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."
"They're letting us know we're not evolving," says Izatt, who believes she's met many aliens, and whose movies have captured strange phenomena.
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."