Exclusive Access on Board Canadian Warship

I’ve covered many¬†interesting stories around the world, but consider this one of my more memorable assignments.

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Reporting somewhere along the Black Sea on board HMCS Toronto

My colleague Jonathan Austin and I were recently embedded on board Canadian warship HMCS Toronto as it patrolled the Black Sea under NATO’s ‘Operation Reassurance’ mission – tasked to promote security and stability in Eastern Europe in the wake of Russian aggression against Ukraine.

Spanish Warship sails along side HMCS Toronto

Spanish Warship sails along side HMCS Toronto

It was a first hand look at the mandate and the mission. And in what may be a Canadian first, we transmitted our daily reports via satellite off the back of the flight deck Рdeep in the middle of the Black Sea.

For 7 days, we lived in crammed quarters and experienced the living and stressful working conditions of the dedicated crew of 200+.

Working to Deadline

Jonathan Editing while I write our story inside our cabins. The Black Sea was very choppy at times, and rocked the vessel back and forth.

On Board 1 Deck

View from outside our quarters

We chronicled real-time emergency maneuvers – including exclusive access inside the ship’s Command Centre – which picked up a ‘buzz’ after a pair of Russian fighter jets flew ‘provocatively’ close to the vessel (the night I filed this report, the Black Sea was particularly¬†choppy):

There were also questions about the status/future of the mission after HMCS Toronto reached its maximum patrolling limit in the region under international rules:

Of course, there were military hardware issues that could not be ignored. The only helicopter on the vessel broke down, and HMCS Toronto is showing its age:

Some interesting sidenotes:

Ship Commander Jason Armstrong imposed a strict no-alcohol¬†policy on board the vessel. This was put in place¬†after 3 incidents of “personal misconduct” on board HMCS Whitehorse earlier this year.¬†All crew members we spoke to respected it and understood why this was necessary.

Mission Accomplished

Jonathan poses with HMCS Commander Jason Armstrong after he guided the vessel to dock in Crete.

On shore leave, crew members were limited to maximum limit of 2 drinks per day.

And yes, I felt¬†seasick – despite plenty of gravol. But it wasn’t¬†anything to be ashamed of. Many of the seasoned crew wore preventive medical patches behind their ears to prevent sickness. ¬†And for¬†a few¬†days, the Black Sea was very rough.

My Take: Finance Minister Reveals Battle With Skin Disease

The deeply personal revelation by Finance Minister Jim Flaherty about his skin condition was meant to douse months of rumours and speculation about his health.


Finance is one of my “files”, so I see a lot of Jim Flaherty. ¬†Last spring, I had noticed he gained some weight, and he looked tired. ¬†I didn’t think much of it – a stressful job with hectic travel schedule probably doesn’t allow one to eat healthy or sleep regularly – and it was around the time of Budget 2012.

Fast forward to autumn that year.  Flaherty met met with private sector economists at the finance building in Ottawa and later took questions from reporters. While his answers were concise, his voice was raspy, his eyes seemed glazed.  But what I specifically recall from that day Рhow he lingered at the podium after the scrum was over and seemed somewhat disoriented.

I think that’s when the rumour mill launched into overdrive.

Later that day, I made several inquiries to my contacts at Finance, MPs and political staff who know him well.  They all noticed the same thing but were at a loss to explain.

Flaherty held many news conferences since then. At one of them, a reporter did ask about his visible physical changes, but Flaherty didn’t answer and walked away.

His condition appeared to worsen in late November. Perhaps his medication side-effects explains why he teared up during a press conference.

So with no answers, the mystery continued.  Many wondered if his ailing health was somehow connected to why he missed a key budget vote in early December.

Just last week, when Flaherty was clutching his stomach while answering questions in the House, we all knew something was terribly wrong.

I suspect that’s when Flaherty’s new communications director concluded the news had to get out there.

I’ve been asked many times why I – or the 100’s of other Parliament Hill reporters – didn’t press Flaherty to disclose his health condition sooner. ¬†After all, some argue, Flaherty holds a powerful role within government, and is in public life.

Let me answer this way:  I did inquire. Many times. I had been told Flaherty had visible lesions on his arms and neck. It was obvious there was a serous health issue. But the deeply personal disclosure had to come straight from Jim Flaherty.  My colleague Don Martin explains further in his excellent column.

London Calling: Canada’s Mark Carney Named Bank of England Governor

So a funny thing happened Tuesday morning.  I received an email alert of a last-minute press conference with the Finance Minister at promptly 10:30 that morning.

I figured it was an unusual advisory because Jim Flaherty doesn’t normally hold formal press conferences with such short notice. ¬†There was no immediate legislative urgency – and Flaherty’s junior minister had just announced a bump to TFSA’s moments earlier¬†– ¬†so obviously it was something significant enough to overshadow the government’s own “proactive” news strategy.

True, it was widely known the Cameron government was to name the new head of the Bank of England around the same time. ¬†But I dismissed any links to Flaherty’s news conference simply because Bank of Canada Governor, Mark Carney, had repeatedly insisted he wasn’t in the running for the job.

London Calling

So as I made my way to the National Press Theatre, several theories ran through my mind about the topic and/or issue. ¬†When I arrived, I spotted Flaherty’s media handlers standing off to the side, but they were unusually distant and noticeably quiet.

When the clock hit 10:30, assembled reporters were informed the press conference would be delayed for exactly 5 minutes … not too unusual, I thought … but the mystery intensified.

So as I waited for it to start, I was scrolling through my twitter feed and nearly jumped out of my chair when I saw this post.

I was stunned an announcement of this magnitude was kept under wraps on both sides of the pond. ¬†No one saw it coming (and if someone tells you they knew all along, they’re lying).

Nevertheless, it explained the delay of the Ottawa press conference.  Bank of England Chancellor George Osborne had to make the announcement first, in the British Parliament.

Seconds later, Mark Carney and Jim Flaherty entered the room.¬† And¬†then …¬†this happened.