RCMP grounds plane with anti-Harper message

The RCMP has come under criticism for allegedly grounding a plane flying in Ottawa airspace that was displaying an anti-Harper message.

It is the belief of those involved, namely the organization responsible for commissioning the message, that the plane was grounded for political reasons. However, the RCMP are claiming that actions were taken to ground the plane due to safety violations that were taking place, as well as regulation violations.

The plane was hired by an organization by the name of The Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) to fly in Ottawa air space above Parliament Hill. The hired plane flew with a banner trailing behind it, which read “Stephen Harper Nous Deteste,” which translates to “Steven Harper Hates Us.”

The plane was commissioned to fly for a full three hours in order to coincide with the Hot Air Balloon Festival which was taking place in Gatineau that same day. Strategically, by flying the plane during this type of event, the group presumably meant for the message to be noticed and read by as many people as possible.

After only 90 minutes of flight the plane was ordered to land because, according to the RCMP, the plane could have posed a threat to the safety of Prime Minister Steven Harper. Lucy Shorey, spokesperson of the RCMP, claimed that “The RCMP is mandated with the security on the grounds of Parliament Hill, and the RCMP takes all threats seriously.”

The pilot of the plane was told that two policemen were awaiting his landing at the Ottawa-Rockcliffe airport, and he was promptly questioned after landing. It was soon determined that there was no threat posed for the Prime Minister.

The PSAC claims, however, that they had been given permission previously to fly in that air space. In a statement the PSAC claim that “the pilot was fully aware of airspace restrictions in place in Ottawa and [that] Nav Canada, Canada’s air traffic control service, confirms that for the entire flight the PSAC-hired airplane remained outside the restricted zone.”

The pilot of the plane, Gian Piero Ciambella, made similar comments: “They intercepted me because they had thought that I was flying inside the no-fly zone, which is .35 nautical miles from the Peace Tower. The radar [ . . . ] in the Ottawa control zone, my communications with them made sure that I was not in that particular restricted area. I never really penetrated that.”

According to Ciambella, he has flown other similar banners for the group in Quebec, five in total, since Aug. 19, and all have been undisrupted by the police. As well, he has even flown an additional two banners for the group since the incident.

The PSAC has been campaigning protests against the Harper government for various public service cuts that have been made, and the hired plane was just one of the group’s various acts of protest.

The grounding of the plane has caused members of PSAC to question their freedom of speech, with regards to being able to publicly criticize the prime minister.

Larry Rousseau, executive vice president of the union, questioned, “was it because you didn’t want the prime minister to see the banner? Who knows, but we’re very concerned that this is not about hate speech, this is about freedom of speech.”

According to Rousseau, when Ciambella was being questioned by the police after landing the plane, they raised concerns over the banner’s message as being a form of hate speech.

According to Errol Mendes, who is a Law professor at the University of Ottawa, the mandates around what is constituted as hate speech is the “willful promotion of hatred directed at an identifiable group.” This incident, he says, is “beyond ridiculous. It should not even be contemplated unless, of course, Stephen Harper is an identifiable group. Something like this is so far removed from hate speech that it’s almost laughable.”

Rousseau also claims that the group plans to fly the plane again, with the same message in the same area in a few weeks time.

“What we do outside of the workplace is freedom of speech. This is purely a freedom of speech issue and that’s why this union is doing what unions do so well. We’re raising a little hell about this because we should have complete freedom under the Charter to criticize the prime minister, and that’s what we’re doing when we say Stephen Harper hates us,” said Rousseau.