War on terror comes to Labrador

Michael Johansen
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They’re shiny new, standing tall and straight like soldiers along the main street leading from the gates of 5 Wing Goose Bay to the town’s civilian airport. Like soldiers they are there to protect against whatever attack may come, if one comes, but they are not soldiers. They’re metal posts and while they might still lack the chain-link fence they are meant to hold up, they are already changing the face of the base. They will soon alter where civilians can freely go.

It was probably only a matter of time before the Department of National Defence (DND) would realize that sensitive facilities at 5 Wing Goose Bay were uniquely vulnerable to foreign terrorists, or to highly disgruntled Canadian citizens (as the case may be), but the realization has been so long in coming that most residents of Labrador have assumed the base would always remain as open to the public as it has been for many years — especially since the so-called War on Terror has been underway for more than a decade with no indication that anyone was interested in targeting anything in the Big Land. But now suddenly DND has become worried that the base’s central heating plant and its many underused aircraft hangers (once used extensively by foreign air forces when the base was more active than inactive, as it is now) are in danger from enemy agents of some kind — domestic or otherwise. The new fence will still leave less sensitive areas open to the general public, but it will route drivers around a long and complicated detour away from the quick, straight road they are accustomed to taking to the airport.

‘Back 40’

This new fence around the steam plant and runway buildings isn’t the only one DND has been putting up recently to close off previously open areas. Earlier in November officials announced that large tracts of land at the back of the base would become off-limits to civilians, despite the many years they have been open without incident. Closing off most of the “back 40” (as the base commander calls it) was declared necessary because DND didn’t want people to drive snowmobiles and other vehicles through live firing ranges — which seems like a reasonable concern, given that live ordinance can have a detrimental effect on a human body, should they get in the way of each other. Corridors through the newly closed-off areas are being left open to allow transit between Happy Valley-Goose Bay and the cabin country to the west of the base, but lingering in the area of flying bullets and falling shells will henceforth be discouraged.

Modernize 5 Wing Goose Bay

Closing the inner core, on the other hand, seems to be motivated by less immediate and practical reasons. When the commander mentioned the new fences some weeks ago (without clarifying exactly where they were to go and how they would effect the public), he justified construction by saying it would modernize 5 Wing Goose Bay and bring it up to the security standards of other air force bases. What security concerns are being addressed are unclear since the base only occasionally serves any important military purpose these days, so perhaps they have less to do with meeting foreign threats and more with giving police the ability to keep protesters and media types away from visiting dignitaries without having to shut down the entire base, as was done when Prime Minister Stephen Harper dropped by briefly at the end of 2012 to make a political announcement. That was the first time the gates had been barred to keep out the general public for many years and it lead to widespread criticism, especially as next to no notice was given of the closure. It resulted in people being turned back on the whim of officers stationed at the gate, if those officers deemed that someone seeking entrance had no legitimate reason for getting in.

So maybe, despite the detours they necessitate, the new fences will ultimately prove of benefit to everyone. In the future Harper and other unpopular politicians will have plenty of places to hide from protesters, while ordinary citizens will be allowed to go about their affairs without running into unexpectedly locked gates.

Michael Johansen is a resident of North West River, Labrador

Organizations: Department of National Defence

Geographic location: Goose Bay, Labrador, Happy Valley North West River

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