Jason Guillemette’s memory of the event is hazy around the edges, like a half-forgotten dream. He was 13 at the time, living with his family in the remote Quebec mining town of Cadillac. It was September, around 9 p.m. He remembers being perched on the handlebars of a bicycle, like E.T., while his twin brother pedalled. They were on their way home from a friend’s house when they were suddenly bathed in an intense red light.
“It came from directly above us,” says Guillemette, now 40, fair-haired, bearded and living in Chilliwack, B.C. “My brother stopped the bike right away, and I just remember looking up, because I thought a street-light transformer had blown.” But it wasn’t anything that could be so easily explained.
Hovering some 20 or 30 metres above them, he says, was a school bus–sized spacecraft. It was oblong in shape, with an underside that glowed like an overheated stove element. The ship moved silently, casting a crimson light on the street below. The two brothers stood speechless as it slipped past them and drifted over a row of houses on the horizon. Then it was gone.
In the decades since, Guillemette and his brother have told countless people this story. Some believed them, but most didn’t. Skepticism of aliens runs deep, after all, and for good reason—despite centuries of supposed sightings, there’s never been any conclusive proof that they exist.
But for Guillemette, the moment was life-altering. He had seen something that no amount of eye-rolling was going to change. “There’s not a person on this planet who could tell me that I didn’t see what I saw,” he told me. It was the start of what he describes as a lifelong obsession with UFOs: reading books, watching documentaries and poring over obscure websites and online forums. Eventually, he found his way into Canada’s ufology community.
Ufologists (pronounced “yew-fol-ogists”) are people who study unidentified flying objects. There are an estimated 10,000 amateur ufologists in North America today, and interest is growing.
For decades, ufologists like Guillemette have operated on the fringes of science and academia. They gather in virtual meet-ups and swap videos of strange lights in the night sky on Facebook pages. They carry out their own amateur research. The truth is out there, ufologists insist, if only we’d bother to look.
GUILLEMETTE’S EXPERIENCE might seem a bit far-fetched. But UFO sightings are surprisingly common. About 10 per cent of Canadians claim to have seen one. On average, three UFO sightings are reported every day in Canada, according to the Winnipeg organization Ufology Research. The group counted 1,243 sightings in 2020, up nearly 50 per cent from the year before.
“It may be because during the pandemic, people have had more time to look up at the sky,” says Chris Rutkowski, who founded Ufology Research in 1979.
Rutkowski, white-haired and bespectacled, runs his volunteer-based research organization out of a home office cluttered with bookshelves, E.T. figurines and Marvin the Martian dolls. Rutkowski has never seen a UFO himself, he told me. He started collecting stories of UFO sightings as an undergraduate student in astronomy at the University of Manitoba back in the 1970s. He spoke with people from all walks of life—from Prairie farmers to airline pilots to radar operators. “It became obvious that there was a very fascinating phenomenon that deserved a little more scientific study,” he says.
In its reports, Ufology Research breaks down cases by the number of witnesses, the colour and shape of the UFO (everything from orbs to boomerangs), the level of “strangeness” (an encounter with “grey-skinned aliens” would be considered highly strange, whereas a single flashing light in the sky would not), the reliability of the sighting (based on the number of witnesses and how well-documented it was) and its duration. In 2020, a typical sighting lasted more than 20 minutes and had between one and two witnesses.
The majority of these events can be explained as aircraft, satellites, drones or simply lens flare on a camera. Still, roughly five per cent of all UFO reports Rutkowski receives remain unresolved. It’s these ones—the ones that can’t be easily pinned down—that get ufologists excited.
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