Tax dollars promote Canadian arms exports

Is it appropriate for the Canadian government to promote arms exports? And why, with its love of scandal does the dominant media not question this use of taxpayers’ dollars?

In recent days there’s been significant attention devoted to Canadian arms exports. A report by the UN’s Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen, which criticized Canadian weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, was widely covered. There has also been coverage of Streit Group’s sale of crowd control vehicles to Belarus and Ontario-based L3Harris WESCAM’s sale of sensors and laser targeting technology to the Turkish military, which have apparently been used in a number of conflicts including the ongoing war between Azerbaijan and Armenia.

The recent attention is welcome but there needs to be a broader discussion of Canadian arms exports. According to government statistics, there was $3.8 billion in “Non-U.S. Exports of Military Goods and Technology” in 2019. A similar amount of Canadian weaponry was probably delivered to the Pentagon, but the government doesn’t compile data on US exports (under the Defence Production Sharing Agreement the North American arms industry is highly integrated.) The Geneva-based Small Arms Survey consistently ranks Canada among the top 15 exporters of pistols, rifles and light machine guns. Canada’s share of global arms exports is several times greater than this country’s proportion of the world’s population.

Beyond a discussion of the size of Canadian arms exports, there is a need to assess the government’s role in promoting international sales. The Department of National Defence’s website highlights different forms of support to arms exporters. “Learn how the Department of National Defence can assist in connecting Canadian industry to foreign markets”, explains one section. Another notes, “Learn how the Department of National Defence keeps Canadian companies informed of business opportunities at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).”

Based in 30 diplomatic posts around the world (with cross-accreditation to many neighbouring countries), Canadian Defence Attachés promote military exports. According to DND’s website, these colonels who are supported by sergeants and sometimes a second officer, assist “Canadian defence manufacturers in understanding and accessing foreign defence markets … facilitate Canadian industry access to relevant officials within the Ministries of Defence of accredited countries … support Canadian industry at key defence industry events in accredited countries … provide reports on accredited country defence budget information, items of interest, and trade issues to Canadian industry.”

Arms manufacturers have participated in trade missions with the minister of trade or prime minister. Diplomats in the field have also helped weapons companies connect with foreign governments and the Trade Commissioner Service supports the weapons industry. In 2010 a Trade Commissioner was embedded within the Canadian Association of Defence and Security Industries. CADSI missions receive financial support from the Global Opportunities for Associations program and Western Economic Diversification Canada awarded CADSI funds in 2015 to enable Western Canadian companies to participate in international arms events and delegations. Officials from DND, Global Affairs Canada and the Trade Commissioner Service have participated in recent CADSI trade missions to Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Israel, UAE, etc. Representatives of DND often talk up Canadian military equipment as part of delegations to international arms fairs such as the UK’s Defence Security and Equipment International exhibition.

An objective of Royal Canadian Navy visits to international ports has been to spur commercial relations, especially arms sales. Lieutenant Bruce Fenton writes, “Canadian warships can serve as venues for trade initiatives, as examples of Canadian technology, and as visible symbols of Canadian interest in a country or region. In countries where relationships are built over time, as is the case with many Asian and Middle Eastern countries, a visit by a Canadian warship can be an important part of a dialogue that can lead to commercial opportunities for Canadian industry.”

When ships were sent to enforce sanctions on Iraq in the 1990s, they also showcased Canadian vessels to the Kuwaiti navy. According to a 1995 DND report, HMCS Calgary was employed “as a platform for SJSL [Saint John’s Shipbuilding Limited] Kuwait Offshore Missile Vessel proposals and for Ambassador [to Kuwait J. Christopher] Pool to promote Canadian industry and technology.” In the mid 1990s RCN visits to the Middle East were credited with generating tens of millions of dollars in contracts for CAE Electronics and Computing Devices Canada.

Naval frigates have been sent to the UAE during the Abu Dhabi-based International Defence Exhibition and Conference (IDEX), the largest arms fair in the Middle East and North Africa. In 2013, noted Lieutenant Jonathan Douglas, “[HMCS] Toronto played host to Emirati dignitaries and representatives of the roughly 30 Canadian defence firms attending IDEX, providing a forum for networking against the backdrop of a floating symbol of Canadian naval power.” Six years later, researcher Anthony Fenton tweeted, “Canadian Commander of Bahrain-based naval task force visits UAE arms bazaar where over 50 CDN companies are flogging their wares.”

To help the arms companies, Commander of the Bahrain-based Combined Task Force 150, Commodore Darren Garnier, led a Canadian military delegation to IDEX 2019. The arms companies also received support from “15 trade commissioners and representatives from the Government of Ontario, National Defence, Global Affairs Canada, and the Canadian Commercial Corporation.”

A crown corporation, the Canadian Commercial Corporation (CCC) facilitates global arms sales. Initially called War Supplies Limited, CCC draws Canadian arms suppliers and foreign buyers together and is the middleperson on sales, meaning the contracts are secured by the government of Canada. CCC signs thousands of contracts yearly with the US Department of Defense and other militaries. The CCC brokered the highly controversial $14 billion light armoured vehicle sale to Saudi Arabia.

CCC openly capitalizes on warfare. During the war in Afghanistan CCC president Marc Whittingham wrote in the Hill Times, “there is no better trade show for defence equipment than a military mission.” During the 1991 Gulf war CCC set up a 24-hour telephone hotline to ensure that weapons “requests from allies wouldn’t get snarled in red tape.”

Describing the Canadian Association of Defence and Securities Industries as one of four “key industry association partners”, CCC participated in CADSI trade missions in recent years to Kuwait, England, UAE and elsewhere. In his 2017 book Security Aid: Canada and the Development Regime of Security Jeffrey Monaghan writes, “CCC representatives have accompanied the Minister of International Trade to Libya, Peru, Russia, Ghana, Nigeria, and other locations to export Canadian security and military materials.”

How much money does the Canadian government spend every year on promoting arms sales? Would a majority of Canadians support this use of their tax dollars? Why does the arms industry need government subsidies? Why do right wing ‘taxpayer groups’ never criticize this as ‘government waste’ or ‘choosing winners’ in the economy? These are some of the questions that require answers.

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