Canada and Nuclear Weapons: Where do we stand at the beginning of 2000?

Tasneem Jamal

Briefing 00-1

Canada and the Nuclear Challenge

Ploughshares Briefing 99/2 reported on the release in December 1998 of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade’s report Canada and the Nuclear Challenge, which recommended a number of significant, positive changes in Canada’s nuclear-weapons-related policies, including greater effort to ensure that the goal of nuclear abolition is taken seriously, support for a review of NATO nuclear policies, and support for important interim steps like the “de-alerting” of nuclear weapons.

While the Committee did not go as far as Project Ploughshares would have wished on a number of points, taken as a whole, its report and recommendations comprised an excellent program of action, addressing both the need to begin a real nuclear abolition process and the need to take immediate steps to reduce the danger of inadvertent nuclear disaster.

Project Ploughshares, our local groups across the country, and the other members of the Canadian Network to Abolish Nuclear Weapons spent much of the past year working to ensure that the Committee’s recommendations were adopted and acted on by the government.

In so doing, we relied in large part on the efforts of individual Canadians, who wrote letters to the Prime Minister, met with their Members of Parliament, wrote to their local newspapers, or otherwise worked to ensure that the Canadian government remained aware of the strong public support for nuclear disarmament action.

Our groups also worked closely with Senator Douglas Roche to build support for the Committee’s recommendations.

Church leaders meet with the Prime Minister

One of the key contributions that Project Ploughshares made was to organize a meeting in mid-April 1999 between Canadian church leaders and Prime Minister Jean Chrétien – the first such meeting on nuclear disarmament since the government of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. Included in the church delegation were Archbishop Barry Curtis, President of the Canadian Council of Churches (CCC); Janet Somerville, General Secretary of the CCC; Rev. David Pfrimmer, Chair of the CCC Justice and Peace Commission; Most Rev. Michael G. Peers, Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada; Msgr. Peter Schonenbach, General Secretary of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops; Carol Dixon, Clerk of the Canadian Friends Service Committee; Rt. Rev. Seraphim, Bishop of Ottawa and Canada, Orthodox Church in America; Rev. Stephen Kendall, Principal Clerk of the General Assembly, Presbyterian Church in Canada; Virginia Coleman, General Secretary of the United Church of Canada; and Ernie Regehr, Director of Project Ploughshares. The war in Yugoslavia (which had begun as the preparations for the meeting were being finalized) and Canada’s nuclear weapons policies were the two items on the agenda.

In addition to asking the Prime Minister to support the Standing Committee’s nuclear recommendations, the church leaders were able to personally deliver a joint letter from the Canadian Council of Churches, the Conference of European Churches, and the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA that was sent to the heads of all NATO governments asking them to:

• affirm NATO’s support for the rapid global elimination of nuclear weapons and commit the Alliance to take programmatic action to advance this goal;

• commit NATO to reducing the alert status of nuclear weapons possessed by NATO members, and to pursuing effective arrangements for the rapid de-alerting of all nuclear weapons possessed by all states; and

• renounce the first-use of nuclear weapons by any NATO members under any circumstances, and commit NATO to the pursuit of equivalent commitments from other states possessing nuclear weapons.

New nuclear policy released

The government released its response to the Standing Committee’s report on 19 April 1999. The nuclear abolition movement can take great pride in the fact that this long-awaited statement took several significant steps forward, incorporating a number of the movement’s recommendations. (The details of the new policy are summarized in “Nuclear policy statement released,” Ploughshares Monitor, June 1999.) In many other respects, however, the policy remained disappointingly mired in the nuclear policies of the past.

The limitations of the government’s new policy were made clear only days after its release when Canada and its allies approved the latest version of NATO’s Strategic Concept document, recommitting the Alliance to its existing nuclear policies, at the NATO Summit Meeting of 23-24 April. Among its other provisions, the new Strategic Concept reaffirmed NATO’s claims that nuclear weapons “fulfil an essential role” in NATO defence policies and that the strategic nuclear forces of the Alliance are the “supreme guarantee of the security of the Allies.”

This left the Canadian government in the awkward position of being committed to a strategy that its own policy statement had described as unsustainable: in its response to the Committee report, the government declared that “The only sustainable strategy for the future is the elimination of nuclear weapons entirely;” at the NATO Summit, however, it pledged its support for the retention of nuclear weapons “for the foreseeable future.”

NATO review still to come

Fortunately, the policy review process is not over. The call made by Canada and some other NATO countries for a substantive review of NATO nuclear policy in the months leading up to the Summit did not succeed, but the Alliance did promise at the Summit to undertake a future review of “options for confidence and security-building measures, verification, non-proliferation and arms control and disarmament.” The December 1999 NATO Foreign Ministers’ meeting took up this promise, stating that:

We have decided to set in train this process and have instructed the Council in Permanent Session to task the Senior Political Committee, reinforced by political and defence experts as appropriate, to review Alliance policy options…, so that a comprehensive and integrated approach to the accomplishment of the remit agreed at the Washington Summit is ensured. The responsible NATO bodies will contribute to this review. We have directed the Council in Permanent Session to submit a report to Ministers for their consideration in December 2000.

Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy has made it clear that Canada interprets this mandate to specifically include NATO’s nuclear weapons policies. It is still far from clear, however, that NATO’s nuclear states agree that Alliance nuclear policies will be on the table. Project Ploughshares is calling on the government to work with other like-minded countries to press forcefully for a wide-ranging and thorough review that will produce substantive changes in NATO’s nuclear policies.

Action at the United Nations

A small step in this direction was taken in November and December 1999, when 14 of the 16 non-nuclear NATO members, including Canada, abstained on the New Agenda Coalition resolution at the United Nations, repeating the low-key nuclear revolt begun by the Alliance’s non-nuclear members in 1998. (The main provision of the New Agenda Coalition resolution calls on the nuclear-weapon states to “make an unequivocal undertaking to accomplish the speedy and total elimination of their nuclear arsenals and to engage without delay in an accelerated process of negotiations” to achieve nuclear disarmament. The nuclear members of NATO opposed the resolution and urged their non-nuclear allies also to vote against it; Project Ploughshares and other members of the nuclear abolition movement urged them to vote in favour of it. By opting to abstain, the non-nuclear states sent the message that they supported the resolution in principle, but were unwilling to make an explicit public break with their allies.)

In his explanation of the Canadian vote, Canada’s Ambassador lauded the contents of the resolution but argued that “the nuclear-weapon States and their partners and alliances need to be engaged if the goals of the New Agenda resolution are to be achieved.” Canada therefore looked on the NATO review process as “one of the avenues for addressing the critical issues raised by the New Agenda resolution.”

New momentum needed

As the resolution itself highlighted, recent adverse developments – including the defeat of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty by the US Senate, the growing US-Russian dispute over the future of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, and the nascent nuclear arms race in South Asia – have dangerously undermined the worldwide nuclear arms control and non-proliferation regime. (The possibility that the US will make a decision in June or July 2000 to deploy a ballistic missile defence system, thus threatening the future of the ABM Treaty, has direct implications for Canadian participation in NORAD, ensuring that missile defence will be an especially important issue in Canadian defence and arms control policy over the next several years.) It is vitally important that all countries work to protect and restore momentum to the nuclear disarmament process.

NATO’s nuclear policy review will be one of the few positive developments that the nuclear-weapon states will be able to point to when the first full review of the Non-Proliferation Treaty since its permanent extension in 1995 is conducted in April/May 2000. It is all the more important, therefore, that NATO states are able to clearly demonstrate that a substantive review of NATO nuclear policy is underway.

Role for the Canadian public

We need the support of the Canadian (and global) public to ensure that NATO’s review is a real process that produces real change.

NATO’s members should commit themselves to the early elimination of nuclear weapons, in accordance with their obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty. They should also take immediate steps, such as those recommended by the church leaders, to reduce the risk posed by current nuclear weapons and to minimize the political value accorded to them.

Please write to Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and Minister of Foreign Affairs Lloyd Axworthy (House of Commons, Ottawa, Ontario, K1A 0A6; no postage required; e-mail:, urging the Canadian government to:

• work with other like-minded governments to ensure that NATO conducts a serious and open review of its nuclear weapon policies; and

• press forcefully for substantive changes in those policies.

NATO’s new nuclear policy should:

• affirm NATO’s support for the rapid global elimination of nuclear weapons and commit the Alliance to take programmatic action to advance this goal;

and, in the interim,

• commit NATO to reducing the alert status of nuclear weapons possessed by NATO members, and to pursuing effective arrangements for the rapid de-alerting and de-mating of all nuclear weapons possessed by all states;

• renounce the first-use of nuclear weapons by any NATO members under any circumstances, and commit NATO to the pursuit of equivalent commitments from other states possessing nuclear weapons; and

• reaffirm existing arms control commitments, including the ABM Treaty.

Please also send a copy of your letter to Project Ploughshares (preferably by e-mail to

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