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Michael O'Reilly, who claims to have seen a UFO while out for a walk in Calgary in 2013.

Michael O’Reilly, who claims to have seen a UFO while out for a walk in Calgary in 2013.

Chris Bolin/For The Globe and Mail

Increasing numbers of UFO sightings in Canada suggest more people are becoming interested in the subject – and less ashamed to admit they want to believe, writes Allan Maki

‎It happens – people see a mysterious object hovering overhead, unfamiliar in origin, lit-up like a casino slot machine. And some of those people know the right person to call – a man in Manitoba whose home office is crammed with 5,000 books, 5,000 magazines and 17,000 files that include witness statements, videos and photographs. It is a vast information centre on a subject that polarizes people faster than a Donald Trump campaign promise.

That subject would be UFOs – unidentified flying objects – those things that move through the sky in silence while generating hundreds of calls and e-mails to Chris Rutkowski. The University of Manitoba communications officer has spent 30 years of his own time chronicling strange sightings. He has not only filled his home office, but has helped spawn a golden age of UFO reporting.

Now, more than ever, there are those among us willing to say they've witnessed something unexplained in the sky, something they've recorded on a mobile device and downloaded online for all to see. The Canadian UFO Survey, a Rutkowski initiative that began in 1989, keeps yearly tabs on reports of apparent UFO activity. In 2015, Montreal led the country with 97 reports of UFOs. Toronto had 78; Vancouver 69. Five provinces had more sightings in 2015 than the year previously. They were Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, where Calgary and Edmonton witnessed a combined 53 UFOs to emerge as a sighting hotspot.

The most recent Canadian UFO Survey reported 1,267 sightings in the country last year, the second-highest count after the 1,981 sightings in 2012. What does that say? It may mean more people are looking to the sky and not feeling so ashamed when they say, "I want to believe."

"I wouldn't argue that," Mr. Rutkowski says, in connection with the Calgary-Edmonton sighting convergence, while acknowledging that British Columbia has also long been a perceived UFO hangout. (The most recent sighting came just this week from a man near Courtenay, B.C., close to the Comox military base.) "I think more people are becoming interested in the subject, and there's generally been increased media coverage of astronomy and UFO stories," says Mr. Rutkowski. "When you get that one case with multiple witnesses and you have really good video or photographic evidence – even if one of those in 1,000 is truly unknown – that's incredible. You just need that one case."

Lisa Relland is also seeking the truth. By day, she's a dental assistant in Edmonton. By night and on weekends, she is chief investigator for the Mutual UFO Network of Canada, as well as its provincial director for Alberta. The U.S. parent organization, MUFON, describes itself as "the oldest and largest civilian UFO-investigative organization in the United States."

As chief investigator of MUFON Canada, Ms. Relland examines the UFO reports she receives then assigns them to a field investigator closest to where the sighting occurred.

"You do your homework," says Ms. Relland, who checks to see if there were any previous sightings in the area and what happened in those cases, as part of her due diligence. "You exhaust all the known explanations before you start with the unknown."

Searching for evidence of a sighting takes a reporter's approach. There's the asking of the Five W's – who, what, when, where, why. For seeing lights in the sky, you go through the narrative – what was the object's shape and colour, where was it seen, what time of day was it? What was the weather like? In what direction was it moving? Then it's time to go a little deeper and check with the local airport. Investigators want to know flight plans for that time period. They call the nearest Canadian Forces base and ask if there were any military exercises on that date. The viewer's parents, siblings, friends, neighbours are interviewed.

As believers and skeptics clash for credibility, some well-known voices are being heard. Last weekend in Brantford, Ont., former Toronto elementary-school principal Victor Viggiani told the first Canadian National Inquiry into UFOs (a conference held as part of the three-day Alien Cosmic Expo 2016) that he was making public NORAD documents that outlined, among other things, how two Canadian CF-18 fighter jets chased then gained contact with three UFOs at 35,000 feet. Mr. Viggiani mentioned former Canadian defence minister Paul Hellyer, who has said publicly: "UFOs are as real as the airplanes flying overhead." Mr. Hellyer made that remark at a 2005 conference in Toronto. Following that, he spoke at a 2013 Citizen Hearing on Disclosure in Washington and repeated his beliefs. He was also a featured speaker at last weekend's conference in Ontario.

As for current politicians, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has said that, if elected, she would like to "go into those files [on UFOs and Area 51, a secret Nevada military base reputed to be a major UFO hotspot] and hopefully make as much of that public as possible. If there's nothing there then let's let people know there's nothing there."

* * *

Michael O'Reilly has come to a Calgary breakfast spot for coffee and an interview. The 67-year-old retiree is armed with evidence and a story to tell. First, though, we have to do some math.

"With all the space telescopes, [scientists] know that, in the Milky Way, there are between 500 billion to a trillion stars and planets," says Mr. O'Reilly. "And they also know that there are over 100 billion galaxies. So, if you do the math – simple multiplication – the law of probability dictates that we can't be alone."

Mr. O'Reilly doesn't come off as a tinfoil-hat-wearing UFO-gazer warning that the end is near. Instead, he believes in challenging the explanations offered by officials who say "nothing to see here; just some swamp gas."

Mr. O'Reilly insists that what he saw July 29, 2013, at 10 a.m. MT, wasn't swamp gas, or a weather balloon. He was driving north next to Calgary's Bow River when he saw an object hovering over the water. He parked his vehicle to get a closer look and described it as "a working piece of equipment, for a specific job.… This was a couple of weeks after the floods. So I'm almost 100-per-cent confident it was going back and forth and mapping the flood plain."

Mr. O'Reilly took photos of the object before it quietly departed. He says the craft moved so quickly it was near-impossible to get a clean shot of it. Mr. O'Reilly took his photos to an illustrator and asked if he could include more details of what the UFO looked like. The artist's rendition may be bang on but it isn't expected to change the minds of those who say UFOs are bogus.

Michael O'Reilly's iPhone camera photos of what he to be a UFO flying about 500 feet off the ground along the path of the Bow River. He hired a digital artist to the interpolate images into a high resolution rendering.

Michael O’Reilly’s iPhone camera photos of what he to be a UFO flying about 500 feet off the ground along the path of the Bow River. He hired a digital artist to the interpolate images into a high resolution rendering.

Michael O’Reilly/For The Globe and Mail

"You watch any newscast on UFOs, you can almost be guaranteed there will be three things: the theme music from either Star Wars, Star Trek or The Twilight Zone; little grey men; and 'Beam me up, Scotty' from Star Trek," Mr. O'Reilly laments. "I've always believed there has to be something else out there in the universe."

* * *

There was a time when being a believer in UFOs could mean hospital orderlies hunting you down with a net and a straitjacket. But testimony from credible witnesses has moved the subject from backroom banter to mainstream discussions. Willy Big Smoke can attest to that.

As a member of the Tsuu T'ina Nation Police Service outside Calgary, Constable Big Smoke was called in January, 2013, to a house flooded by lights emanating from above. Homeowner Shirlene Memnook had been outside with her daughter when their dogs began barking. Once back inside, she began taking photos. "It was crazy," she says. "[The UFO and its lights] were really high up in the air."

Constable Big Smoke and his partner, Constable Roy Fairbrother, arrived at Ms. Memnook's residence too late to see the reported light show. It ended abruptly when several helicopters appeared and used spotlights to see what was happening on the ground. Constable Big Smoke saw the last helicopter before it flew off. He interviewed Ms. Memnook and took her photo card to make enhanced copies of what she had shot. The photos are grainy but show a series of odd light formations.

Three days later, Constable Big Smoke returned to where the UFOs had been reported and found a yellowish piece of material lying on the snow. He passed it along to the RCMP and was told there wasn't anything they could match it with. The material was then taken to the science and technology department at Calgary's Mount Royal University. There it went to Deanna Renyk, manager of the department's Laboratory Resource Centre. She confirmed it to be "a fungi sample," but could not determine the exact species.

The veteran police officer learned one thing about his fungal sample – if you put it near a compass it makes the needle move. "I've never seen that before," Constable Big Smoke says as he puts away file number 2013-97061. "It makes you wonder what's going on up there."

As for what's going on down here, some of us are watching, always watching. Cellphones at the ready.