Register Friday | July 23 | 2021
I Want To Believe Illustration by Clea Christakos-Gee

I Want To Believe

Most people who have witnessed UFOs feel clear-eyed. Helping others see the light isn’t so simple.

Jason Guillemette’s memory of the event is hazy around the edges, like a half-forgotten dream. He was thirteen at the time, living with his family in the remote Quebec mining town of Cadillac. It was September, around 9 PM. 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 directly from above us,” says Guillemette, now forty, fair-haired, bearded and living in Chilliwack, BC. “My brother stopped the bike right away and I just remember looking up, because I thought it was a [streetlight] transformer that had blown.” But it wasn’t anything that could be so easily explained. 

Hovering some twenty or thirty metres above them, he says, was a school-bus-sized spacecraft. It was oblong-shaped, 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: friends, co-workers, family. 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 that 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. “Anything I could find that could lead me to the truth, man.” Eventually, he found his way into Canada’s ufology community. 

Ufologists (pronounced “yew-fol-o-gists”) are people who study unidentified flying objects. There are an estimated ten thousand amateur ufologists in North America today, and interest is growing. Many have had first-hand experiences like Guillemette. They’ve seen something that can’t be easily explained—a glitch in the Matrix, so to speak—and they want answers. But they’ve been largely shunned by the scientific community, and even by friends and family. 

For decades, ufologists like Guillemette have been relegated to the fringes, hunkered alongside believers in ghosts and unicorns. 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, fuelled by faith and a dim hope that science and academia might someday take them seriously. The truth is out there, ufologists insist, if only we’d bother to look. 

Guillemette’s experience might seem a bit, well, far-fetched. But UFO sightings are surprisingly common. About 10 percent of Canadians claim to have seen one. On average, three UFO sightings are reported every day in Canada, according to the Winnipeg-based organization Ufology Research. The group’s most recent report showed a total of 1,243 sightings in 2020, which shot up by nearly 50 percent from the year before. “It may be because [during the pandemic] people have just 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. But as a kid, he was fascinated with sci-fi books and television shows like The Twilight Zone. He started collecting stories of UFO sightings as an undergraduate student in astronomy at the University of Manitoba back in the 1970s. His interest in UFOs wasn’t met with much enthusiasm from the school’s faculty, however.

“My professors were very skeptical and, in fact, often dismissive of the subject,” he says. “That in itself made me curious about what it was that people were seeing and reporting as UFOs. Because if there really is nothing to [the stories], why were more and more people reporting them every year?”

He began reaching out to anyone who had reported a sighting to the media or the school’s astronomy department. 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.

Unlike most ufologists, Rutkowski maintains a cautious, even skeptical, tone. “Because of my astronomy background, I’m well aware of the sheer distance to even nearby stars,” he concedes. “The possibility that some of the UFO reports represent aliens coming to earth is rather remote.” Still, it’s that possibility—slim as it might be—that continues to pique Rutkowski’s curiosity. 

In its annual report, Ufology Research breaks down cases by the number of witnesses, 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 the sighting was) and its duration. In 2020, a typical sighting lasted more than twenty minutes and had between one and two witnesses. 

The majority of these sightings can be explained as aircraft or satellites or drones or simply lens flare on a camera, Rutkowski says. Still, roughly 5 percent of all UFO reports he receives remain unresolved. It’s these ones, the ones that can’t be easily pinned down, that get ufologists like Rutkowski excited. 

But how exactly does one prove that UFOs actually exist? For ufologists, that’s always been the conundrum. The truth might be out there—but it’s frustratingly elusive. UFO sightings are usually fleeting. Memories of the events are often shaky, the photographs blurry. Details become unreliable. 

Guillemette volunteers as a field investigator with the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON),  a US-based organization with more than four thousand members. It claims to be the largest ufology group in the world. According to its website, MUFON has trained and certified more than five hundred field investigators. Guillemette is one of several in Canada.  His territory is BC’s Lower Fraser Valley, an area that has long been associated with Sasquatch sightings and was a popular filming location for The X-Files. “Trying to cover this area by myself is basically impossible because of the amount of paranormal activity that goes around,” he says. 

Guillemette estimates he spends upwards of fifteen hours per week investigating sightings, reading ufology news and producing a monthly podcast on the subject. This, with a wife, two kids and a day job selling insurance to juggle. “When I first started talking about [ufology] with my wife, she wasn’t too sure what the deal was,” he admits. But she’s been supportive, he says, sometimes even joining him to scan the night sky outside their home. 

Guillemette’s investigations usually start in one of two ways: someone sends a request to the MUFON website, or he’s contacted through one of several ufology-focused Facebook groups, such as UFO BC. In either case, the person has seen something strange and they want an explanation, which is where Guillemette steps in. (If you’re thinking Fox Mulder, you’re not far off.) The first thing Guillemette does is have them fill out a report describing what they saw: where and when it happened, and who was with them at the time. He asks for copies of any photographs or videos. Then he interviews them. 

Most of the time, he’s able to find an explanation, he says. He often sends videos to other volunteers at MUFON who specialize in analyzing computer images. He refers to websites that track the flight patterns of satellites and planes and the International Space Station—the usual suspects when it comes to UFO sightings, he says. Guillemette described a recent case in which a couple reported seeing strange lights hovering above a nearby lake. The lights circled above the lake and then dropped down into the water, only to rise up a moment later and zip away. It turned out to be a plane, he says—filling up with water to fight a nearby forest fire. “Not everybody likes what we come up with,” he says, “but sometimes it’s really evident.”

But like sightings submitted to Ufology Research, there are some that defy easy explanation. Recently, there have been reports in the Fraser Valley of a triangular-shaped UFO with three lights on its underside, Guillemette says. It was spotted flying over downtown Chilliwack one midnight. A woman in Maple Ridge saw it hovering above her suburban home. Another near Aldergrove watched as a triangular set of lights flew across the rural road she was driving on, forcing her to pull off onto the gravel shoulder. For cases like this, Guillemette does what he calls a “night watch.” He drags his equipment—a camera, tripod and binoculars—to where the sighting ­occurred and he hunkers down for the evening, in hopes of catching a glimpse of something strange. “It’s best to also bring bear spray and a BB gun,” he says with a chuckle. 

To date, Guillemette hasn’t tracked down any hard evidence of extraterrestrial life. The mysterious triangular lights continue to elude him—popping up here and there, like a never-ending game of whack-a-mole. 

But other investigators, like Vancouver’s Charles Lamoreaux, have had more success. Lamoureux, who dubs himself “Skywatcher,” has a series of Youtube clips showing glowing orbs in the sky near his downtown condominium, which he shot using a night-vision camera over the course of several months. 

In one video, which has more than twenty thousand views, an orb seems to slowly float across the evening sky and then flare up brightly before adjusting its course. Was it proof that “contact is just around the corner,” as one commenter noted? Or was it “nothing more than a satellite,” as another, more skeptical poster suggested? 

Humans have been seeing mysterious things in the sky going back centuries, and likely earlier. There are plenty of cosmic-encounter tales from Indigenous cultures. Take the “Skyman” or “Man from the Sky” legend from the Anishinabek people of central Ontario, a version of which was recorded in 1917 by ethnologist Colonel G.E. Laidlaw. Five hundred years ago a pair of Ojibwe men stumbled upon a stranger sitting in a grass field. This figure, described as “clean and shining bright,” told the men, “I don’t belong to this land, I dropped down from above, yesterday, so I am here now.” 

The men invited the Skyman back to their village, where he stayed but was visibly restless. One afternoon, Skyman looked up and said, “It is coming.” The villagers craned their necks and saw something that looked like a bright shining star streak down from the heavens and hover near the ground. Skyman entered the shining star and disappeared from view. The ship then shot back into the sky and faded away.

The first UFO sighting of the modern era is often credited to an American pilot named Kenneth Arnold. On June 24, 1947, Arnold was flying his propeller plane from Yakima to Chehalis, Washington. Midway through his trip, he claimed to have seen nine flying objects lifting off the ground near Mount Rainier and whooshing past him at speeds of more than one thousand miles an hour. They spun like “saucers,” he told newspaper reporters the following day.

Arnold became a minor celebrity. But there was a dark side to his experience as well: most people didn’t believe him. They thought he was seeing things, or outright lying. In his autobiography, Arnold wrote, “I have been subjected to ridicule, much loss of time and money, newspaper notoriety, magazine stories, reflections on my honesty, my character, my business dealings.” He wrote that if he saw a ten-storey building floating in the sky today he wouldn’t tell anyone else about it, out of fear of being mocked.

The stigma of seeing a UFO remains strong today, says Paul Kingsbury, a geography professor at Simon Fraser University who spent several years studying the ufology community. Kingsbury’s research was focused on the social phenomenon of UFOs—the people who claim to have seen UFOs and the social networks they form. “Academic research on paranormal culture has largely been through the lens of popular culture, [like] movies, comics, folklore,” he explains. “But no one had really looked at the people themselves.” 

Kingsbury found that shame is one of the main reasons people get involved in ufology groups—it’s a place where they can share their experiences without judgment. “When you speak about UFOs, someone’s got a smile on their face,” he says. “You’ve got to be really careful about who you tell.” Kingsbury sees similarities between the experience of a person who has seen a UFO and someone who has had a profound religious moment, or has fallen in love. “It redefines who they are as a human being,” he says. 

He attended two of the largest UFO-themed conferences in the world in 2015 and 2016—one in Irvine, California and the other in Scottsdale, Arizona—where he found many attendees had travelled far for the chance to interact with others who had had similar experiences, in what he describes as a safe space. The conferences even offered “experiencer sessions” run by a professional psychotherapist or someone trained in hypnosis regression to retrieve materials that an attendee may have forgotten or repressed. 

Kingsbury was struck by the authenticity of most ufologists he interviewed. “I don’t think many people [who claim to have seen a UFO] are hoodwinking or lying or are psychologically disturbed,” Kingsbury says. “That is what’s most intriguing to me.” 

Jordan Bonaparte started the Facebook group UFOs Above Canada two years ago, inspired by a personal UFO sighting he had as a kid. “There are people all over [the country] who have a personal story or have a story within their family and they’re interested in it,” he says. “But there’s nowhere really to talk about it that doesn’t come across like a National Enquirer story.”

Today, the site has more than five thousand members who share gossip of government cover-ups—there are decades’ worth of UFO conspiracy theories—and links to the latest research and news. They swap stories and grainy photographs of glowing balls and shape-shifting auras and mysterious pin-pricks in the night sky that seem to dance like fireflies. 

According to Bonaparte, posters typically fall in one of two camps. The first are those who saw something weird and are sharing it, mostly on a lark. Members of the second camp have had a much deeper experience. “When they share their story, it’s not a photo and a couple of lines,” he says. “It’s going to be something that you have to sit down and scroll through and read their life history, because whatever it was that they saw, it changed everything.” 

Why do people respond so differently? Research suggests it may have to do with a person’s spirituality: A non-religious person who sees a UFO is more apt to believe that it was real, and to find deeper meaning in it. Researchers have suggested the decline in organized religion might be partly behind the growing interest in ufology. 

For many people, having that profound personal experience is enough, without having to share it with others—most UFO sightings are never reported. But some yearn for external validation, and to connect with people who have had similar experiences. They flock to sites like UFOs Above Canada, which Bonaparte says has been growing steadily since he launched it. 

Still, Bonaparte shares a common frustration amongst ufologists: aside from a handful of academics like Kingsbury, researchers seem to pay little attention. Did they ever? 

Bonaparte points wistfully back to the 1960s, a time he calls the “golden age” of scientific research on UFOs. In the years that followed Kenneth Arnold’s flying saucers, Americans began spotting all sorts of unidentified objects overhead. At the same time, the US Air Force started tracking UFO reports through what was called Project Blue Book. The research program, which is generally considered the Rosetta Stone of UFO studies, ran for nearly twenty years and recorded more than twelve thousand sightings. Project Blue Book was shuttered after the military concluded it had found no evidence of UFOs (something ufologists dispute to this day). 

The Canadian government launched a similar UFO research program called Project Magnet in 1950. A UFO observatory was even built in Shirleys Bay, just outside Ottawa. The four-metre-square shed housed instruments including a gamma-ray counter, a magnetometer, a radio receiver and a cluster of antennae. The program was closed just a few years later, with the government concluding that UFOs were “not amenable to scientific inquiry.”

As governments scaled back on research, public interest in UFOs seemed to only grow stronger. In the Nova Scotia fishing village of Shag Harbour, multiple residents reported seeing a glowing object flying over the harbour and then crashing into the water on the night of October 4, 1967. Witnesses reported hearing a whistling sound “like a bomb,” then a “whoosh,” and finally a loud bang. The object was never officially identified. That same year, in Falcon Lake, Manitoba, mechanic Stefan Michalak claimed to have seen two cigar-shaped glowing ships while on a prospecting trip in the woods. According to Michalak’s account, one of the ships landed, but when he tried to approach it he was badly burned. He went to a nearby hospital with strange grid-like welts across his body and died less than a year later. 

Sightings like Shag Harbour and Falcon Lake have become the stuff of modern folklore. But for some ufologists, the popularization of aliens—often depicted as cartoonish green, bug-eyed creatures in flying saucers—has taken away from the legitimacy of their search. 

“Between the ufology community itself and the media wanting to dramatize everything, they basically turned the subject of investigating this phenomenon into a taboo as far as academia was concerned,” says Robert Powell, who lives in Austin, Texas. Recently, Powell established an organization called the Scientific Coalition for Unidentified Aerospace Phenomena Studies. The SCU, as it’s usually referred to, bills itself as a “think-tank of scientists, former military and law enforcement officials and other professionals who seek evidence-based answers to UAP questions.”

Powell was a long-time volunteer with MUFON, but grew frustrated with the mix of fandom, cosplay and sci-fi that permeates the organization’s ufology community. The SCU has just over a hundred members, he says, more than half of whom have graduate degrees. The group does its own investigations of UFO sightings and aims to partner with government and universities on research. Still, he admits that academia has yet to embrace ufology. “They won’t touch us with a ten-foot pole,” he says. 

But Powell sees a parallel in the field of research known as the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or SETI, which has gained acceptance in academia. SETI research involves pointing giant radio telescopes at distant corners of the galaxy and listening for signals that could be from intelligent life. The practice started more than sixty years ago with a telescope in Virginia, but for decades SETI was the pariah of astronomy research—too “out there” to be taken seriously and chronically underfunded. 

But recently, SETI research has taken off, fuelled by private donors and the discovery of thousands of Earth-like planets elsewhere in the galaxy. One of the world’s largest such telescopes is near Penticton, BC. In 2019, scientists there made headlines when they recorded mysterious repeating signals from a far-off solar system, which remain unexplained.

Powell argues that if scientists are open to the idea that life might exist elsewhere in the universe—the basis of SETI research—they’re one step closer to considering the possibility of UFOs. “If you ask most SETI scientists, is intelligent life out there? The answer is yes. And if you ask them, do they know we’re here? Most SETI scientists today would answer yes,” he says. “The only question left then is can they get here? And that’s where many scientists—and many people in general—have a barrier.”

One day, will we look back and be amazed that we once thought we were alone in the universe? Maybe. It wasn’t that long ago,  after all, that scientists believed aliens were living on Mars. In the nineteenth century, an Italian astronomer named Giovanni Schiaparelli swore that he saw canals on the surface of the red planet. Clearly, they’d been dug by someone, he argued. Not long before that, we believed that the entire universe revolved around the Earth. All this to say that science is forever changing. What was once heretical can eventually become an accepted truth. Or not. 

It’s hard to know what to say when someone recounts seeing a UFO. It simply doesn’t jive with our dominant worldview. Over the course of this story,  I spoke with three people who had seen unexplainable, mind-boggling objects in the sky. Each spoke candidly about their experience and described it with compelling certainty, even bravery. And each time I replied with something along the lines of “wow,” which was shorthand for I’m really not sure what to say

But in a way, I could empathize. As a kid, I had a somewhat similar experience, though it wasn’t exactly a UFO. Here’s what I remember: I was six or seven years old at the time, standing on a neighbour’s back step with a friend who lived down the street. It was early evening and a thunderstorm had just passed. The air was heavy, the ground still wet. That’s when we saw it: a ball of fire, hovering like a comet about ten feet off the ground. It was the size of a basketball and it seemed to glide through the air in a way that defied gravity, as if pulled by a string. 

I don’t know where the fireball went or who we told, if anyone. It’s a memory that’s been cut out from time. My friend moved away shortly after and we lost touch. But the experience stuck with me. Years later, I pored through science textbooks and encyclopedias at my university library (this was early internet days) and I eventually found an answer: a phenomenon known as “ball lighting.” There are numerous historic accounts of lighting balls—flying through open windows, shooting out of a fireplace, even floating down the aisle of a church—though there is still no proven scientific explanation. Still, finding a plausible answer was a relief for me. 

But maybe the quest for an answer is misguided. Maybe the power of seeing something unexplainable in the sky is that it reminds us that we don’t know everything, and that mysteries still exist. In this way, ufology might be more akin to a modern religion or philosophy—one that’s rooted in the belief that we are not alone and that salvation (in the form of an alien visitor) might still be possible. “People have a desire to believe that life is out there,” Ufology Research’s Chris Rutkowski told me. “This belief shapes our culture, it shapes our society and it’s part of who we are. I think we’ve come to hope that there might be somebody out there wanting to communicate with us.”

I asked Jason Guillemette, the ufologist who saw the school-bus-sized spacecraft as a kid, when he thought there might be hard evidence that UFOs exist. He talked about a recent news story about two US Air Force pilots who recorded several interactions with what the Pentagon described as “unidentified aerial phenomenon.” The videos show a round object that resembles a spinning top hovering and then zooming across the pilot’s screen (you can hear one of the pilots drawl “look at that thing, dude”). According to a New York Times story, the mysterious object had no visible engine or exhaust plumes, but was able to reach hypersonic speeds. The videos are worth checking out, but they’re not quite the smoking gun that I was looking for. 

I mean irrefutable proof, I said. Proof that would convince even non-ufologists. “I would say definitely within the next five years,” Guillemette eventually predicted, “five years for sure.” He paused for a moment then. “I mean, hopefully.”

Brad Badelt is a freelance writer based in Vancouver, BC. He’s currently pursuing an MFA in creative nonfiction at the University of King’s College.