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The loss of seven members of the Canadian Armed Forces in the span of just a few weeks is virtually unprecedented in peacetime.
But that’s exactly what has left the Canadian military — by all accounts, a tight-knit organization — reeling in recent weeks after six crew members died in a Cyclone helicopter crash while engaged in NATO training exercises in Greece, and a Snowbirds public affairs officer lost her life when the jet she was in crashed shortly after takeoff in Kamloops, B.C. following a series of air shows aimed at boosting public morale.
“It’s going from one accident to another, having the loss of six Canadian Armed Forces members and then just a short time after with the Snowbird crash, it does take an immediate hit, and given Canada and the rest of the world is going through this COVID-19 environment it makes it an even more stark contrast to the realities that we’re facing,” Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said in an exclusive interview with SaltWire Network.
Sajjan has just been in Nova Scotia — where the Cyclone detachment was stationed, where a number of the crew were from and where Snowbirds Capt. Jennifer Casey called home for much of her life — meeting with the families of those lost and other members. The losses hit the province especially hard, as they happened just weeks after the worst mass shooting in Canadian history left 22 people dead.
“Our focus remains on looking after the families of our fallen, which we always do, but I always make it a personal point of mine to go out and visit and to let them know how much Canadians appreciate what they do,” Sajjan said.
“Even in peacetime we have tragedies like this, and when they know that Canadians have their back it continues to motivate them so they can keep on mission.”
The Canadian Armed Forces now has the difficult task of completing significant flight safety investigations into both crashes and simultaneously undertaking a recovery mission for the remains of the missing Cyclone crew.
Sajjan said he has confidence that once the investigation into the incident gives officials enough preliminary information to make a decision, both fleets, which are under operational pause, will be back in action pending any changes that need to be made.
“Once a decision is made, if the decision is made to lift the operational pause for this, we will make sure that the new Cyclone is taken out to (HMCS) Fredericton,” he said.
“The capability (the Cyclones) bring to the table is absolutely immense.”
Similarly, Sajjan said the Department of National Defence has every intention of continuing with the Snowbirds operations as soon as it is deemed safe to do so.
“Regardless of what device you're in or what job … even when you take tragic losses like this the first thing you normally want to do is get back onto mission, so there's no surprise to me this is exactly what the Snowbirds are looking for,” Sajjan said.
“We look forward to seeing them back in the skies and putting smiles on Canadians' faces because that's what members of the CAF do, they get back onto mission regardless of the challenges they might face.”
Danger 'the nature of the job'
Despite the two back-to-back tragic accidents, Sajjan said he hasn't and he doesn’t believe Canadians or CAF members have lost confidence in the safety of the Canadian military or its equipment.
“In the military we do very dangerous things because that's the nature of the job and they need to train in a very difficult environment because that prepares them for the difficult days. Unfortunately, we do face tragedies like this, but what we do first of all is look after the families and then we learn from this and make any changes necessary to improve our protocols for the future,” he said.
Sajjan said the safety procedures and training protocols that members go through are extreme.
“We would never put our members' lives in jeopardy whatsoever, so the decision to send our people out in the safest parameters is always the number one priority for us,” he said.
“I have the utmost faith in our people, in our equipment, but most importantly in our members.”