MacKay defends use of military search-and-rescue chopper
Published Thursday, September 22, 2011 9:09PM EDT
Defence Minister Peter MacKay is standing by his use of a Canadian Forces search-and-rescue helicopter at the end of a summer vacation last year, calling the 30-minute flight from a remote fishing lodge to the nearest airport a "training exercise."
On Wednesday, CTV's Ottawa Bureau Chief Robert Fife reported that MacKay used one of the three Cormorant search-and-rescue helicopters stationed in Newfoundland and Labrador to fly him from the private lodge an airport in Gander, Nfld.
Military sources said the order to collect MacKay came from the defence minister's own office. That's prompted calls from opposition MPs for MacKay to repay the cost of the flight.
However, MacKay's office said he shortened his trip by a day in order to take part in what they described as a 30-minute training exercise, which had been planned, then cancelled, on several previous occasions.
MacKay came under fire in question period in the House of Commons on Thursday, accused by New Democrat MP Jack Harris of using the military as "his own personal chauffer service."
"His government is paying consultants to tell them how to save money but the minister of defence uses a helicopter that should be on standby for search and rescue to pick him up from a personal fishing trip," Harris said.
"This helicopter was ordered on the day, Mr. Speaker, from his office in Ottawa. How can this minister possibly justify such an inappropriate use of public funds?"
MacKay reiterated that he shortened his vacation in order to participate in the training exercise and get a first-hand look at the work of the search and rescue crews operating out of 9 Wing Gander.
"Had any emergency arisen that would have required search-and-rescue access they would of course have been immediately diverted," he said in the Commons.
MacKay charged that many MPs, including Harris, have participated in similar training exercises over the years.
"As the member would know, having participated in the parliamentary program with the Canadian Forces, members of parliament -- 20 members including himself -- took part in search and rescue activities in the past," MacKay said.
But opposition MPs said that search-and-rescue training exercises are full-day events.
As Harris put it, "being picked up at a cost of $16,000 from a fishing camp is not the way you learn how search-and-rescue helicopters operate"
A military source told CTV News that the situation was unusual.
"This is not a common practice . . . this is the only time a search-and-rescue asset was used as shuttle service," the source said.
The Department of National Defence has three Cormorant helicopters based out of Gander, N.L. Together, they are expected to cover a massive region of eastern Canada 24 hours a day.
"I think it was a case of, ‘I need a lift, can someone please pick me up?'" said Liberal MP Scott Simms.
"What are you going to do in 30 minutes, really?" the Newfoundland MP said on CTV's Power Play on Thursday evening. "And it was awfully convenient to go from point A to point B."
Simms added that he believes MacKay "had a lapse in judgement" regarding the flight.
Military sources say no search-and-rescue demonstration was planned until the very day MacKay's office made the request to pick him up.
DND documents say the total annual cost per flying hour is $32,232 to operate a Cormorant helicopter, and MacKay's flight was about 30 minutes long.
MacKay's office refused to say who owned the private fishing lodge and who else was there, but did say none of those involved had business dealings with the government.
Meanwhile, some residents in MacKay's Nova Scotia are voicing anger at the notion that he may have misused a search-and-rescue chopper.
"I think he should pay for it," said one man.
With a report from CTV Ottawa Bureau Chief Robert Fife