‘My stomach dropped’: 20 years later, former Canadian decision-makers reflect on 9/11

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Twenty years ago, David Collenette woke up at 5 a.m. to a beautiful morning in the nation’s capital.

Collenette, Canada’s transportation minister at the time, flew to Montreal from Ottawa later that morning to deliver a speech at a conference filled with global airport executives.

While reading his remarks, he noticed the crowd was becoming a bit uneasy; that’s when an aide passed him a note, informing him of a tragedy in New York and to quickly finish.

He was briefed shortly after – a plane had flown into the World Trade Center in Manhattan.

Former transport minister David Collenette, shown here in Montreal speaking on a cellphone just after the terrorist attacks on the United States, on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001. Patrick Sanfacon / The Canadian Press file photo

“My stomach dropped,” Collenette told Global News recently.

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“What I heard was that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center tower, but planes just don’t crash into buildings in Toronto, New York, Vancouver or any other city around the world.”

Two-hour drive while in ‘crisis mode’

With limited information, Collenette gave a quick media scrum to reporters and left with his aides. While on his way out, he learned of a second plane hitting another World Trade Center tower.

Collenette wanted to get back to Ottawa, but with the Americans closing U.S. airspace to prevent further attacks, they decided to go back to the capital by car – a two-hour drive.

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Global BC at 60: The attack that changed the world

What happened on Sept. 11, 2001, changed the world forever; 19 terrorists with al-Qaida, an Islamist extremist group led by Osama bin Laden, hijacked four passenger airplanes in an effort to commit attacks in the United States.

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The hijackers flew two planes into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City; terrorists in a third plane struck the Pentagon near Washington, D.C., and the fourth plane crashed in a field in Pennsylvania.

The terrorist attacks killed almost 3,000 people, including 24 Canadians. Canada, being a close ally of the United States, was pulled into the crisis to help its southern neighbour.

During his trip back to Ottawa, Collenette was in communication with his deputy minister, Margaret Bloodworth, and made the decision to close Canadian airspace.

“When you’re in a crisis mode, you want clear communications and from one source, and so my deputy was terrific,” he said.

“She made the recommendations and we had a department of justice lawyer at her side to make sure that everything we did conformed to statute; the Aeronautics Act is pretty broad with its powers and gives the minister of transport the unfettered authority — the sole authority, actually — to make these decisions.

“These were exchanges that were less than 15 seconds or 30 seconds, and then I said, ‘OK, that’s great, you have my authority.’”

9/11 was ‘just the beginning’

During his drive, Collenette chose to ground all flights that were yet to take off, but OK’d Canadian flights already in the air to head to their final destination. However, planes were still inbound from Europe, so he worked with his team to determine which flights could turn back and which couldn’t.

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About 500 flights were heading towards North America that day, one of which was carrying John Manley, Canada’s foreign affairs minister at the time.

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He was coming to Toronto from Frankfurt, Germany, and Collenette made an exception to allow him into the country as he would be needed to help with Canada’s response.

Former foreign affairs minister John Manley is seen here in a Sept 18, 2001 photo speaking to reporters as a security guard stands by following a meeting on Parliament Hill. Tom Hanson / The Canadian Press file photo

Manley told Global News he spent the majority of his flight trying to contact Ottawa while listening to the tragedy unfold on BBC radio.

“It was a remarkable experience because coming into (Toronto’s) Pearson airport and seeing no other planes, and going into the baggage area and seeing no passengers other than the passengers from our flight … it was all quite remarkable,” he said.

“I was given access to a private office from which I could speak to the prime minister, and we were sent a plane from Transport Canada to fly us from Toronto back to Ottawa so that we could all get back to work the next day.”

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With U.S. airspace closed, Canada welcomed 224 international flights that day. The majority of planes were already in Atlantic Canada and landed in the Maritimes – away from any major American cities.

Canada’s efforts that day became known as Operation Yellow Ribbon. About 33,000 passengers found themselves at Canadian airports. Many airports were called upon, including Gander International Airport in Newfoundland, which took in 38 flights. The town of 10,000 people sheltered more than 6,500 in the days that followed.

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A Friend in Need: A Canadian response to 9/11

In the days and weeks after 9/11, Manley said he was given permission by then-prime minister Jean Chrétien to speak to the press – one of the few cabinet ministers entrusted to do so.

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“It seemed to me that this was a time when we had to really focus on what was necessary to be done,” he said.

“We had to give messages to the Canadian people. We couldn’t sugarcoat the fact that there were concerns about the events that had occurred and what they might presage in terms of security risks to Canadians. On the other hand, you didn’t want to cause unnecessary panic, and so the messaging had to be very careful and very succinct.”

For Collenette, 9/11 was one of the longest days of his life.

“I don’t think that any other day of my life has had as much intensity as what happened on 9/11,” he said.

“And it was just the beginning because in the days and weeks and months after, we in government had an incredible amount to do to change all the security regulations.”


Since 2001, Canada has implemented numerous measures to protect citizens from terrorist acts, including the creation of the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority, the federal Crown corporation responsible for screening passengers and baggage.

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Most notably, Canada sent soldiers into Afghanistan, joining the United States-led War on Terror to overthrow the Taliban regime that sheltered and supported bin Laden and al-Qaida.

A Canadian soldier with 1st RCR Battle Group, The Royal Canadian Regiment, climbs over a wall as he patrols with his unit to find improvised explosive devices, or IEDs in the Panjwayi district, southwest of Kandahar, Afghanistan on June 6, 2010. Anja Niedringhaus / The Canadian Press / AP file photo

The War in Afghanistan became Canada’s longest conflict to date. More than 40,000 soldiers served in the 12-year war and 158 of them died. Canada concluded combat operations in 2011 and left Afghanistan in 2014. It remained to provide humanitarian efforts.

Today, Afghanistan is in crisis following the Taliban’s resurgence back to power. Western nations, including Canada, have been involved in evacuating hundreds of thousands of Afghans seeking to escape Taliban rule.

Manley fears much of the progress that had been made in the country, like increasing women’s rights, will be lost.

“We were welcomed with open arms when the Taliban withdrew,” he said.

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“It will be a tragedy if Afghanistan reverts to what it was prior to 9/11: a repressive, virtually medieval state where women are treated like objects, like chattel, and where there is essentially no freedom, no ability for people to achieve according to their means.”

Collenette agrees.

“I think that it’s really troubling.… We’ve sort of lost the upper hand,” he said.

“At this point, the story of Afghanistan is not going to go away, because when all the foreign troops are gone, the Taliban will have to govern … for the last 20 years, despite terrorist attacks from time to time, there was a sense of normalcy, of progress, and that is now going to be gone.”

Manley feels a democratic Afghanistan might have succeeded if Western nations had played their cards differently.

He said while the West accomplished its initial goal of dismantling al-Qaida and overthrowing the Taliban, the mission changed once Afghanistan was left without a government.

“It changed into one that was endeavouring to create a stable state in Afghanistan with a government that would be open to the West, and would be responsible to ensure the well-being of their people … I think if we had just stuck to that mission … we might have had a different outcome over the years,” Manley said.

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“The invasion of Iraq in 2003 totally distracted the U.S. from what was the mission in Afghanistan, so I think you could look at 2003 as when things began to go sideways and we lost that initial initiative.”

'Everybody came together'

As he reflects on the 20th anniversary of 9/11, Manley said the attacks unified the country.

“I think this touched people deeply to their core, I mean everyone imagined what it must have been like for the people in the planes and the people in the World Trade Center who were going about their business,” he said.

“But Canadians, generally, were welcoming and taking care of people and responding, as they would to a friend or neighbour; so I think it was that sense of commonality that this could have been me.”

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The Canadian and United States flags were lowered to half-mast at a commemorative ceremony to mark the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks against the U.S., in Gander, N.L.. on Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2002.
The Canadian and United States flags were lowered to half-mast at a commemorative ceremony to mark the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks against the U.S., in Gander, N.L.. on Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2002. Andrew Vaughan / The Canadian Press file photo

Collenette credits Canada’s response to officials who worked quickly and residents who welcomed stranded travellers.

“Everybody came together, and it was the best spirit of Canada,” he said.

“It just makes me feel proud to be a Canadian and know that we could work in that way and deliver the goods, if you will.”

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