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Canada's top soldier scoffs at repaying jet expenses

General Walter Natynczyk is unrepentant in the face of accusations that he has taken government jets at extravagant costs to sports events, fundraisers and a vacation in the Caribbean.

The Chief of Defence Staff told CTV's Question Period on Sunday that he had no intention of reimbursing taxpayers any of the more than $1-million they paid over the past three years to fly him on the Challenger jets that are used by government VIPs.

The general said he has always travelled in the most economical fashion and that the jets would have been flying, whether he was on them or not.

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As head of the Canadian forces, he said, it is his job to travel around Canada and across the globe to visit the military personnel for whom he is responsible. A variety of aircraft are used on those trips, he said, including transport planes and helicopters as well as the Challengers.

The Challenger squadron always keeps two aircraft on standby, ready to go anywhere to transport VIPs or to perform medical evacuations, the general said. But, because the Conservative government has reduced the amount of times its members fly on the jets, the planes are not getting used enough, he said.

"So aircraft are flying around empty because we have to maintain the proficiency of the pilots and indeed of the crew," Gen. Natynczyk said. That means, he said, that when he flies on a Challenger, "the aircraft costs for the crew, for the flying, it's all been prepaid."

As for the time he flew to the Caribbean to join his family on vacation, the general said he received permission to do that from Defence Minister Peter MacKay. The flight occurred after Gen. Natynczyk had spent his second Christmas in Afghanistan and had delayed a preplanned holiday to attend a repatriation ceremony in Kingston, Ont., for the bodies of four soldiers and Canadian journalist Michelle Lang who had been killed when their vehicle struck a roadside bomb set by the Taliban.

CTV has reported that Gen. Natynczyk has spent nearly $1.5-million since 2008 flying on the Challengers to professional hockey and football events celebrating the Forces, to fundraisers for soldiers and to St. Martin for the Caribbean holiday.

For instance, figures released by the Defence Department indicate it cost $23,231.30 to fly the general to Toronto from Ottawa in January, 2009, to attend a Canadian Forces appreciation night at a Maple Leafs game.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Friday that Ottawa would look over Gen. Natynczyk's flight record, making it clear the soldier would have to repay some of the costs for any travel that could not be justified as part of his job.

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The controversy comes as the Canadian Forces could be faced with significant budget cuts to help the Harper government tame the deficit by 2015, and as reports suggest the military is suffering from a bloated bureaucracy.

Derek Fildebrandt, the national research director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, said the general should be leading by example.

"We give him the benefit of the doubt when he says these planes need to be kept in service, kept in the air," said Mr. Fildebrandt. "But it's the perception that matters here and it's a bad perception."

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