Tanya Vrebosch, deputy mayor of the Canadian city of North Bay, saw something strange when she checked her phone on Sunday: North Bay was a trending topic on her Twitter feed.
North Bay doesn’t do much trending – it’s a city of about 52,000 people in northern Ontario – so Vrebosch had a moment of intrigued anticipation, she told CNN on Monday. Were people tweeting, just maybe, about the city’s recent announcement that North Bay had set a new record for the value of its building construction?
Nope. Very much nope.
North Bay, Vrebosch learned, was “trending for something so stupid.” Specifically: a false – and, frankly, ridiculous – conspiracy theory about a United Nations plane, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and the “Freedom Convoy” protests that police officers had just cleared out in Ottawa, the Canadian capital about a four-hour drive from North Bay.
“I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’” Vrebosch said.
Here’s what happened.
Some social media users, and at least one conspiracy website, speculated late last week that officers seen in green uniforms during the police operation to clear the Ottawa protest could be UN troops Trudeau had authorized to enter the country – though journalists on the scene had repeatedly noted that they were actually officers from the provincial police service of the neighboring province of Quebec.
Then a woman with an account on the social media app TikTok spotted a plane marked “UN” parked at North Bay’s Jack Garland Airport. The woman – who had previously posted videos supporting the protests and talking about her refusal to get vaccinated against Covid-19 – made a video suggesting that what she was seeing at the airport could be evidence for the theory that UN forces had been secretly involved in the Ottawa dispersal operation.
The woman later took down the video, but the flames had been fueled.
A man went to the North Bay airport to film the plane himself, posting a video that gained tens of thousands of YouTube views. Actor Adam Baldwin promoted the conspiracy theory about Trudeau and the plane to his 345,000 Twitter followers. Brandon Buechler, an editor at the CP24 television news channel in Toronto, tweeted Sunday night that he had been forced to field “furious calls” related to the conspiracy theory.
As Buechler explained, it was nonsense.
“This is a totally nuts conspiracy theory that has no basis in reality,” Alexander Cohen, spokesperson for Canadian Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino, said on Monday.
Facts First: No UN forces were involved in the Ottawa police operation – and no UN forces landed in North Bay. The passenger plane seen at the North Bay airport is owned by a North Bay company, Voyageur Aviation, that flies and performs maintenance on aircraft used by the UN; planes with UN markings have been spotted for years at Voyageur’s North Bay facility. Flight records pulled up by Canadian aviation photojournalist Tom Podolec show that the regional jet that has been subject of this week’s conspiracy theories arrived in North Bay on January 29 after departing the day prior from Amman, Jordan.
“I can confirm that the aircraft has been in North Bay for several weeks for a routine aircraft maintenance heavy check event at our Voyageur North Bay facility,” Manon Stuart, spokesperson for Voyageur parent company Chorus Aviation, said in a Monday email. “Voyageur employs approximately 220 people in North Bay, providing aircraft maintenance, repair and overhaul services for a global customer base.”
Voyageur’s UN relationship is no secret
Vrebosch said Voyageur is one of North Bay’s major employers and that most local residents know that “we always have these types of planes coming in.” Voyageur, which Vrebosch said has been in North Bay for roughly 40 years, makes no secret of its relationship with the UN; its website’s Frequently Asked Questions page for pilots mentions three times that the UN is one of its customers.
But this isn’t even the first time the North Bay presence of a plane with UN markings has prompted a conspiracy theory. An immigration-related conspiracy theory, also complete fiction, was debunked by Agence France-Presse in 2018.
Vrebosch said this latest fast-spreading misinformation is yet more evidence of the dangers of social media. But she also said she would adopt an all-publicity-is-good-publicity attitude to the saga.
“We welcome anybody to come to North Bay for a visit, come buy a house,” she said – adding that you might even get to see a cool plane.