Matthew Pearson (Ottawa Citizen) – A pilot hired by the Public Service Alliance of Canada to fly over Ottawa and Gatineau with a political banner was ordered to land his plane, the RCMP admitted Monday, even though the aircraft had not entered restricted airspace.
The union says it paid for a plane to fly over the capital region for three hours on Saturday with a trailing banner that read, in French, “StephenHarperNousDéteste.ca” (Stephen Harper hates us), to coincide with the popular Hot Air Balloon Festival in Gatineau.
But things did not go according to plan, the pilot says.
Gian Piero Ciambella claims he was ordered to land his Piper Supercub after being in the air for about 90 minutes because two RCMP officers were waiting at the Ottawa-Rockcliffe airport to question him.
“They flexed their muscles to bring me down,” he said from his home in Saint Hubert, QC. “I’m advertising a website, I have nothing against the prime minister, I’m doing my job.”
It remains unclear why the plane was ordered out of the sky as the Ciambella and the RCMP offered conflicting stories.
Ciambella says he repeatedly checked with air traffic control to ensure that he was outside Ottawa’s restricted zones, and that at no time was he told that he had penetrated the restricted area above Parliament Hill.
But, Ciambella said, an official at the Rockcliffe airport contacted him on the radio to inform him that the police wanted to talk to him, so he complied with their request.
Ciambella said the RCMP officers who met him appreciated his cooperation in bringing his flight to an early end, but they told him that the message on the banner could be construed as hate speech — hence their request for him to return to the airport for questioning.
Ciambella also said that he denied to the RCMP that merely promoting a client’s website could be considered hate speech towards the prime minister. He added that he had flown five prior promotions for the site in Quebec since August 19th, and has done two more since Saturday. He says he told the RCMP, “don’t shoot the messenger.”
In response, Ciambella says that the RCMP told him that he was in the national capital, they were responsible for the prime minister’s security, and therefore were obligated to intercept him.
“I’m not a terrorist,” he said. “I’m earning my living. I’ve owned and operated a certified aerial advertising company since 1984.”
RCMP spokeswoman Cpl. Lucy Shorey said officers on the ground spotted the plane and felt it was flying within restricted airspace over Parliament Hill, so they ordered the pilot to return to the Rockcliffe airport for questioning.
Shorey said the RCMP had confirmed the plane had not entered restricted airspace, but she offered little reason for why it was nonetheless ordered out of the sky.
“The plane appeared to be flying at a low level and that’s why the RCMP requested (it) to land,” she said. “There was no issue once we spoke to the pilot.”
The RCMP, which oversees security on the Hill, says it was worried about a possible security threat, not the banner’s political message.
“This was not about any type of message. This was about the security of Parliament Hill, which is something the RCMP takes very seriously,” Shorey said.
Union leaders and experts scoffed at the suggestion the banner could be seen as hate speech.
“We don’t see criticism of the prime minister as being hate speech, we see it as being freedom of speech,” said Larry Rousseau, executive vice president of PSAC’s national capital region.
“I’ve never, ever heard of anything like this for any previous prime minister. It has become so absurd to see that anything that is critical of the prime minister is immediately met with fear and trepidation.”
“What kind of country of are we coming to if we cannot openly criticize the prime minister without the security forces taking someone aside for interrogations?”
Errol Mendes, a University of Ottawa law professor, said the criminal code provisions around hate speech focus on the “wilful promotion of hatred directed at an identifiable group.”
“It’s beyond ridiculous,” he said. “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,” Mendes said.
When the story first broke Monday, the RCMP directed all media inquiries to Nav Canada, the private company that provides air traffic control services in Canada.
But it confirmed the plane never breached a restricted fly zone in Ottawa and said its air traffic controllers never instructed the plane to land.
“We did not communicate that to the pilot,” said Nav Canada spokesman Ron Singer.
Rousseau said PSAC may try to bring the plane back to Ottawa in the future. They paid the pilot $1,000 per hour, he said.
The StephenHarperNousDéteste.ca website, launched by PSAC’s Quebec region, is part of the union’s national campaign, which is designed to draw attention to how all Canadians are affected by cuts to the federal public service. Some public servants have also been wearing T-shirts and buttons that say, “Stephen Harper hates me.”
“It may be somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but it’s a remark that says, ‘What has he got against us personally?’” Rousseau said.
This is not the first time the 57-year-old pilot’s aerial banners have not been welcomed by authorities.
In 2002, Ciambella, who also goes by Jean-Pierre, said he was detained for three hours during the G8 meeting in Quebec City, during which time the government changed the regulations to prevent him from fulfilling contracts to fly messages over the skies above the city.
He also made headlines in 2006 when he made an emergency Sunday afternoon landing on Montreal’s downtown Park Avenue. It was later determined that Ciambella had taken off with a broken fuel gauge, for which he was fined $750.