By Lee Berthiaume in Ottawa
Defence Minister Anita Anand said it was too early to tell whether a “cylindrical object” shot down over central Yukon on Saturday was from China, even as she hinted about it being another Chinese spy balloon.
The comments came during a hastily arranged news conference, as Canadian Armed Forces personnel worked to recover wreckage of the object after it was destroyed by an American fighter jet hours earlier.
Anand said the information available so far was that the object was “potentially similar” to the Chinese spy balloon destroyed off the coast of South Carolina on Feb. 4.
“That is the information that we are working with right now,” she said. “But with further analysis, we will know more and be able to provide you with more details and a followup.”
Chief of the defence staff Gen. Wayne Eyre referred to the object as a “balloon” during the same news conference.
The object was first detected over Alaska late Friday evening, according to the Pentagon, at which point two U.S. F-22 fighter jets were scrambled to intercept, identify and track it. That monitoring continued as it crossed into Canadian airspace on Saturday.
The North American Aerospace Defence Command publicly revealed its presence over northern Canada on Saturday afternoon. A short time later, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced on Twitter that he had ordered it taken down.
“I ordered the take down of an unidentified object that violated Canadian airspace,” he wrote. “(Norad) shot down the object over the Yukon. Canadian and U.S. aircraft were scrambled, and a U.S. F-22 successfully fired at the object.”
Trudeau added that he had been in touch with U.S. President Joe Biden, and the Canadian Armed Forces was in the process of recovering and analyzing the wreckage.
A summary of the conversation between Biden and Trudeau released by the White House said the two leaders authorized the object be shot down “out of an abundance of caution and at the recommendation of their militaries.”
Pentagon spokesman Brig.-Gen. Pat Ryder said the FBI would be working with the RCMP “as Canadian authorities conduct recovery operations to help our countries learn more about the object.”
Anand said the object was flying at 40,000 feet, or about 12,000 metres, and shot down at 3:41 p.m. EST about 160 kilometres from the border with Alaska. She added it entered Canadian airspace illegally and posed a threat to the safety of civilian flights.
The object’s appearance over central Yukon came as Trudeau was preparing to attend a fundraiser in Whitehorse on Sunday.
“Frankly, we were concerned with getting it out of the sky,” she said. “And that was our focus all day, and indeed in the past 24 hours. And so any further information will come with the analysis that we are doing regarding the debris.”
Yukon Premier Ranj Pillai in a statement said he had been briefed by federal ministers about the object, and reassured residents that “at no time was the safety of Yukoners at risk.”
Anand said while an American fighter jet shot down the object, two CF-18s were also heavily involved through much of its sojourn on Friday night and Saturday. All four fighter jets were working for Norad, she added, which is a shared Canadian-American command.
“When we first started tracking this object, it was dark and we needed to make sure that we had a visual of it and so needed to wait for daylight to emerge,” she said.
“Secondly, we needed to make sure that there was infrared or missile-lock capability, and that was something that both the F-22s and the CF-18 pilots were working on together. So as I said, it was a Norad mission.”
The object is the third known to have violated North American airspace in the past two weeks, but the first whose presence has been revealed while it was flying over Canada.
A suspected Chinese spy balloon had re-entered the U.S. after flying over Alaska and parts of western Canada two weeks ago before it was publicly identified on Feb. 1. The balloon was shot down off the coast of South Carolina on Feb. 4.
The federal Liberal government has come under fire from opposition parties and others for not providing more information about the Chinese balloon’s time over Canada.
Members of the House of Commons defence committee voted Friday to hold hearings on the issue, which would allow for testimony from Anand and military officials.
A second object was shot down after flying into Alaskan airspace on Friday. U.S. officials have not provided any details on what it was, except to say it differed from the Chinese balloon.
The object was downed because it reportedly posed a threat to the safety of civilian flights rather than due to any knowledge that it was engaged in surveillance.
But the twin incidents in such close succession reflect heightened concerns over China’s surveillance program and public pressure on Biden to take a tough stand against it.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 11, 2023.
— With files from The Associated Press
Banner image via The Canadian Press