Analyzing Canada’s 2019 Exports of Military Goods report

Kelsey Gallagher Conventional Weapons, Featured, Ploughshares Monitor

By Kelsey Gallagher

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 41 Issue 3 Autumn 2020

According to Canada’s 2019 Exports of Military Goods report, last year Canada exported weapons worth almost $4-billion—the highest value on public record. Saudi Arabia, which received 76 per cent of those weapons, is now almost certainly Canada’s prime customer, unseating the United States.

In 2019, most Canadian arms went to countries engaged in violent conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa, even though these customers were repeatedly implicated in serious violations of international humanitarian law (IHL). Such exports continued despite Canada’s 2019 accession to the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), which regulates the trade and transfer of weapons.

Although the report indicates that Canada took some steps toward transparency, problems persisted. Canadian officials continued to publish general and unclear data. Weapons exports to the United States, crucial to the Canadian arms trade, remained off the record.

Summary of trends

In 2019, Canada reported the largest export of weapons in its history, building on a previous record-high year in 2018. Weapons exports in 2019 saw a 78 per cent increase over the prior year, rising from $2.1-billion to $3.75-billion.

In 2019, Canada shipped weapons to 82 countries, down from 89 in 2018. The top three recipients were Saudi Arabia ($2.8-billion), Belgium ($151.6-million), and Turkey ($151.4-million). Exports to the United Kingdom jumped 54 per cent, from $76.8-million in 2018 to $116-million in 2019.

Carryovers from the 2018 list of the top 10 included Australia ($61.3-million), Germany ($38.9-million), the United Arab Emirates ($36.6-million), and Spain ($24.5-million). Japan ($36-million) returned to the top 10, while Singapore ($39.8-million) was a new addition. These last two countries indicate a trend in increased military and procurement spending in the Asia-Pacific region.

Exports to France, traditionally a stalwart consumer of Canadian weapons, declined to $20.3-million from $64.2-million in 2018.

The top three customers for Canadian weapons in 2019

Saudi Arabia

Most of the arms exported to Saudi Arabia were light armoured vehicles (LAVs) made by General Dynamics Land Systems-Canada (GDLS-C) in London, Ontario. Saudi-destined exports also included 635 rifles and carbines (likely including Winnipeg-made PGW Defence Technologies Inc. sniper rifles), 31 large-calibre artillery systems, and 152 heavy machine guns, which appear to have been mounted on outgoing GDLS-C LAVs.

Following the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents, Canada announced a freeze on new export permits to Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, there was mounting evidence of Saudi IHL violations and the diversion of Canadian weapons to Yemen and Yemeni security forces. These activities should, under Canadian and international law, make Saudi Arabia ineligible to receive Canadian arms.

As the freeze did not affect previously approved export permits, Canadian LAVs continued to be transferred to Saudi Arabia in record-breaking numbers. The freeze on new permits was lifted in April 2020, after Canada determined that there was “no substantial risk” that Canadian weapons would be used to facilitate war crimes or destabilize the region, or were likely to be diverted—despite significant evidence to the contrary.


Belgium was another major recipient of GDLS-C LAVs. After being fitted with Belgian-made John Cockerill (formerly CMI Defence) anti-tank turrets in Ontario, the LAVs were shipped to Belgium and thereafter northern France. A recent investigation by Amnesty International reveals that the LAVs were then used on European soil to train Saudi security forces.

When the LAVs sent to Belgium for use by the Saudi military are added to those sent directly to Saudi Arabia, it appears that total 2019 LAV exports for Saudi use exceeded $3-billion. This cumulative value is larger than Canada’s total non-U.S. arms exports for all of 2015, 2016, and 2017 combined.


Most of the exports sent to Turkey were L3Harris WESCAM Electro-Optical/Infra-Red sensors—imaging systems for tracking targets and guiding munitions that are usually mounted to the underbelly of military aircraft.

In October 2019, Turkey launched “Operation Peace Spring,” a major military offensive into northeastern Syria against primarily Kurdish groups. In response, Global Affairs Canada (GAC) announced a freeze on all new export permits to Turkey. In April 2020, GAC announced that, until further notice, export permits for Canadian arms to Turkey would be reviewed with a “presumption of denial,” effectively blocking future weapons sales.

In spring 2020, Statistics Canada data appeared to indicate that exports of Canadian imaging systems to Turkey had returned to levels seen prior to the export freeze, raising concerns that WESCAM units were being exempted from the embargo. Turkish officials later verified that they were again receiving WESCAM sensors.

While the export freeze was initially heralded as a victory for Canada’s arms control regime, the resumption of such exports reveals significant flaws. Ottawa’s reason for the exemption has not been revealed, but consistent pressure from Turkish officials, including direct calls between Turkish president Erdogan and Canadian prime minister Trudeau, was reported in the Turkish media.

Canada joins the ATT

On September 17, 2019, Canada became the 103rd state party to the Arms Trade Treaty. The Canadian government must now meet more stringent obligations to regulate and report the export of weapons systems.

Since then, Canada has made some positive steps toward transparency. For the first time, the government of Canada acknowledged that the annual publication of the Exports of Military Goods report is a “legal requirement,” thus ensuring that this information will be regularly made public, no matter which political party is in power or the government’s agenda.

However, reporting on arms transfers still does not meet a necessary standard. The current report continues to present data in unhelpful, confusing generalizations. Weapons exports are not individually defined, but organized under each destination into 22 categories, some as broad as “software” and “technology.” Such vagueness limits the amount of information that can be taken from the report and frequently results in double- or even multiple-counting, as one exported item may include systems or components from multiple categories. Counting items more than once also results in inflated export values for that destination (see Fig. 3).

The report includes the number of export permit applications and approvals. However, the value of individual permits and the weapons each permit relates to is open to interpretation. Permit denials are reported, but reasons for denials remain vague; the only reason listed for four of the five permit denials in 2019 was “Canadian foreign and defence policy.” It should be noted that, since permit denials were introduced to the annual reports in 2016, reasons for denials have become increasingly ambiguous. But the arms-control community needs to know why permits are denied to gauge the health of Canada’s regulatory regime.

Data pertaining to Canadian foreign military aid is combined with data on the sale of surplus Department of National Defence materiel. Worryingly, the 2019 report states for the first time that export permits are not necessary for these transfers, as “the Department of National Defence [DND] is not subject to the EIPA [Export and Import Permits Act].” However, Article 5 (“General Implementation”) of the ATT clearly calls for a consistent and universal application of the treaty to all arms exports.

The need for transparency

To satisfy the ATT’s requirements for transparency, states parties are expected to submit annual reports on arms exports to the ATT Secretariat and to review the reports of others. It is reasonable to assume that at least some of the data omitted from GAC’s annual reports will also be omitted from reports that Canada sends to the ATT Secretariat. This would set a disconcerting precedent in Canada’s first year as a full member of the treaty.

Canadian officials persist in citing “commercial confidentiality” to justify the omission of key data on Canadian arms exports. But the corporate sector’s legitimate need for confidentiality must be balanced with Canada’s domestic and international arms-control obligations. As well, we must consider the possibility that Canadian officials could omit key details on Canada’s arms trade if their publication would threaten lucrative or politically sensitive deals.

Transparently communicating export data not only satisfies the government’s duty to its own citizens, but contributes to the development of positive norms and best practices when engaging in the trade and transfer of weapons.

Hiding arms sales to the United States

While the 2019 report introduced some new detail on arms exports to the United States, most aspects of this crucial trade relationship remain unclear.

This year’s report included a new ECL category, Group 9, which reports the export of “full systems” (i.e., a LAV or a rifle) to the United States alone (see Fig. 4). In future years, the report will include Group 9 data for all destinations.  However, as most Canadian arms exports are parts and components, most exports to the United States are still not being reported. The 2019 exports report does not even include an annual aggregate value for arms exports to the United States.

Since 2017, ECL categories 2-1, 2-2, 2-3, and 2-4, which include firearms, their components, as well as ammunition and munitions, have included data on the United States. Small arms and light weapons sent to the United States are also reported to the United Nations Register of Conventional Arms. This information allows some insight into Canadian weapon exports to the United States. Here again, overly broad export categories reduce the value of the data.

For decades, Project Ploughshares has argued for the complete and clear reporting of all sales of Canadian military goods to the United States. The government of Canada argues that the special trade relationship between the two countries requires more relaxed reporting. But Canadian arms exporters still complete export permits for transfers to the United States; thus, it is not clear how reporting this data would have adverse effects. What is clear is that not reporting exports to the United States is a breach of the requirement for universal reporting cited in Article 5 of the ATT.

A boom for the arms trade, a bust for human rights

As the 2019 Exports of Military Goods report reveals, Canada has made progress toward greater transparency, but must take additional steps. Exported items continue to be aggregated into broad categories that hide necessary details. Critical data on permit approvals and denials is excluded. Data on exports to the United States is still largely off the public record.

The 2019 report on Canada’s military exports reiterates the government’s position that “Canada’s export controls … are among the most rigorous in the world.” But the reality is that Canada is selling prodigious quantities of weapons to documented abusers of human rights and to participants in some of today’s most horrific conflicts.

As Canada celebrates the first anniversary of its accession to the ATT, GAC needs to achieve greater transparency on the arms trade, while stemming the flow of weapons to those who will misuse them. Both the ATT and Canada’s domestic arms-control regime require such actions.

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