Ideas·Ideas Afternoon

How Cold War anxiety and citizen science fuelled Canada's massive UFO report files

Researcher Matthew Hayes is looking into nearly 15,000 pages of documents detailing UFO sightings. He hopes to learn more about what these sightings, and the obsessive documentation of them, say about the nature of science and observation.

Canadian government quietly collected thousands of citizen reports of UFO and alien sightings

From the 1950s to the mid-1990s, the Canadian government quietly collected and documented thousands of citizen reports detailing UFO sightings or alien encounters. (Ben Shannon/CBC)

Flying saucers. Little green men. Mysterious flashes in the sky.

They're all common elements in reported sightings of paranormal phenomena from around the world.

One might wonder who would take the time to listen to accounts of aliens from people who were otherwise going about their daily business.

It turns out that, for decades, the Canadian government did just that.

Matthew Hayes, a PhD student at Trent University in Peterborough, Ont., has been looking into nearly 15,000 pages of documents detailing UFO sightings that the Canadian government had collected between the 1950s and 1990s. (Steph Hayes)

Matthew Hayes, a PhD student at Trent University in Peterborough, Ont., has been looking into nearly 15,000 pages of documents detailing UFO sightings. They're publicly available in an online database run by Library and Archives Canada.

"I'm not out to prove it one way or the other: whether aliens exist, or whether UFOs exist. I'm really just interested in it as a social phenomenon," he told Ideas.

"What did UFOs mean to scientists and politicians, and to the military in Canada? What did they do about it, and how do they understand it?"

The earliest recorded UFO reports date back to shortly after the end of the Second World War. During the war, Canadians might have looked to the sky worried they would spot incoming enemy aircraft. Some people reported sightings to the RCMP.

The government came up with a formal questionnaire for investigators to use when people reported a UFO sighting.

(Ben Shannon/CBC)

Many of the documents Hayes is studying come from the results of this questionnaire. Others are memos between government officials debating what to do with the questionnaire responses.

Among some of the encounters described in the files:

  • Four separate witnesses in Peterborough described an aircraft about 50 feet (15 metres) long travelling at high speeds at high altitudes. They didn't know what it was, only that it did not look like any kind of airplane they were familiar with.
  • While cleaning the dishes in her home on the Bloodvein First Nation, Man., a woman observed a three-foot-tall creature with an egg-shaped head, sharp pointy ears and wrinkled eyes. She didn't see a nose or a mouth.
  • In 1967, mechanic Stefan Michalak described seeing a flying saucer-like object while prospecting around Falcon Lake, Manitoba. The object somehow severely burned and injured him. It's arguably the best-known and most extensively documented encounter with a so-called UFO in Canada.

By 1990, the government's documentation of UFO sightings slowed considerably, according to Hayes. In 1995, Canada shut down the program altogether.

But back in the '50s, officials were much less ready to dismiss UFO reports as crazy stories.

A witness's drawing of an unidentified object found in the archive of UFO reports. (Library and Archives Canada)

As historian Edward Jones-Imhotep explained, paranoia around the unidentified in that era was very real, fuelled in part by stories of aliens but also by more immediate anxieties regarding the Soviet Union.

"If you take a globe of the world in 1950 and you look down on the North Pole, you realize very quickly that the shortest line between the Soviet Union and the United States," he explained.

"So the line that Soviet bombers would take to attack U.S. cities with hydrogen bombs, for instance, passes directly over Canada."

Cold War anxiety, fear

Canada became, rather incidentally, an area of "intense interest" during the Cold War. Its skies had to be monitored constantly and extensively.

That ended up including any citizen reports about unusual phenomena, which may describe anything from a possible Soviet attack to the product of a child's overactive imagination.

But it could also be partly attributed to basic fear: not of actual aliens, for the most part — but fear of the unknown.

"The real fear, it seems, is the fact that these things are simply unidentified," said Jones-Imhotep.

Historian Edward Jones-Imhotep explains that the paranoia around aliens in the late 21st century can be partially explained by real-world anxieties of the Cold War. (Angela Lewis)

"It's the idea that perhaps they're aliens, perhaps are extraterrestrials, but more threatening than that is just the idea that there are things that you don't know about — the things that you can't identify."

From a political viewpoint, fear of the unknown can percolate down to colour citizens' perception of the unknown. The language about aliens in popular culture at the time, which could reflect intrigue or xenophobia, could just as easily be applied to a hostile foreign power.

If you can create or stoke this kind of fear of aliens ... you can also end up translating that same language into fear of the Soviets.- Edward Jones-Imhotep

"They have hostile motives. They can't be trusted. They're up to these secret projects," said Jones-Imhotep.

"If you can create or stoke this kind of fear of aliens, there's a way that you can also end up translating that same language into fear of the Soviets."

Citizen science

Whatever one may think of the veracity of the UFO reports — or of the reliability of the people who made these reports — it's hard not to be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of the files that currently live in the government's digital archives.

And while the approach might seem scattershot at first glance, it was in fact done with a purpose in mind.

Lorraine Daston, executive director of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, describes the project as "an involuntary exercise in citizen science" that covered more ground than any single scientific mission could.

(Ben Shannon/CBC)

"It's often very difficult to detect patterns unless you have an enormous haul of data," she explained.

"Even though 15,000 [pages] sounds like a large number, if you're scanning the sky every night for a decade, it's not that many. So they're [relatively] rare."

There aren't enough scientists or government inspectors interested in possibly paranormal events to cover all that ground — so they turned to volunteers.

Professional skepticism

In the end, none of the reports gathered by the Canadian government — or any other government, as far as we're aware — provided undisputed proof that aliens have ever made contact with humans.

But they still provide some insight into the intelligence-gathering strategies of the time. They also provide some entertaining reading.

An excerpt from a 1990 report out of Bloodvein First Nation, Man., where multiple community members alleged to have witnessed 'a U.F.O. and little men.' (Library and Archives Canada)

Take this note that Hayes found, of a meteorological officer from the Department of Transport describing a 1968 report of an unidentified flying object over Frobisher Bay.

"[The officer] is of the opinion that the object was an experimental or weather balloon at a height of well over 100,000 feet."

It continues: "There have been no reports of landing by little green men or other weird non-world creatures. Furthermore, there have been no reports that all our women are pregnant."

Written by Jonathan Ore. This episode was produced by Nicola Luksic and Tom Howell.

Guests in this episode: 

  • Matthew Hayes is a PhD student in Canadian Studies at Trent University. His thesis centres on the roughly 15,000 pages of UFO-related documents archived by the Canadian government from the early Cold War to 1995.
  • Edward Jones-Imhotep is an associate professor of history at York University. His work centres on the social and cultural life of machines. He is the author of The Unreliable Nation: Hostile Nature and Technological Failure in the Cold War, which won the Sidney Edelstein Prize for best book on the history of technology.
  • Stan Michalak's father Stefan experienced Canada's most famous UFO sighting at Falcon Lake in 1967.
  • Chris Rutkowski co-authored the book about the Falcon Lake incident with Stan Michalak. He is a science writer with a special interest in UFO sightings.
  • Lorraine Daston is the director of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science. She is the author of numerous books on the history of science and co-editor of Biographies of Scientific Objects.
  • Massimo Pigliucci is a professor of philosophy at City University New York and author of Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk.

**Ideas from the Trenches is produced by Nicola Luksic and Tom Howell.


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