- To the first-time tourist, St. Paul, Alta., could easily
pass for a set from The X-Files. The billboard at the edge of the small
farming community about 200 km northeast of Edmonton welcomes visitors
to the world's first UFO landing pad -- a circular cement deck attached
to the chamber of commerce. The chamber itself looks like a spaceship.
Businesses with names like Mama's Flying Saucer Pizza & Breakfast and
the Galaxy Motel line the main street. Even the town's mascot, Zoot, is
an extraterrestrial that looks like a large-eyed blue bug. The biggest
surprise, though, may be just how long it's been since the townsfolk put
out the alien welcome mat. "The landing pad was built during Canada's
Centennial," explains Mayor John Trefanenko. "People wanted to
create something that would be recognized around the world. Over the years,
we kept building on that theme."
- And build they have. UFO fervour has spawned an industry
in the town of 5,000 that brings in some 30,000 visitors a year. Along
the way, some townsfolk have developed otherworldly areas of interest.
Fernand Belzil, for instance, a semi-retired cattle rancher, is one of
Canada's few experts on a grisly type of animal mutilation in which all
the blood has been drained and certain organs surgically removed. The lack
of footprints surrounding the carcasses has led some to rule out natural
predators and practitioners of satanic rituals. So that leaves, perhaps,
creatures from outer space? "It's as if the body is dropped from the
sky," says Belzil, who has investigated more than 60 mutilations,
predominantly of cattle, in Western Canada. "Six years ago, when the
chamber got a call asking if they knew someone who could check out an animal,
I went thinking no way. It wasn't killed by aliens. Now, well, I'm not
going to come right out and say there are UFOs. But like a lot of people
in town, I am a little more accepting of strange phenomena."
- No joke, folks: turns out the residents of St. Paul aren't
alone in believing the truth is out there. A 1996 Angus Reid poll found
70 per cent of Canadians believe intelligent life exists elsewhere in the
universe, and just over half of those sampled said they thought the planet
had already been visited by extraterrestrials. Throughout the country,
numerous UFO groups monitor alien encounters. They estimate as many as
10 per cent of Canadians have seen unidentified flying objects -- and reports
of sightings are as numerous as ever. Last year, more than 500 people saw
263 UFOs -- up 10 per cent from 1989. "Am I surprised with the numbers
of people who have these experiences?" says Errol Bruce-Knapp, host
of Strange Days . . . Indeed, a radio program about UFOs on CFRB in Toronto.
"No. From the moment our show begins, the phone lines are busy."
- OK, but it's one thing to fess up to a little-green-men
fixation when you're talking to an anonymous pollster or on the disembodied
world of radio. What do you say to non-believers, who state categorically
that flying saucers and creatures that drive them -- and then abduct earthlings
-- do not, cannot, exist? These people cite reams of scientific data to
prove their argument -- and question the soundness of mind of the E.T.
crowd. Groups like Heaven's Gate in San Diego and Quebec's Solar Temple,
whose devotees committed suicide in the hopes their spirits would be taken
by aliens, bolster the skeptics' contentions that only those on the lunatic
fringe believe in UFOs.
- Some reasonable souls, however, are troubled by the rigid
orthodoxy of the two opposing camps. "The problem has been that you
have the hard-nosed skeptics, who believe nothing, and the full believers,
who see a light in the sky and are convinced it's a flying saucer,"
says Palmiro Campagna, an electromagnetics engineer and administrator with
the department of national defence in Ottawa and author of 1997's The UFO
Files: The Canadian Connection Exposed. "What is needed are investigators
who take neither view, but just look at the facts." As it happens,
an emerging breed of serious scholars is daring to do just that. And if,
in the process, they answer the age-old question of whether humans are
alone in the universe, so much the better.
- One world-renowned figure who surprised his scientific
colleagues by trying to take an open-minded look at the world of UFOs is
Dr. John Mack, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard medical school. Mack,
an author of more than 150 scholarly articles, worked over the past decade
with more than 100 people who claimed to have been abducted by aliens.
He acknowledges he, too, was skeptical at first. "The psychiatrist
in me is trained to distinguish mental states like when someone is hallucinating,
having some kind of psychotic episode or confusion around a dream,"
he told Maclean's. "But the clinician in me said these people were
talking about these encounters the way people talk about what is really
happening to them."
- In 1994, Mack, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1976
biography of T. E. Lawrence, published Abduction: Human Encounters with
Aliens. The book, which relates the experiences of 13 self-described abductees,
went on to become a best-seller -- and to irritate Harvard officials. They
questioned his research methods, forcing Mack to vigorously defend his
work before a university review board. The board accepted his methodology,
but not before his reputation was sullied in a number of major U.S. newspapers.
- People in high places, though, have long been curious
about extraterrestrials. In the 1950s, alongside civilian groups, the department
of national defence and the RCMP investigated reported sightings of UFOs.
Ottawa also funded the work of department of transport engineer Wilbert
Smith, who was trying to figure out how they made it to Earth. "Smith
was studying anti-gravity propulsion -- if something was travelling through
the stars, how would it be able to manipulate gravity," explains Campagna.
- The research grant was small and Smith was soon forced
to wrap it up. Then in 1953, the federal government supported another one
of his initiatives, providing Smith with a building at Shirleys Bay near
Ottawa where he was developing an electronic device that could identify
flying objects. Several months later, Smith reported his first detection
of an "anomalous disturbance" to the media. But the resulting
publicity spooked the federal agencies supporting Smith's work -- they
cut off his funding, and the engineer was forced to close shop.
- Still, Defence continued to collect UFO reports until
1968, when it handed the task over to the National Research Council; after
multiple changes at the NRC, it, too, got out of the UFO business. Since
1996, the task of investigating sightings has been left to nonprofit groups.
Between 1989 and 2000, they checked into nearly 3,000 UFO reports. Most
could be explained as aircraft or natural phenomena, including stars or
meteors. But according to Chris Rutkowski, an astronomer who heads up one
of the volunteer organizations, Ufology Research of Manitoba, about five
per cent can't be accounted for. This includes one outside Whitehorse,
where in 1997 an object shaped like a satellite dish flew at tree-top level
as it followed a mother and her three kids down the Klondike highway. "I
know how unlikely it is for aliens to reach Earth," says Rutkowski.
"But there is a certain percentage of cases that just can't be explained."
- One of Canada's most famous -- and still unexplained
-- incidents took place in Nova Scotia, on Oct. 4, 1967. Hundreds witnessed
an unidentified object fly erratically 300 km southwest along the coast
from Dartmouth until it eventually crashed into Shag Harbour. "I saw
this strange orange light tracing the shoreline," recalls Chris Styles,
who was 12 at the time. "My first reaction was fear. I had never seen
anything like this before." And seeing, as they say, is believing.
Styles and writer Don Ledger co-authored the 2001 book Dark Object: The
World's Only Government-Documented UFO Crash. In it, they interviewed RCMP
and military officers who were involved in the official search for the
UFO. Some recalled bringing odd-looking debris, including a yellow foam-like
substance thought to be from the wreck, to the surface of the ocean. The
authors discovered that RCMP records classified the incident as a UFO.
"I know many people involved want an investigation," says Styles.
"UFOs are a worldwide phenomenon and these few cases that are well
corroborated should be looked into."
- Others say they've had encounters of a much closer kind.
Larry, a successful, 50-year-old Ontario businessman, appears to lead a
normal life in every respect except one: from the age of 6, he's been visited
by aliens. "I realized my experiences were abductions when I was in
my late 30s after I watched a TV show about abductees," he says. "Until
then, I didn't have a clue what it was. I just kept it all to myself. As
it turned out, what I was experiencing was textbook abduction."
- And, yes, there is such a textbook -- or at least a fairly
standard abduction scenario. One was spelled out in the 1987 book Communion,
in which American writer Whitley Strieber earnestly recounted his own abduction
ordeals. The abductee is taken every few months, usually at night; feels
paralyzed; has visions of bright lights, and afterward has a sense of lost
time. Some recount having had sexual encounters with their abductors, while
other abductees feel they've been prodded and poked with strange objects.
In Larry's case, he frequently awakens the next day with unexplained nosebleeds
and piercings on his body. He admits he has no idea why this happens to
- Harvard's Mack has his own theories about what's going
on. He maintains, for instance, that much of the UFO experience occurs
during an altered state of consciousness. "Through near-death experiences
or deep meditation, the psyche can be separated from the body and can connect
to deeper forces of the universe," he says. Although some may liken
this to a spiritual experience, abductions, notes Mack, are unique because
they appear to cross from one dimension to another. "What is distinct
about UFOs and aliens is that they appear to go beyond a spirit that has
no substance and show up as a physical body in the material world,"
he explains. "This is a problem for our Western mind-set because we
are so based on material evidence. If it comes from somewhere else, it
is hard for us to accept."
- Canadian author John Robert Colombo, who has written
three books on UFOs, doesn't doubt that the experiences are genuine --
that is, in the person's mind. He points to the work of Laurentian University
psychologist Michael Persinger, who has refitted a motorcycle helmet to
expose the wearers' brains to a rhythmic bombardment of low-intensity electromagnetic
waves. Although the gadget was developed to help people suffering from
ailments such as depression and chronic pain, Persinger discovered that
the wearers also have unusual visual sensations, like seeing angels. He
suggests these experiences may be nothing more than a neurological accident.
Epileptics, for instance, tend to have mystical experiences during seizures.
What people make of the presence before them, Persinger says, depends on
their own beliefs. "Some people may have visions of Mary," adds
Colombo. "Others might say it is an alien."
- Don't try to tell that to Dorothy Izatt. The 78-year-old
great-grandmother from Richmond, B.C., claims to have seen just about everything
there is out there. Izatt has met numerous aliens -- some are little grey
creatures, others are fair-skinned blonds -- since she first saw a spaceship
in 1974. She's also made more than 500 home movies capturing strange phenomena,
and photography experts who have viewed the films say they haven't been
doctored. "She happens to have a highly sensitive antenna," explains
Lee Pulos, a Vancouver-based clinical psychologist who knows Izatt. "She
is still rooted in this reality, but somehow she is able to tune into these
extraordinary frequencies that most of us don't even know exist."
- Like many others keeping the UFO faith, Izatt thinks
extraterrestrials are trying to tell us something: they're deeply concerned
about mankind's future. "They're letting us know that we're not evolving,"
she says. "We have wars and then we forget so we have another war.
We were put here to be guardians and keepers of the Earth, to look after
it so that it will not die. So far we have failed." No argument there.
But to true believers in visitors from the beyond, there's at least comfort
in knowing they'll try, try again.
- E.T., CHECK THE HISTORY BOOKS
- Nearly every civilization since the beginning of time
has told tales of visitors from space. The ruins of Tiwanacu in Bolivia,
for instance, reveal a city fortified by walls made of blocks weighing
up to 100 tonnes each. According to some writers, pre-Incan folklore maintained
bearded white giants from the stars we now call the Pleiades built the
walls in just one night. In the Canaima region of Venezuela, some local
indigenous people point to the tabletop mountains, known as tepuis, they
believe once ascended to heaven; the mountains were cut off, trapping some
aliens on Earth, and their descendants still walk among us.
- Then there's an Egyptian creation myth about the age
of Tep-Zepi. Long before the pyramids were built (some today believe that
they, too, were built with help from the great beyond), sky gods in flying
boats came to Earth and raised the land up from under mud and water. And
sand paintings by the Dogon of Mali in West Africa reflect the tribe's
beliefs that they were once visited by extraterrestrials from the star
sigu tolo, known today as Sirius. The evidence: although the Dogon had
no telescopes or other astronomical equipment, they possessed arcane knowledge
about some aspects of the stars and planets.
- In Canada, the first documented sighting of what is commonly
considered a UFO was in the winter of 1792. David Thompson, a Hudson's
Bay Co. explorer, and a companion were camped out in an isolated area of
what is now Thicket Portage, Man., when they saw a large "mass of
jelly" fly through the air and crash to Earth. As Thompson noted in
his journal, they failed to find it. But several days later, he reported
a second, similar sighting. Judging by the thousands of reported sightings
since, the skies over Canada are a busy place.
- From the August 13 Edition of Maclean's Magazine Copyright
by Rogers Media Inc. May not be reprinted or republished without permission.