Mysterious military exercise leads to gruff encounter

A man with a camera who stumbled on a military special forces exercise in a small Cape Breton town had his patriotism gruffly questioned by an undercover soldier, and was quizzed about whether he belonged to an anti-government movement.

Small-town military exercise cloaked in secrecy led to man being questioned for taking photos

Members of Canadian Forces Special Operations JTF2 unit storm a ship during an exercise called Operation Nanook off the shores of Churchill, Man. A man with a camera who stumbled on a military special forces exercise in a small Cape Breton town had his patriotism gruffly questioned by an undercover soldier. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

A man with a camera who stumbled on a military special forces exercise in a small Cape Breton town had his patriotism gruffly questioned by an undercover soldier, and was quizzed about whether he belonged to an anti-government movement. 

Robert Westbrook said he was also threatened with arrest and he worried the undercover soldier would lash out and strike him.

"He takes a few steps back and clenches his fist and jaw angrily," Westbrook wrote in an account he posted online. " I truly think for a moment that he's going to take a swing at me."

Westbrook, 46, lives in Port Hawkesbury, N.S., on Cape Breton Island. The town of 3,366 is the last place Westbrook says he'd expect to run into undercover Canadian special forces troops participating in an exercise.

But that's what happened the night of Oct. 25, when Westbrook was confronted by two soldiers dressed in civilian clothes who demanded to know who he was and why he had a camera.

The military has refused an interview on the incident, and only responded to CBC News queries about the incident after several calls and emails and six days of waiting.

Official stone-walling notwithstanding, CBC News has come to learn the exercise included members of Canadian Special Operations Force Command, or CANSOFCOM, as it’s called, and likely included members of the special operations and counterterrorism unit Joint Task Force II.

'Quite strange'

JTF2 is a highly-secretive unit, and its activities are most often kept under wraps by the government. 

Their work has included hunting Taliban leaders and bomb makers in Afghanistan, as well providing military close protection to high-ranking government officials in war zones overseas, including the prime minister.

The unit’s soldiers make up a so-called force of last resort in Canada if ever the country is threatened by violent extremist attack or terrorism.

Although the Port Hawkesbury exercise featured Canadian special operations soldiers, it’s believed the two soldiers who confronted Westbrook were not elite assaulters, but supporting troops.
A truck that unloaded at a normally abandoned call centre in Port Hawkesbury, NS. (Robert Westbrook)

One soldier identified himself as a military policeman, although he was not clothed in the standard military police black uniform or cherry red beret. The other soldier called himself "Adam," and said he was running security for the military "training evolution" that was taking place at that abandoned call centre, just two blocks from Westbrook's house.

Westbrook told CBC News he went down to check out the unusual activity at the abandoned call centre.

"There was quite a bit of activity. So, we thought this was quite strange," he said.

No sign of military exercise

The call centre was a town landmark that once employed as many as 300 locals, but it has been closed for a couple of years.

Now the only activity in the almost 10,000-square-metre office block was a small military recruiting office. But that couldn't account for the 50 or 60 civilian cars and trucks Westbrook said he saw that night.

Westbrook is a freelance photographer, and started taking pictures.

After a few minutes, Westbrook says the first soldier drove up and identified himself as military policeman.

"It puzzled me to no end because ... there was no evidence of any military involvement, there were no signs stating that, no announcement to the public that there was going to be an exercise here. There was no one in uniform, and no military vehicles at all."

Westbrook says he told the officer that he was just there to take some pictures.

'Asked if I was a patriot'

About seven minutes later, Westbrook says, a soldier called "Adam" burst onto the scene demanding to know who Westbrook was and why he was taking pictures.  

Westbrook says he was on public property throughout the encounter and wasn't breaking any laws.

He recorded the conversation on his iPod.

Westbrook says he told "Adam” he was a freelance photographer.

"He immediately got more aggressive and asked if I was patriotic, which I thought was quite a strange question, and I didn't really answer that because I didn't think it was relevant, and I said so.”

According to the recording, "Adam" then dropped the name of the local RCMP detachment commander, Sgt. Shelby Miller, who he said was a "good friend," with whom he was in "direct contact."

"So, I don't want to call Shelby Miller and have him come down here and deal with this," "Adam" said.

Westbrook said he viewed this exchange as a threat of arrest. It got his back up and, as a result, Westbrook says he dug in his heels.

"I was quite insulted by that because I wasn't breaking the law and I was fully aware that I wasn't breaking the law. At that point [“Adam”] got quite visibly upset. I thought he might actually punch me."

Westbrook edited down a seven-minute version of his audio recording and posted it on YouTube. It's been viewed nearly 7,000 times.

The recording shows "Adam" returning to that question about Westbrook's patriotism.

"Clearly, you're not patriotic, " he said, before turning to a new tack:  “Are you here as some sort of anti-government movement?" he said.

"Adam" eventually walked away, and so did Westbrook.

'Committed to positive community relations'

Westbrook says politically he's "middle of the road," and at least as patriotic as the next person.

"If by patriotism you define that as love of one's country, yeah, I would say I am patriotic. I love Canada. That is why I chose to become a citizen here."

Westbrook was an American who married a Canadian woman and became a citizen in August.

But the encounter with soldiers of his new country's army left him shaking his head about the professionalism of those who planned the secret exercise.
A bus that unloaded into a normally empty parking lot in Port Hawkesbury, NS. (Robert Westbrook)

"It doesn't seem to make a lot of sense that they would be interested in that level of secrecy and yet expect no reaction when they locate themselves in a call centre that has been a major employer over the past decade in the area and expect people to not ask questions."

Miller, the RCMP detachment commander, says he was aware the military exercise was taking place, but that he's not friends with "Adam."

"Never met the man," Miller said.

In the end, defence officials provided a brief written statement.

"The Military Police are firmly committed to positive community relations," the statement said.

"Additional training will now be afforded to unit members involved to better prepare them for situations of this nature."


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