Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s staff has directed in meticulous detail the design of his VIP Airbus, going so far as to instruct defence department officials to include a faded maple leaf on its tail similar to one used on the Conservatives' election campaign bus.
Records obtained by The Huffington Post Canada under the Access to Information Act show political staffers were intimately involved in requesting and redesigning a new paint job for Harper's grey Polaris CC-150 military aircraft. Officials in the Prime Minister's Office and the Privy Council Office, typically tasked with managing pressing files of national concern, paid an inordinate amount of attention to design specs, colours and labelling.
After meeting with officials from the PMO and the PCO, Maj. Tim Neal, who worked with a team overseeing the government’s executive fleet, sent a "wish list" by email to Jim Belliveau, the VIP project’s graphic designer based at the Royal Canadian Air Force base in Cold Lake, Alta.
“Also attached is the ‘faded’ maple leaf from the conservative (sic) campaign bus. It is this fade effect that is desired,” Neal wrote in the June 7, 2011 note, enclosing a photo of Harper and his campaign bus.
Neal said the PCO wanted "small Maple leafs with relief and fade effects" around the door. On the plane's tail, Harper's officials wanted the Canadian flag replaced with "just the Maple leaf, stylized with a fade effect ... Gold Maple leaf on the winglet" and "The words 'True North Strong and Free' (in) English and French."
Several months later, Neal reported that finding a French equivalent of “The True North Strong and Free” was “proving problematic." In response, PCO officials sent Harper's principal secretary Ray Novak a note suggesting they use the words “Une épopée des plus brillants exploits.” Novak replied from his iPad, "This is helpful — _____," (the rest of his comments are redacted).
For years, Harper’s staff felt the prime minister’s plane didn’t look quite prime ministerial enough. Harper uses one of five CC-150 Polaris aircrafts which, according to the military, are used interchangeably for strategic airlifts. Up until 2011, Defence Minister Peter MacKay was insisting it was necessary for Harper’s aircraft to be drab-looking in order to fly equipment and personnel safely into war zones. In 2012, documents suggest MacKay lost the argument and the PMO got its way.
On September 28, Herman Cheung, Harper’s manager of new media and marketing, wrote that he and Novak wanted to attend the next Airbus meeting to discuss upgrading the communications system to have “faster, affordable, in-flight internet similar to the ones used by airlines.”
Lt.-Col. Alan Mulawyshyn, a PCO analyst in the foreign and defence policy section, seemed exasperated. In an email to DND colleagues, he wrote: “The fun never stops…”
Although the records are partially blacked out, they clearly show Harper’s office directed the work on the paint job.
Andrew MacDougall, Harper's director of communications, said there was nothing inappropriate about the PMO's involvement in the redesign of the aircraft.
"This is the plane that represents Canada — and the Prime Minister — abroad. It is natural that our office would be consulted," he said.
In the fall of 2011, concepts for Harper's Airbus kept changing.
The PMO wasn’t happy with the design of the faded maple leaf and suggested a “billowing flag” to differentiate itself from Air Canada. Belliveau suggested various takes with coloured stripes near the tip to represent the northern lights and the 13 provinces.
In the end, Harper’s staff chose to go with a simple Canadian flag, similar to the American flag on Air Force One and the one used on the old white Boeing 707 that the Canadian Armed Forces used to carry the prime minister up until 1997.
PMO officials were also preoccupied with the appearance of the aircraft during photo-ops, such as when Harper waves from the plane's open front door upon arrival in foreign countries.
His staff wanted “small, scattered, red/autumnal Maple leaves starting to the left of the door and flowing across it,” the documents reveal. Shauna Wright, Harper’s manager of visual communications, felt the design would help make a nice photo and provided DND with images of close-ups taken of Harper, Prince William and Katherine, the Duchess of Cambridge, waving from the jet during their visit in 2011.
Belliveau wasn’t sold on the idea of the small leaves which he described as looking like “acne,” “rust chips,” “dirt specs,” “blemishes” and even the “measles.”
“When I read about small red leaves around the door/front of the jet, I now get the mental picture of measles. or acne (sic),” he wrote.
“This jet should be very distinct and should be a recognizable Canadian presence from any distance. Small leaves muddies (sic) it a bit, and may even look like paint chips or even flaking as it taxies in onto the tarmac ramp. The LAST thing I want people to think as it rolls in to park is that there is something wrong with the paint or even indistinct about it,” he wrote last October.
Belliveau experimented with different leaves in the design, some of them white, some of them large, but remained unhappy with the concept and the look of the Airbus from a distance.
“It still does have this blemishj/acne (sic) impression to me,” Belliveau wrote in November to his liaison in Ottawa. He worried the wind would strip the paint off. “Depending on how they are done, they could also drive the cost of th (sic) project up,” he cautioned.
Belliveau noted at one point that the cost of the paint alone could make a substantial dent in the budget. “FYI, there is about a 400 dollar price difference PER GALLON in the cost of red paint versus the cheaper blue. Yellow or orange are up there too,” he warned.
Harper’s office insists there will be no additional cost to repainting the Airbus, regardless of the design. Any paint job will be cost-neutral since it will be tied to a regularly scheduled maintenance check that would chip the paint, MacDougall said Wednesday.
“No painting is yet underway. As we have consistently said, any change would only be contemplated if it were cost neutral, and performed as part of DND's regular maintenance cycle,” MacDougall said.
“As you’ll know, the plane is redone every six years,” he added.
Records show, however, that the Prime Minister’s Office tried to move up the date of the regularly scheduled maintenance contract by six months so Harper could have a beautiful white plane before the busy 2013 summer travel season.
But the National Defence Department fought back against the plan — with at least one Canadian Forces' official concerned the department would not get its money's worth by fast-tracking routine maintenance.
For now, Airbus 01 is scheduled to go in for a new paint job in the summer of 2013. Although two or three sketches have been finalized, Harper has yet to approve a design.
One thing is certain, however, there will be no small red leaves around the door.
In the end, after more than two years of planning and thousands of pages of correspondence, it appears the prime minister’s plane won't look wildly different from how it did in the 1990s. It will be painted off-white, with either a blue or grey bottom, with an official crest on its side and a red and white Canadian flag on the tail.
THE DESIGN SKETCHES