- Feb 8, 2007
- Land of Swine and Maple Syrup
It could have always been worse. Conventional forces could have taken over the whole township and they could have dealt with worse for weeks. Nothing like the rumble of armour on a paved road in the middle of the night to wake you up.
Military exercise incredibly loud, uncomfortably close
July 15, 2010
Former Grenville Christian College in Augusta Township, July 15, 2010. Canada's JTF2 held a training execrise in the area that surprised area residents.
Blair Gable/For the Toronto Star
OTTAWA—They may be great to have around in the event of a terrorist strike, but Canada’s elite special operations forces make for lousy guests.
Just ask the residents of Augusta Township, on the shore of the St. Lawrence River in eastern Ontario, who woke up early in the morning on May 13 to the sound of explosions, gunfire and low-flying helicopters coming from the 100-hectare site of the former Grenville Christian College building.
Emails obtained by the Toronto Star show the exercise was designed to catch the military’s terrorist hunters by surprise, likely preparing them for some of the risks they might have to face in the event of an incident at the G8 and G20 summits last month.
There was only one problem: the Canadian Special Operations Forces Command (CANSOFCOM) neglected to adequately warn their neighbours.
The township’s fire chief was in on the secret training mission in case he was called upon to put out a blaze. The local detachment of the Ontario Provincial Police were on hand to block traffic, but officers wouldn’t disclose the source of the fireworks to passing motorists who had come to find the source of the strange noises. Augusta’s reeve and chief administrative officer also knew what was planned, though the township council was never made aware.
But as the sun rose the next morning, startled residents demanded to know what had happened under the shadow of darkness in their rural community of less than 8,000 people. So Richard Bennett, the township’s top bureaucrat, paged the top secret military unit.
“It is in regards to complaints from Augusta Township residents,” the CANSOFCOM official who received the message wrote in an email to the unit’s training coordinator.
“He was informed we had talked to the neighbours, but says that is not the case.”
Carol Stephenson, a township councillor, had heard in advance through a friend that the special forces were coming to Augusta but she didn’t know when.
“There was supposed to have been something in all the mailboxes for all of the local residents to let them know that this was taking place,” she said.
A spokesperson with the unit, Maj. Doug MacNair said there was an attempt to warn residents near the training area, but that notification never arrived for many.
As a result, the loud-but-brief stay has left a bit of a bad impression.
“There were people who were very offended by the process,” said Darlene Banning, another council member. “It’s just one of those things that happened and was gone.”
That was exactly what military officials had hoped for. The local newspaper, the Brockville Recorder and Times, got wind of the commotion and reported on the training exercise but didn’t catch on that it was likely JTF-2, the country’s counterterrorism force, at work.
Capt. Steve Hawken, a public affairs officer with CANSOFCOM, judged that the resulting article would have “low impact” and was “unlikely” to arouse any further media interest.
Another member of the unit said they were “not fussed” with the publicity, had discussed it with senior military officials, and judged the incident to be “well-boxed up.”
But the incident has split opinions in Augusta Township, east of Brockville.
“It just had a bad smell about it,” said one official.
The special forces commanders who planned the training and leased the property for five days from an Ottawa-area developer, never had to request the permission of the township’s elected officials.
“We did not approve it, rather we were made aware of it,” said Reeve Mel Campbell, who lives about 3 km from the training ground and still woke with a fright at the 2 a.m. sounds of warfare.
He said he was assured the neighbours would be notified by the Canadian Forces. He believes that some were but that was clearly not enough.
“My understanding is that they have been in touch . . . more than once to indicate their apologies and also the fact that they will do a much better job of communicating their message if there is any future exercises in that area,” Campbell said.
The official line is that the training was to test soldiers’ ability to “respond to events on short notice.”
“A public service announcement would jeopardize this element of surprise,” reads a proposed response to questions from the media.
That explanation suits deputy reeve Doug Barton, a former reservist, just fine, and he has passed it on to those who have approached him with their complaints.
“If there was a terrorist attack, do you think that the terrorists are going to phone all the neighbours to say that they’re going to attack your area so there’s going to be sounds?”
The answer to Barton’s question may be obvious, but a special forces officer did promise one woman who raised her concerns directly with the military that they “will do a better job of advising the community” in the future, and would even contact her personally if they elect again to use the former school, which is slated to become a condominium development.
But perhaps the most soothing words for that woman denied a good night’s sleep on May 13 were the following.
“At this time . . . there are no intentions to use this facility for future training.”