“Why hasn’t Canada signed the UN Nuclear Ban Treaty?” is the title of an upcoming webinar featuring Liberal MP Hedy Fry, Green Party MP Elizabeth May, NDP deputy foreign affairs critic Heather McPherson, Bloc Québécois MP Alexis Brunelle-Duceppe, and Setsuko Thurlow, who accepted the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.
This is an important and timely question in light of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) recently reaching the threshold required to enter into law. On October 24 Honduras became the 50th country to ratify the TPNW, meaning it will enter into force for those states in 90 days. United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the development “represents a meaningful commitment towards the total elimination of nuclear weapons.”
Since taking office, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has not only refused to sign or ratify the treaty, but his government voted against holding and then boycotted the conference where two thirds of the world’s nations negotiated the TPNW. Still, the Liberals claim to support nuclear disarmament, the “international rules-based order” and a “feminist foreign policy” (the TPNW makes these ghastly weapons illegal and is the first nuclear treaty that seeks to remedy their disproportionate impact on women).
How to explain the gap between the government’s rhetoric and its nuclear policy? Pressure from the United States is the reason most commonly cited by proponents of the TPNW. There’s no doubt the world’s leading nuclear power and only nation to have ever dropped an atomic bomb on a human population is threatened by the treaty. In an attempt to block the TPNW from reaching its required threshold, the US recently called on countries to “withdraw your instrument of ratification or accession” to the treaty. After the 50th country ratified it, a US State Department spokeswoman, Morgan Ortagus, told the New York Times, “the TPNW will not result in the elimination of a single nuclear weapon, enhance the security of any state or contribute in any tangible way to peace and security in the geopolitical reality of the 21st century.”
US pressure contributes to Canada’s opposition to the TPNW, but Ottawa hasn’t simply caved to Washington.
Long before the rise of Donald Trump or Justin Trudeau, Canada’s free trade agreement with the US or the TPNW, Ottawa opposed efforts to rid the world of nuclear weapons. In the 2006 book Just Dummies: Cruise Missile Testing in Canada, John Clearwater writes, “the record clearly shows that Canada refuses to support any resolution that specifies immediate action on a comprehensive approach to ridding the world of nuclear weapons.” In fact, as early as 1948, Canada voted against a UN call to ban nuclear weapons.
For years, Canadian Forces (CF) leaders pushed for Canada to formally acquire nuclear weapons. They’ve also possessed these arms and supported the US and other allies’ atomic weapons programs.
Beginning in 1950, according to a different book by Clearwater entitled Canadian Nuclear Weapons: The Untold Story of Canada’s Cold War Arsenal, the “Canadian military longed for the weapon which separated the military haves from the have-nots.” In 1960 the Department of National Defence developed a position in favour of formally acquiring nuclear weapons. In a PhD thesis on the history of the Defence Research Board of Canada, Jonathan Turner notes, “the [Defence Research] Board, and especially the Chiefs of Staff, were keen to acquire Canadian atomic and nuclear weapons.” A 1961 joint staff paper titled “Nuclear Weapons for Canadian Forces” opened by saying its objective was “to present a rationale in support of nuclear weapons for the Canadian Armed Forces.” External Affairs was opposed. After contributing to the development of the first atom bombs, CF members took part in at least 29 nuclear weapons trials in the US and South Pacific between 1946 and 1963.
During this period Canadian Air Force brass placed significant “importance” on acquiring an “offensive nuclear-strike role,” notes Ray Stouffer in his official history, Swords, Clunks and Widowmakers: The Tumultuous Life of the RCAF’s Original 1 Canadian Air Division. The Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) began secret negotiations with their US counterparts for nuclear weapons. According to Stouffer, “The clandestine nature of these discussions over the assignment of nuclear targets begs the question as to the RCAF’s motivation for secrecy.” Air Force leaders didn’t want government officials to know their plans.
At the height of Canadian nuclear deployments in the late 1960s the RCAF had between 250 and 450 US atomic bombs at its disposal in Europe. Based in Germany, the CF-104 Starfighter, for instance, operated without conventional weapons and carried nothing but a thermonuclear warhead.
Indeed, throughout the Cold War, Canada was consistently cooperative with the US on the development of nuclear weapons doctrine and in assisting with deployments during the 1960s and 1970s.
Today, Canada participates in the NATO Nuclear Planning Group and contributes personnel and financial support to NATO’s Nuclear Policy Directorate. For more than six decades Canada has backed the use of nuclear weapons by NATO forces. These armaments remain “a core component of the Alliance’s overall capabilities.” Through NATO Canada has effectively committed to fighting a nuclear war if any country breached its boundaries.
Beyond potentially disrupting its role in NATO, the TPNW could interfere with the Canadian military’s prized relations with its US counterparts in other ways. US nuclear-armed vessels dock and train in Canadian waters. Since 1965 nuclear-armed US submarines have fired torpedoes at CF Maritime Experimental and Test Ranges (CFMETR) in Nanoose Bay, located between Nanaimo and Parksville on the Strait of Georgia. Having endorsed Nuclear-Weapons-Free legislation, British Columbia’s NDP government sought a review of Nanoose Bay’s environmental impacts in the late 1990s. In response, Ottawa seized CFMETR’s land in the first hostile expropriation of provincial property since the early 20th century.
What’s more, through the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) the CF are actively supporting US nuclear policy. NORAD highlights why the CF opposes eliminating nuclear weapons and displeasing their US counterparts.
Through NORAD and a slew of other military accords the CF access “a sophistication of defence technology unavailable in Canada,” notes Ann Crosby in her book Dilemmas in Defence Decision-Making: Constructing Canada’s Role in NORAD, 1958–96. A Canadian general is the vice commander of NORAD’s advanced (mostly US) capabilities and runs the entire command when the US leadership is absent. According to Ann Griffiths’s 2002 book The Canadian Forces and Interoperability: Panacea Or Perdition?, “NORAD brings the Canadian military more deeply within the US defense establishment than any other ally.”
The US also offers the CF special treatment. In the 1960s Washington didn’t want Ottawa to share its nuclear weapons accord with the allied West German government because they weren’t given “the same level of control afforded Canada in the Canada-US agreement,” notes Clearwater.
The CF leadership prizes its special relationship with the US military and its role in the nuclear-armed NATO alliance. Canadian military leaders have long sought to gain access to the most powerful weapons the world has ever produced and in their efforts to do so were willing to keep secrets from elected officials. Ottawa’s hostility to the TPNW is far more complicated than what most understand when they hear or read about “US pressure.”
To counteract pressure from the military, substantial grassroots mobilization is required to force the government to fulfill its expressed support for nuclear disarmament, a “rules-based international order” and a “feminist foreign policy.” For Canada to sign the TPNW, we need to both rekindle the anti-nuclear movement that has garnered mainstream success and revitalize anti-war and anti-imperialist activism.
Yves Engler has been dubbed “one of the most important voices on the Canadian Left today” (Briarpatch), “in the mould of I.F. Stone” (Globe and Mail), and “part of that rare but growing group of social critics unafraid to confront Canada’s self-satisfied myths” (Quill & Quire). He has published nine books.