Canadian special forces operated an aircraft equipped with surveillance equipment over protests in downtown Ottawa despite a military directive that was supposed to prohibit such activities.
The Jan. 27 directive stipulated that Canadian Forces vehicles and personnel were to avoid the Ottawa protest and Royal Canadian Air Force planes were not to fly over the “Freedom Convoy” demonstration.
But Canadian special forces leaders reasoned they didn’t have to follow the military directive since the surveillance plane they were using was owned by a private defense contractor.
“The amplifications provided by the RCAF through this directive did not apply to these training activities, which were contracted outside of the RCAF,” National Defense spokesman Dan Le Bouthillier confirmed to this newspaper.
The US-registered King Air aircraft was airborne over Ottawa on Jan. 28, Jan. 29, Feb. 3, Feb. 10 and Feb. 11, according to data collected by Steffan Watkins, an Ottawa researcher who tracks the movements of vessels and planes.
Watkins said the aircraft could have flown anywhere in the Ottawa region if the situation only called for regular training. But instead, the plane was involved in specific flight patterns indicating surveillance of the activities on the ground, he noted.
The flights have become controversial, with Conservative MPs raising questions in the House of Commons about whether the Liberal government had authorized illegal surveillance of the protesters.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau confirmed the flights were part of military training, but said the plane was not involved in surveillance of the demonstrators. He stated the questions from Conservative MPs were “dangerously close to misinformation and disinformation.”
When questions were first asked about the flights, National Defense tried to avoid being linked to the aircraft. Then the department acknowledged the flights were part of military training involving intelligence gathering and surveillance equipment.
It was only after military sources revealed the aircraft was being operated by Canadian special forces that National Defense acknowledged that link.
After an article appeared in this newspaper, other sources emerged to provide details about the Jan. 27 RCAF directive that prohibited military flights over the Ottawa protests.
Le Bouthillier said the directive “was issued to reduce the risk of generating a false perception of CAF (Canadian Armed Forces) activities, personnel and presence being associated with the domestic event at the time.”
“The Canadian Armed Forces regrets the timing of the pre-planned CAF training exercise flight that was unrelated to, but took place at the same time as, the domestic event,” Le Bouthillier added.
Protesters occupied downtown Ottawa, demanding government remove the rules designed to prevent the spread of COVID-19. But other demonstrators also called for the overthrow of the Canadian government.
Canadian special forces conducted the training in preparation to receive their own King Air aircraft outfitted with surveillance equipment.
Those aircraft, the first to be delivered in the summer, will give the Canadian military the ability to collect data for missions overseas and at home. The modified small passenger planes are outfitted with surveillance equipment allowing for the interception of cellphone calls, radio transmissions and other communications. Electro-optical sensors would also allow crews onboard the aircraft to track the movement of individuals and vehicles on the ground, the Canadian military has noted. Canadian special forces had access to similar aircraft in Afghanistan to track and target insurgents.
The new surveillance aircraft will be based at CFB Trenton, Ont.
Canada paid the US government $188 million for the aircraft. The overall value of the project is estimated to cost taxpayers $247 million.
The US military operates similar surveillance aircraft.
A maintenance contract for the new planes was awarded to a team consisting of General Dynamics Mission Systems-Canada, from Ottawa and Voyageur Aviation Corporation, from North Bay.
Canadian special forces has conducted other training to prepare for the arrival of new surveillance aircraft. In October, members of the Canadian Special Operations Forces Command went to the US to work with that country’s special forces in developing tactics and procedures for use with the planes.
In 2019, US special forces personnel were in Ottawa and Petawawa doing similar training. In mid-November of that year, members of 427 Special Operations Aviation Squadron and the Canadian Special Operations Regiment, both based in Petawawa, conducted an exercise supported by one of the American aircraft. The US plane operated from the Ottawa airport, and flights occurred between Petawawa and Mansfield-et-Pontefract, Que., according to the Canadian military.