The German air force requested in 2022 that low-level flight training be brought back to Labrador for the first time in decades.

The training below 1,000 feet — proposed for spring 2023, in the wake of the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine — never took place. 

But a possible return to low-level flying at 5 Wing Goose Bay remains up in the air.

“We are open to future requests, and will pursue positive engagement with Indigenous communities regarding such requests,” Department of National Defence spokesperson Andrée-Anne Poulin wrote in an emailed statement to CBC/Radio-Canada.

Past low-level flight training initiatives generated waves of turbulence and controversy in central Labrador.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Labrador Innu protested the roaring jets screaming over treetops for disturbing their traditional hunting grounds.

They clashed with police and occupied runways at 5 Wing Goose Bay, garnering international attention for their struggle with the military.

The skirmishes also made it to court, where the Innu sought an injunction against supersonic flights.

According to Newfoundland and Labrador government briefing materials obtained through an access-to-information request, provincial officials have helped to facilitate consultations with potentially affected Indigenous communities — for example, the Innu Nation, the Nunatsiavut government and the NunatuKavut community council.

In a statement to CBC/Radio Canada on Wednesday afternoon, the Innu Nation confirmed representatives outlined their “grave concern” about low-level flying in a meeting with DND and base officials last week.

“We cannot ignore our past experience — low-level flying has affected our people, our environment and the caribou,” Grand Chief Simon Pokue said in a statement.

“There are elders and many other members of our community alive today who were jailed or whose family members were jailed for protesting low-level flying.”

The meeting was held at the request of the military.

The Innu Nation says it will consult the Innu communities of Sheshatshiu and Natuashish as to what DND might propose when more information is available, and their position will be based on the direction of those communities.

WATCH | From 37 years ago, the CBC’s Kathryn Wright reports on Innu concerns about low-level training:

Innu speak out against low-flying jets

Study conducted on impact of NATO training base in Goose Bay, Newfoundland.

According to a December 2022 email written by then-defence minister Anita Anand, “9 Innu Nations of Quebec” sent her a letter “expressing their forceful and categorical opposition” to the low-level training proposal. 

“Unfortunately, this means we still have a great deal of consultation to do, specifically with Indigenous communities that will be impacted by this proposal,” Anand wrote in a message to Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Andrew Furey, also obtained through access to information.

“I hope we can continue to work together closely on this file and get this training proposal happening.”

According to a Dec. 18, 2023, letter obtained by CBC/Radio-Canada, Quebec Innu continue to “formally and unanimously” reject a resumption of military flights, saying the targeted training area lies in the heart of woodland caribou habitat.

“Low-level flying makes no sense and would undermine our own efforts and further destroy surviving caribou populations,” said a letter written to Defence Minister Bill Blair.

“Worse still, to further endanger the caribou would amount to nothing less than altering the identity of the Innu people.”

DND says ‘engagement and consultation’ initiated

Meanwhile, the Department of National Defence stressed in a statement that it “recognizes the importance of establishing positive relationships and building trust with Indigenous communities regarding [low-level flight training] at 5 Wing Goose Bay and, where appropriate, to reach the necessary accommodations.”

The statement said “initial engagement and consultation with Indigenous communities has been initiated” and “additional engagements with federal and provincial partners” regarding low-level flight training will continue over the coming months.

Three men wearing suits walk towards the camera with an aircraft in the background.
Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Andrew Furey, left, walks with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as he speaks with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz after arriving on Aug. 23, 2022, in Stephenville for an announcement about green hydrogen. Furey has expressed support for a German air force plan to resume low-level flight training in Labrador. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

The Newfoundland and Labrador government has been supportive of the German air force proposal, according to correspondence and internal documents obtained by CBC News through access to information.

Premier Andrew Furey wrote Defence Minister Bill Blair in September saying he was “keen to receive an update” on the German request.

“My government stands ready and willing to host GAF,” Furey noted.

According to internal briefing materials prepared in November, the province has also expressed its support to the German ambassador.

In an email to CBC News, the premier’s office declined further comment, saying the correspondence speaks for itself.

Attempts to seek comment from the German embassy in Ottawa about the status of the proposal were unsuccessful before deadline.

Ukraine war has put 5 Wing back on radar, DND says

Low-level flight training at 5 Wing Goose Bay began after the Second World War. 

According to DND, the location “provided an exceptional training range” for Canada and NATO allies, closely replicating the terrain of Europe. 

But the need for low-level flying ebbed as the curtain fell on the Cold War and stopped entirely in 2005.

A new geopolitical conflict across the Atlantic means things have now changed.

“The war in Ukraine has, however, increased the strategic importance of 5 Wing Goose Bay for Canada and NATO’s collective security, and in support of our bilateral and multilateral defence relationships,” the DND’s Andrée-Anne Poulin wrote.

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