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How Canada came to be one of the world’s leading arms dealers

Since the Liberals took office in 2015, Canadian global arms sales have grown every year

Canadian PoliticsWar ZonesCanadian Business

LAV-25 of the 12th Armoured Regiment, January 14, 2012. Photo courtesy the United States Marine Corps/Flickr.

For several decades, Liberal and Conservative governments have steadily militarized Canada. Since the end of the Cold War, peacekeeping numbers have dwindled while Canadian contributions to military interventions abroad have increased (Iraq, Somalia, the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, and Libya). Canada now ranks 70th out of 122 United Nations member states that contribute to peacekeeping operations. At the same time, Canada has risen to become the 17th largest weapons dealer in the world, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

The Trudeau government has continued these long-term trends. Since the Liberals took office in 2015, Canadian global arms sales have grown every year, with the sole exception of 2020, whose total was still “at least double that of almost all years between 1978 and 2017.” While 2020 was a low for the Trudeau government, it remains Canada’s third-highest year for military exports on record. The only two years in which Canada sold more arms abroad also occurred under the Trudeau government: 2018 (over $2 billion) and 2019 (almost $4 billion).

During the ‘War on Terror,’ fearmongering about terrorist groups provided the justification for a creeping militarization of Canada’s domestic and foreign policy. In this context, Ottawa expanded its military budgets and approved more arms sales than ever before.

Now that the War on Terror is basically over, and we have moved into what former US Secretary of Defense James Mattis dubbed an era of “great power competition,” the terrorists have been supplanted by new enemies of freedom and democracy: namely, China and Russia.

Canadian media uncritically parrots the claims of defence officials that China and Russia have plans to overrun the Arctic. News organizations report on the “Chinese interference” scandal as though anonymous sources from CSIS are beyond reproach. In this climate of fabricated fear and anxiety, it is hardly surprising that most Canadians think Ottawa should increase military spending to reach NATO’s two percent target.

As I outline in my book Canada in Afghanistan: A story of military, diplomatic, political and media failure, 2003-2023, Canadian and US weapons companies have a significant presence in Ottawa and lobby everyone from officials at the Department of National Defence to the Prime Minister’s Office. Cross-pollination between industry and government is a growing reality. Many retired government officials go on to work for weapons manufacturers. From inside these companies, they use their knowledge of the state’s inner workings to more effectively lobby the federal government for additional funding and friendly regulations.

Canadian weapons manufacturers are deeply entwined with US militarism through measures like the Defence Production Sharing Agreement. Under this bilateral pact, US-based companies send a portion of military production to Canada to “offset” Canadian purchases of US military equipment. As I write in my book:

…the US government explicitly sought entanglement of the Canadian and American defence industries in the mid-twentieth century. Washington hoped that increasing the economic interdependence of the two countries would lead the Canadian government to support US militarism since Canadian companies would also benefit. As a 1958 US national security document notes, Washington considered it important to maintain a “healthy… Canadian defence industry” so the US would “receive the same excellent cooperation in the joint defense effort that has prevailed in the past.”

Washington got what it wanted: Canadian weapons companies are entangled with the US arms industry, and Ottawa has become deeply involved in American efforts to expand or preserve its hegemony around the globe. Ongoing tensions with China represent the newest stage in this history.

As Washington enacts measures aimed at weakening the Chinese economy, Canada has come along for the ride. We are now in the midst of what many observers are calling a “new Cold War” with China. Ottawa’s diplomatic statements toward Beijing are often provocative, while Canadian ships regularly participate in US-led military transits and exercises directly off the coast of China. Worse, Ottawa’s “Indo-Pacific Strategy” calls for Canada to take an even more militarized role in the region.

We can already see this happening. In June of this year, then Defence Minister Anita Anand announced that Canada will “significantly enhance its military presence in the Indo-Pacific.” This will involve “the annual deployment of an additional warship to the region, increased Canadian participation in international exercises, and strengthened relationships with regional partners through increased security cooperation.”

Anand also announced the signing of a memorandum of understanding with South Korea’s far-right government, aimed at “allowing defence scientists [in Canada and South Korea] to share information and identify potential future partnerships” and “facilitat[ing] collaboration between our respective defence organizations, which may include the exchange of information, scientists, and engineers.”

Writing on the Department of National Defence’s refusal to take a leading military role in another occupation of Haiti, Yves Engler comments: “While close to their US counterparts, the Canadian military doesn’t want Washington’s secondary missions. It wants aggressive, flashier, NATO (or China-focused) deployments.” This seems self-evident from the Canadian government’s Indo-Pacific tilt.

Meanwhile, the war in Ukraine is boosting the profits of Canadian weapons makers. Take the following example: Ottawa recently granted a contract worth $165 million to the Canadian branch of General Dynamics Land Systems. Stefan Christoff writes: “The full amount for these 39 light-armoured vehicles was totally covered by public funds. That money could have instead gone to education or healthcare.” This is one of many examples of how the militarization of Canada goes hand in hand with the government’s underinvestment in essential public services.

Even more egregious is Ottawa’s plan to acquire US-made F-35 fighter planes for $19 billion, with an estimated lifecycle cost of $76.8 billion. If that wasn’t enough, Irving Shipbuilding, owned by one of Canada’s richest families, recently received $463 million in taxpayer funds to build a new fleet of warships. This almost half a billion dollars is just the tip of the iceberg: the Canadian Surface Combatant project is now the largest single purchase in Canadian government history. With an initial cost of $26 billion, cost overruns have brought the total price-tag to $84.5 billion. All this while Canada’s “house of cards” economy feels like it’s constantly teetering on the verge of collapse. As David Moscrop recently wrote in Jacobin:

The country is literally on fire and facing extraordinary and growing threats from climate change. It is staring down rising extremism, creeping toxic polarization, and low trust. Wealth inequality is on the rise. Its federal system is showing cracks, particularly when it comes to the relationship between Alberta and the national government. Oligopolies and monopolies run wild, exploiting consumers. [There is also] the country’s housing crisis, consumer debt, and high—and potentially rising—interest rates. Taken together, [these realities] paint a picture of working people staring down lives they can’t afford in the day-to-day. This hellish scenario persists, no matter how hard people work, and no matter how rigidly they follow the rules of the game—rules they were told are fair and just.

Seemingly nobody in a position of influence is making the connection between Canada’s overlapping economic crisis and over-investment in faraway military exercises, weapons procurement, and arms production.

In a recent op-ed for the National Post, former Defence Minister Peter MacKay called for Ottawa to make “significant investments in domestic [weapons] production” so Canada can continue arming Ukraine. He also called for “increasing the [military’s] overall numbers and capabilities” so that “democracy and freedom are preserved for our citizens and for those internationally whom we have committed to defend.”

Few are asking what this “preservation of democracy and freedom” means. War with Russia? War with China? Government officials aren’t saying this outright, but that is the implication of articles like MacKay’s and statements emanating from top defence officials.

The obvious fact that scaling down military deployments around the world would decrease the risk of war is never mentioned. The debate is limited to the following positions: should we continue spending excessive amounts on the military, or should we spend even more? The fact that the militarization itself is raising tensions is never discussed.

What are Canadians gaining from the militarization of Canada’s domestic and foreign policy? Very little, except continued underinvestment in public services, more daily precarity, and a greater likelihood of catastrophic weather events fuelled by our refusal to tackle the causes of climate change—which doubtless include our addiction to military investment. So, who does gain from it? The answer is simple: US and Canadian arms companies, and our big brothers and sisters in Washington.

Owen Schalk is a writer from rural Manitoba. He is the author of Canada in Afghanistan: A story of military, diplomatic, political and media failure, 2003-2023.


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