There is now a clear explanation of what happened in the fall of 2020 when a bizarre military misstep led some Nova Scotians to fear the province had released wolves into the wild.
It began with a handful of military reservists testing psychological tactics at a weekend exercise at Camp Aldershot in the Annapolis Valley. They were trying to convince another group that there were wolves in the woods nearby.
It ended with frantic briefings sent up the chain of command to Canada's defence minister and the head of NORAD, newly released documents reveal. CBC News has obtained 1,500 pages of emails related to the incident after requesting them more than three years ago.
The documents offer a glimpse at how military officials reacted when their "wolf letter" leaked into the real world.
'Please tell me this isn't something you guys did'
It was Friday afternoon heading into the Thanksgiving weekend when Lt-Col. Todd Harris saw a CBC News story. His weekend was about to get worse.
The story quoted provincial officials who warned of a hoax memo designed to look official that said the province had reintroduced wolves in Nova Scotia and had released a pack of them near Camp Aldershot. Officials had received questions from residents who had seen the letter, but nobody knew where it came from.
Harris knew that a group of Canadian Armed Forces reservists had held training the week prior where they'd tried to mislead another group of soldiers into believing there were wolves in the woods nearby.
"Please tell me this isn't something you guys did," Harris wrote to his colleagues who organized the training. He included a link to the news article.
Part of the 1,500 pages of emails and documents disclosed. (Brett Ruskin)
The mock letter was indeed the same one created for the military exercise.
It was designed to look like an authentic memo from the Province of Nova Scotia — complete with government logos and contact details for real-life employees.
'Apologies for interrupting your weekend'
A recap of what happened was prepared and sent out the next day.
"Apologies for interrupting your weekend however you should be aware of this developing situation," Col. Shane Gallant wrote to senior leaders of the 5th Canadian Division, which includes all army members across Atlantic Canada.
The letter was only part of the psychological exercise. The reservists waited for nightfall, then mounted a speaker atop a military vehicle, and drove through the woods blasting wolf howl sounds.
The training exercise used a tactical speaker system that can be heard more than 1,600 metres away. The speaker is seen here mounted to a boat. (Courtesy: Danimex)
The morning after the howl hoax, the reservists packed up their gear to head home to Halifax.
Before they left, they went to collect copies of the fake letter but found the building had been cleaned. They assumed all the letters had been thrown away.
"We cannot confirm how many [wolf letter] copies were not retrieved or how they were released into the public domain," Gallant wrote.
"This is certainly unacceptable and very disappointing," said Brig.-Gen. Roch Pelletier, adding that one of the first steps should be to contact provincial staff to clarify the source of the letter.
The rest of the emails show that full transparency was the recommendation.
"We should own up to it and stop the story in its tracks," said a senior public affairs officer. "If the story takes off, it's not likely we can come out without a bruise or two."
Over the next few days military members reached out to reporters to offer explanations.
Although the letter idea was rash, it worked. Unsuspecting readers believed it was authentic and made copies.
"The letter left the training facility in an inadvertent manner due to the actions of an individual who was not associated with the training in any way," said Maj. Dennis Noel, a military public affairs officer, in an email to CBC News.
He said the individual is a CAF member who works at Camp Aldershot, and lives nearby. The person heard wolf howls over the weekend. When back at work on Monday, they spotted a warning about wolves.
They snapped a picture of the letter and sent it to their spouse. The spouse shared the warning with neighbours. The neighbours posted it on social media, and eventually the province got calls asking why they had let wolves loose.
"At no time was any effort made by any member of the CAF to aim the sounds from the loudspeakers toward the general public, nor was the mock letter ever intended to be seen by any member of the general public outside of the Aldershot training facility," said Noel.
According to military officials, new control measures are now in place to ensure psychological operation exercises and influence activities do not reach unintended audiences.
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