Labrador asks Harper to pony up on promised drone squadron
"The original commitment was made back in 2006 during the federal election"
OTTAWA — When he was opposition leader, Stephen Harper promised Newfoundland and Labrador that if his Conservatives formed a government, he would station a squadron of drones at one of the province’s military bases for Arctic surveillance.
More than six years later, the province and community of Happy Valley-Goose Bay are pressing the Conservative government to pony up.
“The original commitment was made back in 2006 during the federal election,” said Newfoundland Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Nick McGrath. “We’ve been monitoring it ever since then.”
The airfield at Canadian Forces Base Goose Bay in Labrador was built originally by the American and Canadian militaries during the Second World War for anti-submarine aircraft.
CFB Goose Bay remained a Cold War staging base for the U.S. through to the 1980s, at which point the Americans left and NATO allies including Britain, Germany and Italy used it as a permanent training facility until the mid-2000s when those agreements ran out.
A spokesman for Defence Minister Peter MacKay said in an email that the Conservative government has invested $20 million in upgrading the airfield and $300 million in decontaminating sites around the base. It has also tried to attract other militaries to conduct training in the area.
“Our government remains committed to growing the base because we know that CFB Goose Bay remains a key part of the economic engine of the region,” the spokesman said. “With energy developments on the horizon in Labrador, it is expected that the airport will play a vital role in the years to come.”
However, the fact CFB Goose Bay does not have a full-time tenant in the form of an air force squadron, be it fighter jets, transport aircraft or drones, means the airfield doesn’t have a permanent purpose. That is why the promise of a fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles was so important to the community of 7,500.
“We have infrastructure on this base that is state of the art, and I feel as a Canadian taxpayer that it’s an infrastructure and a resource that should be utilized,” Happy Valley-Goose Bay Mayor Leo Abbass said.
Local and provincial officials have been asking for an update on where things stand — and asking the federal government to fulfil its promise.
“Just last week I sent a letter to Minister MacKay just encouraging him to follow up on this and trying to find out where they are with the drones right now and will they be fulfilling their commitment to 5 Wing Goose Bay?” said McGrath.
This comes exactly a year after McGrath’s predecessor sent a similar letter, which Postmedia News obtained through access to information.
“The federal government has announced several projects that are relevant to Canada’s interests and responsibilities in the Arctic, however none of these have involved the use of UAVs,” then-intergovernmental affairs minister Dave Denine wrote on Feb. 9, 2011.
“I would appreciate it if you could please provide me with an update on Canada’s plans to use UAVs for Arctic surveillance, and when the federal government plans to honour its commitment to station a UAV squadron at 5 Wing.”
The government has been testing the use of drones in the Arctic in recent years; one was launched for the first time from a ship during a major exercise in the Far North last summer.
Maj. Sonia Dumouchel Connock said in an email that the military is planning to approach the federal government for approval on moving ahead with preliminary approval in the next year. However, details like the type of UAV, number required and base location are “will become available in due course.”