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Direct action confronts Canada-Israel arms trade

Demonstrations across the country aim to spur critical discussion about Canada’s role in funding militarism abroad

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Peace activists block a driveway entrance to the Safran Electronics & Defense Canada Inc. facility in Peterborough, Ontario. Photo by Irene Suvillaga.

Just after dawn on February 26, a group of approximately 40 activists blocked both driveway entrances to the Safran Electronics & Defense Canada Inc. facility located in the south-end of Peterborough. The company is a subsidiary of the Safran Group, a French multinational that manufactures defence-related equipment and components, and has contracts with the Israeli military to provide it with telemetry equipment and battlefield targeting technology.

For nearly two hours, peace activists held the picket, holding signs and chanting “Arms Embargo Now” and “Stop Arming Genocide.” They also engaged with workers alongside their vehicles by handing out leaflets to those who were turned away from entering the property.

Once police arrived, the action was converted to a soft picket. Eventually, the group dispersed when it was clear that the company’s management had heard their call.

The Peterborough protest is just one of many rolling blockades targeting arms manufacturers across Canada. In late-February in Scarborough, a suburb of Toronto, a group of nearly 200 labour unionists blockaded the entrances to TTM Technologies, a manufacturing facility that produces circuit boards for the F-15 and F-16 fighter jets. Just a few hours later, another facility was targeted, this time the local office of American weapons manufacturer RTX (formerly known as Raytheon) in Calgary. Over the next few days a total of seven facilities (located in Kitchener-Waterloo, Québec City, Burnaby, and Victoria) with links to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) would have their activities disrupted as part of a nationwide effort to pressure the Canadian government to impose an arms embargo on Israel.

Urpi Pine, an Indigenous organizer who took part in the action in Peterborough, noted as she held the line: “If the government isn’t going to take action to prevent this ongoing genocide, then we are going to take matters into our own hands. The settler-colonial state of so-called Canada must stop the flow of weapons to Israel; we are morally and legally bound to do so.”

Safran is one of the world’s biggest arms makers and operates in the aviation (propulsion, equipment and interiors), defence and space markets. The corporation employs over 90,000 people worldwide and in 2022, it ranked in the top 100 global arms-producing and military services companies based on annual revenue. In February 2024, Safran reported net profits exceeding €2 billion.

Organizers turn cars away during a shift change outside the Safran Electronics & Defense Canada Inc. facility in Peterborough, Ontario. Photo by Irene Suvillaga.

In Canada, Safran’s direct subsidiary, Safran Electronics, employs over 1,700 workers at seven industrial sites across the country, including in Ajax, Montréal, Mirabel and London. Safran Electronics manufactures unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs or drones), military aircraft engines, optronic equipment and sites, as well as other components for military operations.

While Safran’s Peterborough facility mostly produces aircraft components and other avionic equipment, the company’s parent outfit is directly involved in arming the Israeli military. Safran Group’s 2022 annual report confirms that it has an agreement with the Israeli government to support the development of its Arrow 3 hypersonic anti-ballistic missile system. A press release from 2021 identifies an agreement between Safran and Rafael Advanced Defense Systems Ltd., an Israeli defence company, to produce a proprietary battlefield targeting technology which is designed to “improve situational awareness for ground forces.” Safran has also supplied surveillance equipment including fingerprint scanners and mounted camera systems to the Judea and Samaria police force in the occupied West Bank to uphold what Amnesty International has described as a system of “automated apartheid.” As Al Jazeera reported in November 2023, the current siege of Gaza has seen the testing of nascent surveillance and military technology on Palestinians, after which it is exported to foreign markets across the globe.

Last week, students at McGill University began a hunger strike, demanding that the institution divest its shareholdings in Safran. In December of last year, labour unions in France also targeted the company for its role in supplying Israel with the means to carry out its assault on Gaza.

Canada’s own military-industrial complex

For many in Peterborough, the notion that a facility in rural Ontario could possibly have links to Israel’s current onslaught in Gaza beggars belief. Workers who were engaging with protestors on site that morning repeatedly denied knowing anything about the company’s ties to weapons manufacturing. One worker noted, “I had absolutely no idea that the company is making weapons, I haven’t worked here that long and know that we’re just making landing gear.” Another worker who had worked midnight shifts noted, “the company produces components for civilian aircraft, not military aircraft.”

“There is this widespread notion, especially in smaller towns, that Canada is somehow a peacekeeping nation,” said Vladimir Cuellar, a Peterborough resident and father who brought his young daughters to the action.

“And yet, we are surrounded by manufacturing facilities producing weapons, not only for Israel, but for wars and ongoing militarization around the world. Discovering Safran was here, literally in my own backyard, was a real catalyzer for me.”

Canada is dotted with manufacturing facilities with links to Israel’s war machine. According to a database maintained by the anti-war organization World BEYOND War, there are at least 48 companies directly or indirectly involved in the Canada-Israel weapons trade, and their facilities can be found in every province except for Saskatchewan and Prince Edward Island.

It is perhaps no wonder, then, as a recent report from Project Ploughshares published in January 2024 demonstrates, that Canada’s military exports to Israel are at a 30-year high, peaking at nearly $30 million in 2021. According to an article by Peace Brigades International, over the past five years, Ottawa sold $96 million worth of Canadian military goods to Israel.

Documents obtained under Access to Information legislation by Alex Cosh of The Maple show that, from October to December 2023, Canada authorized a record-breaking amount of military export permits to Israel—at least $28.5 million, more than in all of 2021 or 2022. These revelations have stepped up the pressure on Ottawa to suspend shipments.

Just as the extensive network of arms-producing facilities reveals the embeddedness of the Canadian economy in the defence sector, it simultaneously represents a weakness—a flaw in the precarious scaffolding which continues to prop up Israel’s assault on Gaza. As this recent wave of direct actions demonstrates, mass public displeasure with Canada’s tepid and cautious approach to holding to Israel account is becoming harder and harder for the Trudeau government to ignore.

“To participate in any action in solidarity with Palestine feels so powerful,” said Georgia Lavers, a fourth-year Trent University student who organized a contingent to attend the action. “I am from small-town Ontario and seeing how our neighbourhoods have come together in power to disarm our community is so inspiring. No matter how small we are here in Nogojiwanong [Peterborough], we can really have an impact.”

Just last week, an opinion piece published in the National Post noted that Canada was “wavering” in its support for Israel, citing an anonymous source within Global Affairs Canada who alleged that new export permits of arms to Israel could be temporarily suspended (this turned out to not be the case). This comes on the heels of increased pressure from within and outside of Parliament to release detailed data on Canada’s military exports to Israel, which has been kept under lock and key by the current and past governments. But the urgency of an immediate arms embargo has dramatically increased as tens of thousands of Palestinians are killed by the Israeli military in operations that the International Court of Justice has recently ruled are plausibly genocidal. As a signatory to the Geneva Convention, Canada has a legal obligation to prevent genocide. Not imposing an arms embargo and continuing to ship military goods, despite the court’s decision, constitutes wilful complicity in the ongoing violence.

Rachel Small, Canada Organizer at World BEYOND War, recently told The Maple that this pressure is having an impact on the government’s ability to continue to delay action.

“There is no way that [Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie] Joly and [Prime Minister Justin] Trudeau would be getting up in Parliament and saying deeply misleading statements about whether or not Canada is sending weapons to Israel if they were not feeling an enormous amount of pressure to make it appear that Canada is not arming Israel,” said Small.

Canadians are feeling the weight of responsibility to act. Davis Standfield, a fourth-year student in international development studies at Trent University, emphasized the importance of direct action in challenging Canadian militarism:

I just can’t stand by any longer as Palestinians are murdered everyday with reckless abandon and wanton cruelty. We all have to ask ourselves if we are doing enough to ensure that our government is doing all it can to prevent further loss of innocent life in Palestine. If the answer is no, then I ask students and Canadians everywhere across the country that you join us in taking action. Find the plant closest to you and put pressure on them. No more weapons for war from Canada.

Challenging militarism at home and abroad

In Peterborough, those who participated in the February 26 action emphasize the relative ease with which Ottawa could impose an immediate arms embargo on Israel. As a recent open letter to the Trudeau government signed by dozens of Canadian civil society organizations shows, Canada has used arms export embargoes in the past to sanction states when there was a substantial risk that weapons would be “misused”—including in Türkiye, Belarus and Russia.

If in the immediate term, the direct actions Canadians are taking at defence manufacturing facilities could obstruct the transfer of military goods to Israel, in the long-term the hope is that this will spur a critical national conversation and dialogue about Canada’s role in materially fuelling war and conflict around the world.

Indigenous peoples and land defenders know all too well how militarized policing and surveillance work hand-in-hand to further dispossession, often at the behest of extractive industry, and see clear parallels between their own struggle for self-determination and what is taking place in Gaza and the Occupied Territories. “From Turtle Island to Palestine, Indigenous communities are haunted by similar histories of dispossession and oppression of traditional territories, identities, and freedom,” explains Urpi Pine. “The distribution of arms by Canadian companies along with Canada’s unconditional economic and military support demonstrates an unwavering commitment to a ‘colonial contract’ between these settler-colonial states.”

Indeed, Safran’s links to settler-colonialism don’t stop with Israel. In 2023, Peace Brigades International reported that the RCMP special task force responsible for the militarized raids on the ancestral lands of the Wet’suwet’en nation in British Columbia utilize Airbus H145 helicopters, the engines for which are produced by Safran. In 2015, it was reported that Israel-based international military technology company and defense contractor Elbit Systems purchased H145 helicopters from Airbus for the Israeli police force to use in ‘counter-terrorism’ and ‘border security’ operations.

For a country currently grappling with its own legacies of genocide and colonialism, direct actions like the one in Peterborough help to expose how the values of setter-colonial states are not so different, and emphasize the urgent need for decolonization at home and abroad. Respect for international law, and an end to military violence, should be a priority for us all.

Kirsten Francescone is an assistant professor in international development studies at Trent University in Peterborough (Nogojiwanong).

Irene Suvillaga is a freelance journalist from El Salvador based in Canada. She holds a degree in international development and political studies from Trent University. She is currently an intern at The Borgen Project, an organization that fights global poverty.

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