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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons in Ottawa on May 4.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says a surveillance plane circling Canada’s capital during the convoy protests was merely a military training operation and was not spying on those blockading Ottawa’s downtown core.

He criticized Conservative MPs who in Parliament on Wednesday accused the Canadian Armed Forces of conducting surveillance during the protests, saying the Opposition politicians were straying “dangerously close to misinformation and disinformation.”

As The Globe and Mail first reported April 22, a U.S.-registered King Air aircraft tracked flying loops around Ottawa on Feb. 10 during the protests was part of what the Department of National Defence called a Canadian Armed Forces training operation.

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The plane, with tail number N330TT, was spotted flying precise and repeated circles around Ottawa in a pattern that Steffan Watkins, a researcher in the capital who tracks ship and plane movements, said is consistent with intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions. He recorded at least 15 circles but said the aircraft at times inexplicably disappeared from public tracking systems.

“These patterns look very much like other tracks seen over foreign conflict zones while ISR missions were believed to be under way,” Mr. Watkins said.

The King Air was tracked by ADSBexchange.com, a crowd-sourced flight tracking website, flying above Ottawa on multiple days in late January and early February – from Jan. 27 to Feb. 11. It regularly disappeared from public tracking during this period.

The Canadian military is awaiting delivery of three ISR aircraft – packed with surveillance gear – with a combined price tag of $247-million in a deal brokered by the U.S. government, which will give the Canadian Armed Forces new tools to snoop from the sky. The three 350ER King Airs are for Canada’s special forces, or Canadian Special Operations Forces Command.

The early 2022 flights above Ottawa appear to be training for these new planes.

Daniel Le Bouthillier, head of media relations at the Department of National Defence, said that the military training flights had been planned far in advance.

“This training had nothing to do with the surveillance or the monitoring of activities,” he said.

A police drone flies near Parliament Hill on Feb. 20.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

“These recurring training flights were done in order to maintain essential qualifications and currency on airborne ISR-related equipment,” Mr. Le Bouthillier said.

“Cancelling such training would have been costly and would have had a negative impact on maintaining required certifications and qualifications, and thus on Canadian Armed Forces operational readiness.”

Last month, when The Globe and Mail was first investigating the origins of the circular flights above Ottawa, the Department of National Defence did not immediately acknowledge the aircraft was working for the military.

It was only after The Globe contacted other major security agencies – the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, the Communications Security Establishment, the RCMP and Ontario Provincial Police – that the Department of Defence said the King Air was part of a military training operation.

Conservative MPs nevertheless pressed Mr. Trudeau on whether the government had authorized surveillance without lawful authority.

During Question Period on Wednesday, Conservative MP Rachael Thomas said: “It appears that there was military surveillance that was conducted during the Ottawa protest.” Conservative MP Cheryl Gallant asked whether the flights are evidence the government deployed the military during the trucker protests. “Did the government invoke any statute to deploy the Canadian Armed Forces in this manner, or was the surveillance conducted without lawful authority?” she asked.

Conservative MP Kerry-Lynne Findlay asked how the government can justify using military assets in this way. “Liberals did not put soldiers on our streets, but they did put them in the air.”

Conservative MP Cheryl Gallant speaks in the House of Commons on May 16, 2019. On Wednesday, Ms. Gallant asked whether the flights are evidence the government deployed the military during the trucker protests.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

Conservative MP John Brassard told reporters after Question Period that Mr. Trudeau swore at his party.

“He dropped an F-bomb. Everybody in the first two rows across from the Prime Minister heard it,” Mr. Brassard said, adding he’s taken the matter up with the Speaker of the House of Commons.

The Prime Minister invoked one of his father Pierre Trudeau’s most memorable quips when asked whether he had uttered unparliamentary language.

“What is the nature of your thoughts, gentlemen, when you move your lips in a particular way?” the current Prime Minister told reporters on his way out of the Commons.

Mr. Trudeau accused the Conservatives of spawning conspiracy theories. “I want Canadians to pay very careful attention to this exchange. What the member opposite just engaged in is dangerously close to misinformation and disinformation designed to gin up fears and conspiracy theories around what happened a number of months ago.”

Stephanie Carvin, a former national security analyst and an associate professor of international relations at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, said there is no evidence to suggest the military used a surveillance plane to spy on the protests.

She said she hopes further light might be shed on any surveillance conducted during the protests at the inquiry announced into the government’s invoking of the Emergencies Act in mid-February.

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