Defence Minister Peter MacKay was the focus of questions from opposition MPs from Newfoundland and Labrador in the House of Commons Thursday.
Those MPs were demanding to know why MacKay was flown from a private fishing lodge on the Gander river by a Canadian Forces helicopter in July 2010.
MacKay said he was vacationing on his own dime for three days in central Newfoundland.
“I cut the trip short to take part in a search and rescue demonstration. I went on to do a government announcement later that day,” he said.
The search and rescue demonstration involved his pickup by a Cormorant helicopter out of 9 Wing Gander. That aircraft ultimately landed back in Gander, where the minister went on to board a separate military asset to fly to London, Ont. to announce federal funding for upgrades to armoured vehicles.
MacKay said if the helicopter he was on had been needed at any point, it would have been re-tasked.
According to the minister’s office, two Cormorants were available on standby in Gander that day and only one was used in the demonstration.
Having read the initial reports from CTV about the helicopter run late Wednesday, Liberal MP for Avalon Scott Andrews came out swinging on the subject early Thursday, releasing a statement saying MacKay “blatantly abused a SAR helicopter by using it as a taxi service.”
He and fellow Liberal MP for Bonavista Gander Grand Falls-Windsor Scott Simms were apparently unimpressed by the minister’s responses during question period. When speaking with The Telegram, Simms called MacKay’s statements on why the Cormorant run was made “lame.”
Simms said if the Department of National Defence could turn down a request from NDP MP for St. John’s Mount South Ryan Cleary to tour 9 Wing Gander earlier this year — because the visit would interrupt the “high operational tempo” of the facility (as stated in a reply from a departmental assistant) — he could not see how MacKay could request a SAR demonstration on the “day of.”
“If that doesn’t interfere with regular operations what does?”
The Telegram could not confirm prior to deadline when the plans for the search and rescue demonstration were first made.
Meanwhile, Cleary was also not satisfied with MacKay’s statements on the matter. “He’s a hypocrite,” he said.
Like Simms and Andrews, he claimed MacKay used the SAR helicopter as a “taxi service.”
He was asked whether it might not be reasonable for the minister to have scheduled in a demonstration of a key search and rescue asset. “I’m saying I don’t buy it,” he said.
NDP Defence critic and St. John’s East MP Jack Harris, who began the question period exchange, also expressed skepticism. “I would seriously question whether there was any search and rescue demonstration going on, frankly,” Harris said.
He said the public will have to judge for themselves whether the minister acted appropriately, adding it will also be left for the prime minister to “respond appropriately.”
Attempts were made to tie the debate on MacKay’s search and rescue helicopter use to the upcoming closure of the search and rescue sub-centre in St. John’s, since half an hour on a Cormorant is alleged to cost taxpayers about $16,000 in operational expenses.
Yet a man who has been out front on the search and rescue sub-centre issue, rescue co-ordinator Merv Wiseman, said MacKay’s actions should not be condemned on face.
“If that’s all legitimate, than I believe the minister’s involvement on getting on that helicopter is quite legitimate as well. We should not have a problem with that,” he said.
“I believe that it is infinitely important for people in a position like Peter MacKay to really have an understanding of basic search and rescue capabilities — whether it’s at the MRSC (search and rescue in St. John’s) or whether it’s with helicopters or fixed-wing.”
However, Wiseman said he would feel differently if presented with evidence the helicopter run was not for the purpose of evaluating training, equipment and/or search and rescue capability.