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Laurie Wickens, president of the Shag Harbour Incident Society, in Shag Harbour, N.S., on Sept. 16, 2017.Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

Late into the night in the fall of 2007, a master corporal at Canadian Forces Base North Bay was out for a walk when he saw an “intense light” over the base.

He rang an officer, who sent several staff outside. They saw it, too. Four minutes later, another corporal called in the same light. The phenomenon, whatever it was, didn’t show up on any of their scopes.

The light, which was slowly moving up and to the west, was photographed and recorded. Ninety minutes later, it disappeared with the rising sun. In a report written shortly afterward, an officer described the incident as, simply, “SUSPICIOUS OBJECT (UFO).”

In 2019, news of sightings by the U.S. military brought UFOs into the limelight. On a lark, The Globe filed a freedom-of-information request to our own Department of National Defence asking for any military reports of UFO sightings since 1990. The five reports disclosed by the agency describe sightings by military and members of the public, but details are scarce, and none attempt to explain what witnesses reported.

Events like these are happening more frequently. The year of COVID-19 has also been a banner year for UFOs. Sightings worldwide grew by 42 per cent between January and September compared with last year. The picture in Canada is similar: The Mutual UFO Network, for instance, logged 276 Canadian reports between January and September – a 29-per-cent increase.

Stuck inside and with nothing to do during the pandemic, many of us have taken to staring into space – literally. But as the response to The Globe’s freedom-of-information request shows, it’s also a phenomenon with a long – and nebulous – history.

The 2007 North Bay, Ont., case is murky at best. The seven-page report describing the incident consists mostly of cover pages and bureaucratic minutiae, recording military ranks, addresses and phone numbers.

The description of the event – a dry three-paragraph affair typed up by a military police officer the following morning – offers no clues as to what happened that night beyond listing the date, time and names of officers involved in the sighting.

The witnesses themselves weren’t much help, either. Searching for leads, The Globe reached out to several people currently or formerly posted to CFB North Bay. Given the subject matter and possible career repercussions, none were willing to go on the record, though some offered up a few insights.

“That’s funny,” one officer said in a phone call. “I was just talking to someone about this last week.” Recordings of the intense light, while noted in the report, weren’t attached to the documents released by the Department of National Defence; they had likely been made by the base’s surveillance system, he explained.

The place is essentially an airport, a second official noted, so it wasn’t surprising there were lights in the sky; he suggested alcohol was to blame. “This is far from the strangest report I’ve seen,” he added cryptically.

Chris Rutkowski, a science writer who studies UFO reports, suspects the military in North Bay saw something a bit more familiar than a UFO. The culprit, he said, was likely a garden-variety planet or star.

Mr. Rutkowski has made a career of collecting and analyzing our country’s many reports of unidentified flying objects. “People have called me Canada’s Fox Mulder,” he joked, referring to the X-Files FBI agent played by David Duchovny. “I don’t know whether that’s good or bad.”

His reputation extends into the federal government: The military often forward him their UFO reports, and when The Globe filed its request last year, the public servant handling the file passed along his name.

While one might assume Mr. Rutkowski eagerly awaits his own close encounter, his actual position is far more restrained. “I share the belief, along with most astronomers, that there is life out there somewhere – and that it’s very far away and tough [for it] to get here,” he said.

Most of the sightings he’s come across have astronomical or terrestrial explanations – often a star, planet, satellite, plane or weather balloon – leaving only a handful each year that defy conventional reasoning.

Mr. Rutkowski noted the “pandemic factor” is partly behind the surge in sightings in 2020 – stuck at home, people may be more likely to sit on their porch and look at the sky. That’s perhaps not the only reason, however, as the trend began before lockdowns started in March. “There’s probably some media influence as well,” Mr. Rutkowski said.

In recent years, a steady trickle of news stories have chronicled U.S. military encounters with seemingly impossible flying objects. In 2014, for instance, an F/A-18 Super Hornet on the eastern seaboard passed within 1,000 feet of a silver object “approximately the size of a suitcase,” The New York Times reported.

The Times also revealed the existence of a secretive program run out of the Pentagon from at least 2007 to 2012, devoted to examining “advanced aerospace threats” – a military euphemism for UFOs. Contractors also allegedly delivered classified briefings to the U.S. Defence Department as recently as March about materials retrieved from “off-world vehicles not made on this earth.”

There are also more down-to-Earth reasons for the recent surge in attention for UFOs.

In 2017, American musician Tom DeLonge of pop-punk band Blink-182 founded To The Stars… Academy, an entertainment and research company devoted to examining and publicizing “anomalous data.” Since then, former U.S. defence officials now employed by To The Stars have repeatedly appeared in news stories about the military’s UFO investigations.

Back in Canada, a few cases top Mr. Rutkowski’s hard-to-explain list, including a 50-year-old incident in Shag Harbour, N.S., when something allegedly fell into the small lobster village’s bay.

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The Shag Harbour Incident Interpretive Centre in Shag Harbour.Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

Laurie Wickens, a 71-year-old retired fisherman, remembers the incident vividly. As he was driving down the shore lane on a quiet evening in October, 1967, he spotted an odd series of four flashing lights in the sky, roughly 4,000 feet in the air.

The lights, which he says moved no faster than a car, travelled over land before going into a steep decline and descending into the harbour. When he reported it to the police, the first thing they asked him was whether he’d been drinking. (For his part, Mr. Wickens maintains he was stone-cold sober.)

Mr. Wickens wasn’t the only one who says he saw something that night. Several residents also called the local RCMP to report lights below the water’s surface, and the incident eventually led to an investigation by the police, coast guard and military. To this day, there is no official explanation for what the people of Shag Harbour saw.

As the years dragged on, Mr. Wickens began to think he may have seen something otherworldly, he said, though he’s still far from certain. “We’re pretty naive if we think we’re the only living things in all the universe,” he says.

Today, Shag Harbour is a well-known destination for UFO fans. “Crash site of the 1967 Shag Harbour UFO,” a sign on the town’s outskirts proudly reads. Each year, locals put on the Shag Harbour UFO Expo to discuss the sighting.

Unlike the residents of Shag Harbour, the military in North Bay had much more technology at their disposal – so it’s perhaps surprising that officers found no immediate explanation for the 2007 sighting.

Yet natural phenomena may be to blame after all. A week before the incident, Sky & Telescope magazine noted Venus would be both particularly bright and low in the sky in the early hours of the morning.

To Mr. Rutkowski, a planet is no less remarkable. “In general, I think we don’t appreciate the wonder of the universe we live in,” he said. “The pandemic has basically brought the world to a standstill. There are some amazing things out there in the sky that people should be paying more attention to.”

Of course, Mr. Rutkowski is a civilian, with a civilian’s sense of carefree wonder. Asking members of the military to discuss UFOs is another matter. During the brief scavenger hunt for information on the North Bay sighting, The Globe called half a dozen officials: some said they couldn’t recall the incident; others mentioned they’d only heard secondhand stories of sightings; all said they weren’t authorized to speak with the media.

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Article published in The Globe and Mail on Nov. 13, 1975.The Globe and Mail

It was only a final call, from a retired officer, that yielded a glimpse of the strange things witnessed by service members in the dead of night. Because of the subject matter, the officer said he wasn’t comfortable speaking on the record. He hadn’t heard of the 2007 North Bay sighting – instead, another, more bizarre incident sticks out in his mind.

In 1975, Canadian Forces Station Falconbridge, a former radar site a 90-minute drive from CFB North Bay, detected something. The station’s height finder, an instrument used to determine a signal’s altitude, showed an object at more than 30,000 feet, roughly an airplane’s cruising altitude – except it was stationary. After a short pause, it shot up to around 80,000 feet – the height finder’s limit – then returned to its original position.

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Article published in The Globe and Mail on Jan. 22, 1979.The Globe and Mail

The signal was serious enough that the U.S. military scrambled jets to investigate; they found nothing. Extensively documented by the media of the day, the incident still features in many roundups of Canada’s most peculiar UFO sightings.

“We saw a lot of hard-to-explain stuff,” said the former officer, who worked for a long time with radar data. Though he wasn’t physically present, he later saw radar logs and heard colleagues recount the incident. “Is that a radar malfunction, a height-finder malfunction? Or was it a UFO?” he wondered.

“How do you explain that?”

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