A Newfoundland MP says Defence Minister Peter MacKay’s office invited him to become familiar with a Cormorant search-and-rescue helicopter, then tried to use it against him in a "stupid" attempt at damage control.
MacKay’s office tried to dig up information about Liberal Scott Simms’s flight on a Gander-based military helicopter more than a year ago – but only after MacKay came under fire for using a helicopter at the end of a fishing holiday, according to a Toronto Star report.
Simms, the MP for Bonavista-Gander-Grand Falls-Windsor, is fighting back.
"It’s typical of what they do," he said of the effort to deflect criticism from MacKay. "It's like this big counter-attack machine."
Emails obtained by the Star show military officials were asked last fall to find information about the time Simms spent learning about a Canadian Forces Cormorant in January 2011. Simms calls it a "familiarization" flight.
"But what I find terribly stupid about this, and just confusing, is that [MacKay's office] sent emails saying, 'We want information on this [military training flight],' but they invited me to go on it," he said.
Simms defended his flight on the helicopter and called on MacKay to take part in similar training.
"All I’m asking for is Peter MacKay to come to Gander and spend a full day doing what I did to understand what search and rescue is all about," said Simms, the MP for Bonavista-Gander-Grand Falls-Windsor.
"The invitation for me to go on this Cormorant was extended by his office. Now all of the sudden it has become a bad thing."
MacKay criticized in September
Speaking during Question Period in the House of Commons on Sept. 22, MacKay said his July 2010 flight was for work, not for personal use.
He said he used a Canadian Forces Cormorant to get to Gander, where he boarded a military aircraft to take him to a government function in Ontario later that day.
Emails that have now been made public show that while MacKay was in Ottawa defending his trip, military officials — including one posted in his office — were asked to find information about Simms's flight on a Gander-based Cormorant.
"Found it. Jan. 17, 2011, [Simms] flew with the standby crew for almost the whole day," Maj. Byron Johnson wrote in an email to RCAF headquarters in Ottawa.
Another email written by Capt. Mike O’Brien of Gander’s 103 Squadron described what Simms did.
"A familiarization flight was carried out to expose and sensitize Mr. Simms to [search and rescue operations]
… the 5.1-hour flight was made of two segments … a simulated search in the Grand Falls-Windsor area and boat training out of Fogo Island," it said.
Friday morning, MacKay didn't stop to speak with reporters after an event he attended in Ottawa.
But in a statement released late in the day, a spokesperson in the minister's office downplayed the quest for information.
"Debate in the House focused on parliamentarians riding on military assets," the statement said. "Information about this flight was relevant to understand in what other instances MPs had flown."