Conservatives promote Canada as arms dealer

Psst. Looking for arms? Guns, ammunition, high tech supplies, armoured vehicles, and more, all quality Canadian made. Background check? We can get around that. Not democratic? No worries. Tools of repression? Sounds good to us.

Stephen Harper’s Conservatives are working to expand Canadian arms exports and the focus is Middle Eastern monarchies entangled in a great deal of violence.

At the start of last year the Conservatives announced Canada’s biggest ever arms export agreement. Over the next 10 to 13 years General Dynamics Land Systems Canada will supply $14.8 billion worth of light armoured vehicles (LAVs) to the Saudi military.

Ottawa pushed this deal, which is expected to top 1,000 combat vehicles, even though Saudi troops used Canadian built LAVs when they rolled into Bahrain to put down pro-democracy demonstrations in 2011. That year the Conservatives approved arms export licences worth $4 billion to this bulwark of religious and political conservatism in the Middle East. Domestically, the House of Saud has outlawed labour unions, stifled independent media and ruthlessly suppressed dissent. One could reasonably argue that the Saudi monarchy is the worst regime in the world. (The U.S., of course, is responsible for far more violence but it is relatively free domestically. North Korea is as repressive but its foreign policy is benign compared to Saudi Arabia’s.)

General Dynamics isn’t just selling the LAVs to Saudi Arabia. An industry analyst speculates that about half of the $15 billion sale is for the equipment while the other half of the money is for training Saudi troops and maintaining the vehicles. A Canadian colonel, Mark E.K. Campbell, leads General Dynamics Land Systems Saudi Arabian LAV support program.

It’s not clear if this sale — or previous ones to Saudi Arabia — are actually legal under existing arms control measures. Ottawa is supposed to restrict arms deliveries to “governments [that] have a persistent record of serious violations of the human rights of their citizens” unless they conclude there’s no “reasonable risk” the weaponry will be used against civilians.

But federal government involvement in the sale goes beyond simply allowing it. A slew of ministers have visited Saudi Arabia in recent years and a Crown Corporation signed the LAV contracts. The Canadian Commercial Corporation (CCC) is responsible for the $14.8 billion sale with the Saudis while General Dynamics has a separate agreement to fulfill the Canadian government’s terms.

 The CCC, whose board is appointed by the federal government, has seen its role as this country’s arms middleman greatly expanded in recent years. According to a June 2011 Embassy article, “the Canadian Commercial Corporation has been transformed from a low-profile Canadian intermediary agency to a major player in promoting Canadian global arms sales.” Traditionally, the CCC sold Canadian weaponry to the U.S. Department of Defense under the 1956 Defence Production Sharing Agreement but during the Conservative government it began emulating some aspects of the U.S. defence department’s Foreign Military Sales program, which facilitates that country’s global arms sales. In June 2012 Embassy noted: “In the last few years, the Canadian Commercial Corporation, a Crown corporation, has helped Canadian firms sell everything from military hardware and weapons to wiretapping technology, forensics for ballistics, surveillance, document detection, sensor systems, bulletproof vests and helmets, training, and other services.” According to CCC president Marc Whittingham, who wrote in a May 2010 issue of Hill Times that “there is no better trade show for defence equipment than a military mission,” the agency is “partnering with government ministers to get the job done.”

Ottawa has helped arms manufacturers in numerous other ways: Last February they announced the creation of a Defence Analytics Institute to study trends in the global arms market; Over the past four years the list of countries eligible to receive Canadian automatic weapons (Canada’s Automatic Firearms Country Control List) has increased from 20 to 34 states and Ottawa is looking to add a number of other countries; To help companies navigate arms export regulations the federal government embedded a trade commissioner with the Canadian Association of Defence and Security Industries (CADSI); Ottawa has provided hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants to the arms industry’s main lobby group.

CADSI has also benefited from direct political support. In December 2011 senior representatives from the Department of National Defense, the Canadian Forces, Foreign Affairs and the CCC participated in a CADSI trade mission to Kuwait. According to the official press release, they “discussed with Kuwaiti government and military leaders how Canadian and Kuwaiti businesses in the defence and security sector can work together effectively in Kuwait and more generally in the Gulf.” CADSI president Tim Page applauded what he described as the Conservatives “whole of government effort” with the Kuwaiti monarchy. CADSI’s costs for the mission were partly covered by the Global Opportunities for Associations program. The government-backed corporate lobby group also led trade missions to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates the previous year.

In February of last year, 25 Canadian companies flogged their wares at IDEX 2013, the largest arms fair in the Middle East and North Africa. “We’re excited to see such a large number of Canadian exhibitors,” said Arif Lalani, Canada’s ambassador to the UAE, where arms bazaar was held. “These companies represent the best Canadian capabilities and technologies in a number of areas of the defence and security sector.” As part of their effort to promote Canadian weaponry, Ottawa sent naval frigate HMCS Toronto to the UAE during IDEX.

At CANSEC 2014, CADSI’s annual arms fair in Ottawa, the CCC toured delegates from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Kuwait (and a number of Latin American countries) across the “exhibition floor,” reported a press release. Officials from the crown corporation also “introduced representatives to new Canadian technologies, facilitating meetings between foreign delegations and Canadian companies.”

In recent years Saudi Arabia and the other Middle East monarchies have actively suppressed pro-democracy movements and stoked violence in Syria, Iraq and Libya. At the same time Ottawa has helped Canada’s arms industry ramp up sales to the region.

This is what Harper has in mind when he talks about a “principled” foreign policy.

This article originally appeared in the November/December issue of Canadian Dimension.

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