­thor, Ben­jamin W. Pow­ell Sr., orig­i­nally of Car­bon­ear, New­found­land, but now the pa­tri­arch of Char­lot­te­town, Labrador, of­ten said to me, “A good writer takes his read­ers on a jour­ney.” If this is true, then Jo­hansen is a writer par ex­cel­lence. He sets out to in­ves­ti­gate what went wrong leading to Bur­ton’s death.

Jo­hansen be­gins his stud­ied in­quiry by set­ting the con­text. He re­flects on the land, the people, the church, the town, the chil­dren and the Rangers.

Labrador is not for the faint of heart at the best of times.

“It does not,” Jo­hansen says, “eas­ily wel­come set­tlers, and the people ... had to prove that they were as tough as the land in or­der to sur­vive.”

A word por­trait of Bur­ton Win­ters then emerges. The im­pres­sion­able boy has been de­scribed as funny, quiet, lov­ing, friendly, re­served, imag­i­na­tive, in­tel­li­gent; a son who would make any par­ent proud.

“He was so good,” his mother, Paulette Win­ters-Rice, says, sum­ming up the feel­ings of many.

In vivid de­tail and with great pathos, Jo­hansen re­con­structs Bur­ton’s out­ing and or­deal. The reader vi­car­i­ously trav­els with the teenager as he jams his snow­mo­bile be­tween mas­sive slabs of ice, then continues his jour­ney on foot.

“Cold kills in stages,” Jo­hansen ex­plains. “Hy­pother­mia pro­gresses through a se­ries of symp­toms that usu­ally be­gin with mild shiv­er­ing, in­creased heart rate, and rapid breath­ing. As the cold pen­e­trates, the body lim­its blood flow to the ex­trem­i­ties, sav­ing most of the blood for the torso in or­der to keep the vi­tal or­gans warm. If the body is al­lowed to cool even more, the shiv­er­ing be­comes more vi­o­lent and the suf­ferer loses mus­cle con­trol …”

The mo­ment came when Bur­ton “could go no far­ther. He had been too cold for too long and his body could no longer keep any part of it­self warm enough for life.”

No par­ent can dis­pas­sion­ately read this de­scrip­tion of hy­pother­mia with­out a tear in the eye, a lump in the throat and a pain in the heart.

In the sec­ond part of his book, Jo­hansen pro­vides an anatomy of the four-day search, from Sun­day, Jan. 29 to Wed­nes­day, Feb.1.

In the fi­nal sec­tion, the au­thor en­gages the reader by re­flect­ing on how a small boy walked into his­tory, spark­ing a na­tion­wide de­bate. There was a con­certed ef­fort by the pub­lic “to wrest some­thing pos­i­tive out of the ter­ri­bly tragedy.” Along the way, Jo­hansen high­lights com­mu­ni­ca­tion break­downs, de­layed and in­ad­e­quate re­sponse, equip­ment fail­ure, ju­ris­dic­tional con­fu­sion, a lax ap­pre­ci­a­tion of the ur­gency of the sit­u­a­tion, ques­tion­able pro­to­cols, in­ter-gov­ern­men­tal squab­bling, and out-of-or­der life­sav­ing equip­ment.

Did Bur­ton Win­ters die in vain? What will be his last­ing legacy? Will it be a case of out of sight, out of mind? That is the worst pos­si­ble thing that could re­sult from his death.

Jo­hansen sug­gests: “even if Bur­ton hadn’t gone miss­ing, there is cause to call an in­quiry into the federal and provin­cial search and res­cue sys­tem.”

Labrador MP Lib­eral Yvonne Jones in­sists: “It’s never too late to do an in­quiry. I will al­ways push for one.”

Per­haps the fi­nal word, at least for now, should be left with Bur­ton’s mother who plain­tively pleads, “Why can’t they just tell us the truth?” One can only hope.

“The Boy Who Walked: The Death of Bur­ton Win­ters and the Pol­i­tics of Search and Res­cue” is pub­lished by Boul­der Pub­li­ca­tions of Por­tu­gal Cove-St. Philip’s.

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