An air force officer warned that Defence Minister Peter MacKay’s ride on a search and rescue (SAR) chopper risked political controversy — and that’s exactly what happened.
Opposition politicians pointed to documents obtained by The Toronto Star under access to information legislation as proof MacKay was using the Cormorant helicopter for inappropriate travel.
In July 2010, MacKay was on vacation at a remote fishing lodge on the Gander River. MacKay said he had to cut his vacation short, and arranged the time with the SAR helicopter as a demonstration of the unit’s capabilities.
“So, when the guy who’s fishing at the fishing hole next to the minister sees the big yellow helicopter arrive and decides to use his cellphone to video the minister getting on board and post it on Youtube, who will be answering the mail on that one?” an officer asked in an email.
“If we are tasked to do this we of course will comply — given the negative press though, I would likely recommend against it, especially in view of the fact that the air force receives (or at least used to) regular (access to information requests) specifically targeting travel on CF aircraft by ministers.”
A spokesman for MacKay said the ride was completely appropriate as a demonstration of the SAR capabilities of the unit.
“Minister MacKay left personal time to return to work early,” the spokesman said. “As has also been stated before, Minister MacKay received a demonstration of the capabilities of our search and rescue technicians.”
The emails obtained by The Toronto Star, though, indicate that initially the request from MacKay’s staff was only about giving the minister a ride.
Only a day after the initial request did officials say the airlift would be under the “guise” of a search-and-rescue training operation.
In the House of Commons Thursday, MacKay was asked to answer about the “guise” from Liberal MP Scott Simms, whose riding takes in Gander.
“What’s also a guise is for the honourable member (Simms), who we know also flew in a Cormorant helicopter on several occasions, to stand up and criticize,” MacKay said.
Simms, speaking to The Telegram, said it was a bogus comparison, because he spent a full day with the Gander unit, seeing what they can do.
“I didn’t use it as a taxi,” he said. “I mean, this was 30 minutes in the air, and this was the part that was supposed to be, you know, let’s see how you guys train.”
“The guys and girls at the base — the SAR techs, the pilots, the flight engineers — God love ’em, because they’re the ultimate heroes and this is the wrong reason for them to be in the news.”
Former NDP defence critic Jack Harris said the only thing that would really count as a search and rescue was the fact that MacKay had to be hoisted into the helicopter because there wasn’t room for the chopper to land.
“You could call that a demonstration of the use of a hoist if you want, but the reality is that this is clearly being done for the convenience of the minister’s transportation,” he said. “This doesn’t pass the smell test.”
Following the flight in the Cormorant helicopter, MacKay got into a government Challenger jet and flew to Ontario to participate in a government announcement.