By Steve Mertl
VANCOUVER, B.C. — Justin Trudeau lost his brother to a B.C. back-country avalanche, but the son of late prime minister Pierre Trudeau says he opposes anything that impinges on Canadians' ability to enjoy their country's wild spaces.
"There should be absolutely no limiting access to the back country for Canadians," said Trudeau, who taught in a B.C. private school before becoming a Quebec Liberal MP.
"I think our right to go play outside in the wilderness is something that should not be the business of government."
Trudeau's comments come in the wake of a deadly avalanche recently that killed two and injured 31, an event some are calling a miracle because it had the potential to kill dozens.
The avalanche appeared to have started after some daredevil snowmobilers were climbing high up the mountain side, prompting some people to demand the government more closely regulate the recreation.
Michel Trudeau died in 1998 when he was swept into Kokanee Lake by an avalanche while on a back-country ski excursion. His body was never found.
Since then, Justin Trudeau and his mother Margaret have worked to improve avalanche warning systems and educate back-country users about the risks.
The message is sinking in with skiers, snow-shoers and hikers, Trudeau said in an interview from Ottawa. But it's been a tougher sell with snowmobilers.
"The amount of terrain snowmobilers tend to cover means they haven't been as engaged in the kind of monitoring of safety, of forecasting of the snow conditions on sites as we've gotten many, many skiers or back-country enthusiasts to do," he said.
"When you're on a $20,000-$50,000 machine that can go 150 kilometres an hour you feel you can outrun just about anything and you're safe somehow. It's very much a part of the attitude of the sport."
The Canadian Avalanche Centre had issued warnings for the last four weekends that the Revelstoke area where the Big Iron Shoot-Out was being held was at high risk of a slide.
B.C. Solicitor General Kash Heed said the province is moving ahead with a plan announced last fall to register all B.C. off-road vehicles, including snowmobiles, by November 2011 and implement safety measures such as mandatory helmet use.
But there are no plans to restrict access to the back country, he said.
"At the end of the day, these people that make the decision on their own to go into that back country and engage in the behaviour that they're engaged in right now is something that no matter what we do as a province, it's going to be difficult for us to control and regulate," he said.
But, noting the Big Iron participants drove past a sign warning about the extreme avalanche danger, Heed hinted the government might consider closures if people don't act responsibly in such cases.
But Heed added that people who ignore warning signs might not pay attention to closure signs either.
Trudeau said rules make sense on private property, ski resorts or parks. But those who venture into the back country understand there's an inherent risk, he said.
Snowmobilers remain opposed to having their back-country fun subject to government rules.
"We're not in favour of regulating the back country for users," Les Auston, executive director of the B.C. Snowmobile Federation, said Monday.
"There's all types of users out there and regulations require enforcement and all of that stuff. That would probably be a nightmare."
But the wife of one of the avalanche victims said some regulatory body should have been paying attention.
The event should have been called off, Janine Snortland told CKNW radio in Vancouver.
She said her husband was no risk-taker.
"When there are (avalanche) warnings, they shouldn't even have allowed that event to happen," she told the station.
"I knew they had sold tickets, called Trail Passes, so they're making a profit from this. It's not just people going up this hill; it's an organized event by someone."
Right now, British Columbia is wide open when it comes to snowmobile use.
Users don't require any kind of licence to drive, there is no minimum age and no helmet requirement.
The machines themselves don't have licence plates, only a one-time registration sticker that is not readily accessible to police through their computer systems, said Al Hodgson, president of the Association of B.C. Snowmobile Clubs.
Most other provinces and U.S. states regulate snowmobilers and their sleds more strictly, he said.
Auston said instead of regulation, his federation favours better education about avalanche risks.
"This is about people making better informed personal decisions when they're out in the back country," he said from Revelstoke.
Snowmobiling is like any other recreational activity when it comes to weighing risk, said Auston.
"When you get in your boat you make a choice to put on that life jacket and you make a choice whether that water's too rough or not, and those are personal choices," he said.
"It is a personal choice to go up there (high-marking) and to out-climb your buddy. It's a thrill."
Hodgson sat on a B.C. Coroners Service panel that looked into avalanche awareness among snowmobilers after 19 died in the back country last winter.
He said he was shocked to learn the Big Iron Shoot-Out had gone ahead.
"I was mortified," said Hodgson, whose group broke away from the snowmobile federation a few years ago. "I was upset and angry."
Hodgson said competitors were racing their high-performance sleds up Turbo Hill, so named because it requires lots of horsepower to reach the top.
"I know the Turbo Hill area," said Hodgson. "The only place you can watch anything happen on that hill is at the base of the hill and the terrain trap. It's a classic setup for a tragedy.
"To have multiple people high-marking after 80 centimetres of snow with the base in the condition it was, I mean it breaks every single rule about avalanche safety."
Hodgson said his group is not opposed to the idea of billing people for the cost of being rescued - something search-and-rescue experts oppose because they worry people won't call for help.
But he's not in favour of regulating back-country snowmobiling.