In more than three decades of canoeing, Garry Almond has raced on swift-flowing rivers, braved whitewater rapids and rescued people from drowning. But he found himself in uncharted waters Monday evening when he inadvertently tried to paddle near Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s barbecue.
This is what happens when a national pastime bangs smack into national security. Mr. Almond says he was stopped by police near his Mississauga home, thoroughly searched and told to find a different spot to canoe so as not to pass by the Conservatives picnicking in a park beside the Credit River.
“I thought it was bit of a contrast to the days of Pierre Elliot Trudeau and all his canoeing adventures – heading up into the Arctic and things like that,” Mr. Almond said with a laugh. “And here we have a group protecting our Prime Minister now, worried about a canoeist on the river across from his picnic dinner.”
Around 6 p.m., the 63-year-old computer project manager was taking his C-1 sprint canoe out on the Credit, behind his house, to practise for an upcoming race. Conservative Party faithful, meanwhile, were gathered across the river at Father Kamber Croatian Recreational Park for a speech by Mr. Harper.
As he portaged up the path, the boat over his shoulder, Mr. Almond could see a large crowd and a couple of tents set up in the park, but didn’t know what was happening. Then, a pair of Peel Regional Police officers approached him on bicycles.
“[They] just asked what I was up to and where I was going. When I said I was planning on paddling right there, they got more interested,” he recounted.
One officer unzipped the pocket of Mr. Almond’s life jacket and confiscated the rescue knife he keeps for emergencies. Then, the policeman lifted up his spray skirt to check underneath, pulled the airbags out of his canoe and poked his head inside the boat to have a look.
Why was his life jacket so thick and bulging? they asked. Was he carrying more weapons?
Mr. Almond said he inquired several times about the event across the river. Finally, they told him what was going on, and that he would have to canoe away from the Prime Minister’s cookout.
“It wouldn’t look good if [you] paddled past him,” he quoted them as saying.
Both officers were pleasant throughout the search – even cracking jokes about Mr. Almond’s tight neoprene shorts, he said – and gave him back his knife at the end. The paddler turned around and walked back downstream, where he could canoe out of sight of the park.
The tight security that greeted Mr. Almond was also on display when The Globe and Mail inquired about the event with police. The RCMP, which is responsible for protecting Mr. Harper, would not say whether or not it ordered the interception of canoeists.
“In regards to your question on the establishment of ‘interdiction zones,’ for security reasons, specifics on security measures cannot be provided,” Corporal Judy Falbo wrote in an e-mail.
She would only confirm that Peel officers had worked in co-operation with the Mounties to police the event.
A Peel spokesman, meanwhile, said questions on the topic would have to be “run up the chain of command,” and directed a reporter to his superior, who did not respond to a request for comment.
The Mississauga News, which covered the barbecue, said Mr. Harper spoke for about half an hour to hundreds of people, touting his government’s record on job creation, fiscal responsibility and trade. After the speech, the Prime Minister mingled with supporters and posed for photographs. Mayor Hazel McCallion attended the event, as did a troop of Tory MPs, the newspaper reported.
Mr. Almond, for his part, says he has never encountered anything quite like it in his time as a paddler.
“I’ve pulled people out of the river when they’ve been drowning and stuff like that,” he said. “But I’ve never run into any security concerns.”