Members of the Canadian Forces were instructed to investigate Liberal MP Scott Simms, as news broke of Defence Minister Peter MacKay’s flight in a Cormorant helicopter on the Gander River in July 2010.
According to the minister’s office, it was standard research.
On Friday, the Toronto Star released a collection of internal Department of Defence emails, obtained through an access to information request, that include members of the military posing questions and receiving answers regarding the MP for Bonavista-Gander-Grand Falls-Windsor and his past use of Cormorant flights.
A spokesman for the minister suggested MacKay was not digging up dirt on Simms, but simply gathering information required for debate in the House of Commons.
“Debate in the House focused on parliamentarians riding on military assets,” noted a statement offered by the minister’s office. “Information about this flight was relevant to understand in what other instances MPs had flown (on SAR aircraft).”
The news stories around MacKay’s helicopter flight started flying Sept. 21, when a CTV report raised debate over whether the flight was for the minister to gain a greater understanding of search and rescue (SAR) capabilities, or simply to get him to the Gander airport from a private fishing lodge.
Simms publicly criticized the flight, alongside other opposition MPs, as personal use of a SAR resource.
According to the emails released Friday, a back and forth began among military personnel in Gander and Ottawa, as the subject made it to the floor of the House of Commons on Feb. 22.
Major Byron Johnson in Gander emailed three majors, based in Ottawa, to update them on his look at Simms’ interactions with military search and rescue resources.
“Staff continuing search but nothing found thus far placing MP Simms aboard Cormorant,” Johnson wrote. “Will advise if something located.”
A followup, sent shortly after noon the same day, begins with two words: “Found it.”
The email went on to state Simms had flown “for almost a whole day” on Jan. 17, 2011. This prompted a flurry of questions from Ottawa — including who requested the flight and whether or not it was paid for by Simms.
The flight with Simms, stated Capt. Mike O’Brien at 9 Wing Gander, was to “sensitize Mr. Simms to SAR Ops,” just over five hours was spent in flight in that venture and O’Brien was not aware of any payments made to the Royal Canadian Air Force.
A later email noted Simms’ flight was arranged out of the minister’s office, following a Dec. 9, 2010 press release in which Simms criticized SAR response times.
Simms said Friday he finds the action taken by MacKay in this case is “odd.”
“It’s bad enough that, I think, the Conservatives are not providing the right amount of assets and resources for SAR operations, now they’ve got them tasked to gathering material on opposition MPs. I mean, why didn’t MacKay call me?”
In that case, Simms said, the day of emails and research by military personnel could have been avoided.
Despite this, Simms recommended discussions now be re-focused on what he sees as the need for more SAR resources, specifically new fixed wing SAR aircraft and a reconsideration of ground SAR protocols — particularly following the recent death of Burton Winters.
The 14-year-old from Makkovik froze to death before he could be rescued. His body found Feb. 1, three days after he was first reported missing and 19 kilometres from his abandoned snowmobile. Winters case involved cross-over between jurisdictions, but has raised overarching criticism of existing SAR services.
NDP MP for St. John’s East, Jack Harris is another critic of MacKay’s 2010 Cormorant flight and is also mentioned in the Sept. 22 emails.
“It’s unfortunate that the first instinct is to try to find something on somebody else instead of acknowledging the legitimacy of the complaint here,” he said Friday. “This is the kind of stuff that goes on in politics. It’s distasteful frankly.”
Yet Harris said — like Simms — he would also welcome redirecting the conversation back to improving the national SAR system. He too noted the death of Makkovik’s Burton Winters while speaking with The Telegram.
Harris has a private members’ motion on SAR response times that will be up for debate in the next session, proposing better standards including a single, 24/7 response time as opposed to the current two-tier responses dependant on the time of call.
Read the email exchange here.