Prime Minister Stephen Harper gave visiting European delegates a free flight home to Brussels last week, after adding a Toronto reception to their schedule, CBC News has learned.

That reception made it impossible for the visitors to make a planned commercial flight from Ottawa, and thereby get to a Saturday meeting in Brussels. The cost of the Airbus flight is estimated at more than $300,000.

The prime minister's spokesman, Jason MacDonald, described the free flight as "a courtesy" to ensure the summit would not be "cut short."

But the summit was held in Ottawa and the only event on the schedule in Toronto was a reception attended by Harper, the EU dignitaries and several hundred representatives of the business community.

Herman Van Rompuy, president of the European Council, and Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, were in Ottawa Friday to sign a free-trade agreement between Canada and the European Union.

They were greeted with a ceremonial military guard on Parliament Hill. The two European leaders normally fly commercial and arrived in Ottawa on an Air Canada flight from the United Nations meeting in New York.

However, just four days before the summit, the Harper government added a reception for the Toronto business community to the itinerary — meaning the visiting delegation would miss their flight to Brussels. For that reason, Harper offered them the Canadian Forces Airbus he normally uses himself on foreign trips.

Like a 'British royal tour'

The last-minute change of plan caused officials to scramble to provide extra motorcades and security for the two visiting leaders, beyond the level that they would normally get as so-called "Level 3s" for protocol and security purposes. The two are not ranked as high as heads of states or prime ministers.

But according to an e-mail sent to the RCMP's Protective Policing branch and obtained by CBC News, there was "an expectation of a complete package" from the Prime Minister's Office for the visitors.

Stephen Harper with EU leaders on Parliament Hill

Prime Minister Stephen Harper gestures as he stands with European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, right, and European Council President Herman Van Rompuy on Parliament Hill Friday in Ottawa. The leaders heralded a Canada-EU free-trade agreement, although the deal must still be ratified. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

"It is a 'British royal tour/visit equivalence' from the Centre's perspective," the memo says.

"The Centre" is how bureaucrats refer to the Prime Minister's Office.

The memo goes on, "The significance of this particular summit due to CETA [the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement] is paramount. The prime minister has offered the CF [Canadian Forces] Airbus to return the leaders to Brussels for example. With only four working days to plan this, we would be grateful if we could count on your support — these visits being designated as two level 3s makes it difficult if not impossible to do what we need."

That suggests the two European leaders were upgraded to receive the royal treatment requested.

The modified Airbus A310 costs $22,537 an hour to operate, according to official figures in 2012. The price has likely risen since then, but, at that rate, and assuming 15 hours' flight time from Toronto to Brussels and back, the trip would have cost $338,055.

That doesn't include the cost of the reception, where Canadian quartet The Tenors and a military jazz band entertained Toronto's business elite. (On the trip from Ottawa, the European delegation travelled on the Airbus with the prime minister and his staff.)

A high-priced 'victory lap'

Among the invited guests at the Royal York Hotel event in Toronto was Greg Thomas, director of the Canadian Taxpayers' Federation — a supporter of free trade but not of lavish spending. Thomas said his organization would send a cheque to the government for the cost of his attendance, and added that the Airbus freebie was a waste of taxpayers' money.

"Victory lap or not, there's no excuse on blowing 300 grand on short notice for what amounts to a political show."

"Many Canadians," Thomas added, "can stomach the expense of hosting the royal family when they come to Canada." But, he said, "having royal treatment afforded to European bureaucrats is not something that's going to go down, I think, in any part of the country.... They could have done this in Ottawa. They could have saved $300,000 and it would have had the same effect."

The NDP's Don Davies, MP for Vancouver Kingsway, agreed.

"This is a last-minute attempt by the Harper government to use these officials as props in their continued staging for Canadians' use. And that's what makes this, I think, an inappropriate use of taxpayers' dollars."

MacDonald, Harper's spokesman, told CBC News, "The Airbus was offered as a courtesy to our European Union guests and helped ensure that no elements of Friday's summit were cut short."

Watch Terry MIlewski's full report Sunday night on The National, on CBC Television, CBC News Network and


  • An earlier version of this story said that the prime minister's plane is an Airbus 320. In fact, his plane is a modified Airbus A310.
    Sep 29, 2014 7:22 AM ET