Disarming Security: Project Ploughshares and Canadian military export policy

Ploughshares Conventional Weapons

On February 14, 2015, Ed Fast, the former Canadian Minister of International Trade, helped announce the largest advanced manufacturing contract in Canadian history. A brilliant economic achievement on paper, the 14-year, multi-billion-dollar deal promised to directly benefit 500 Canadian companies, and continue an important trade alliance with a strategic ally. The only catch was that the deal was to manufacture a military weapons system, Light Armored Vehicles (LAVs), and the ‘strategic partner’ was the repressive theocracy of Saudi Arabia.

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 38 Issue 4 Winter 2017 by Paul Esau

Canadians have long been ambivalent (perhaps ignorant) about their country’s participation in the global arms trade, although the tangible benefits have generally been considered to outweigh the potential costs. It is easy to welcome the jobs and capital provided by military exports, and such deals have proved critical to Canada’s Defence Industrial Base (DIB) by sustaining and subsidizing military production.

On the other hand, the presence of Canadian military goods in conflict zones around the world has cast a dubious shadow over the DIB and its governmental supporters. Since WWII, Canadian exports have found their way directly or indirectly to both Iranian and Iraqi forces during the Iran-Iraq War, the American forces in Vietnam, the apartheid-era government in South Africa, the British forces in the Falklands/Maldives conflict, Israeli forces in Lebanon during the war, the governments of El Salvador and Honduras during the insurrections, and Saudi Arabia during decades of regional instability (Regehr 1987, p. 3).

In 2016, largely thanks to the LAV deal, Canada became the second-largest exporter of military goods to the Middle East (Chase 2016a).

The Canadian policy of pursuing economic advantage through military export has always conflicted with its political and ideological commitment to universal human rights and global development (GAC 2017a), but rarely has the discordance been so embarrassing and so obvious.

Global Affairs Canada (GAC) recognizes an official responsibility for the ends to which Canadian weapons and munitions are put by the eventual buyers (GAC 2017b). The 2015 deal with Saudi Arabia, a nation with a long history of human-rights abuses, would seem to be in violation of the GAC policy to closely control military exports to countries “whose governments have a persistent record of serious violations of the human rights of their citizens” (FATDC 2017, p. 54).

Still, the GAC policy also includes a loophole allowing military exports to human rights violators like Saudi Arabia if “it can be demonstrated that there is no reasonable risk that the goods might be used against the civilian population” (FATDC 2017, p. 54.)

It is precisely this loophole which GAC’s “SECRET MEMORANDUM FOR ACTION” (dated March 21, 2016 and released to the public on April 12, 2016) used to justify the exchange, asserting:

Based on the information provided, [GAC does] not believe that the proposed exports would be used to violate human rights in Saudi Arabia. Canada has sold thousands of LAVs to Saudi Arabia since the 1990s, and, to the best of the Department’s knowledge, there have been no incidents where they have been used in the perpetration of human rights violations. (GAC 2016, p. 4)

Only a month after this memo was made public, video evidence of LAVs being used by Saudi Arabia to repress dissidents between 2012 and 2015 was brought to light by The Globe and Mail reporter Steven Chase (2016b), but this finding has had, as of now, no discernable impact upon GAC’s previous decision. Sadly, this is in keeping with a historical tradition in Canadian guidelines for arms exports, which have proven time and time again to be neither as restricted nor as inflexible as advertised (Bangarth & Weier 2016; Siekierski 2016).

Some argue that the Canadian government is forging ahead with the deal because of Saudi Arabia’s importance as a security partner in an otherwise unstable region, or perhaps because it is being squeezed by pressures from a national military-industrial complex that requires foreign orders in order to remain in business (Epps 2015). After all, this single contract is projected to keep 3,000 Canadians employed for the next 14 years, primarily in London, Ontario where General Dynamics’ LAV manufacturing plant is located.

The Saudi LAV deal is not the first time that Canada has pursued major exports to a country with a repressive regime. In fact, it is only the latest in a long history of governmental encouragement of the domestic manufacture and international sale of military commodities.

For example, in 1986, Canadian External Affairs Minister Joe Clark travelled to Saudi Arabia to begin negotiating a deal that would eventually result in the same Ontario plant (under General Motors control at the time) exporting $1.9-billion worth of LAVs to the kingdom. This precursor to the current deal was being negotiated while Clark was simultaneously working on a review of Canadian export guidelines that resulted in the current GAC controls against the exporting of military goods to countries with a persistent record of human rights violations. His ability to pursue a deal with Saudi Arabia on the one hand while endorsing guidelines meant to prevent such deals on the other is an eerie harbinger of the current Trudeau government, which is again endorsing a deal with the Saudis while also promising to sign the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). It is hard to remain hopeful about the strength of that latter promise when measured against its historical precedent.

Yet not all Canadian institutions have been as friendly to the current Saudi deal as the federal government. One of the most vocal critics is the Waterloo-based NGO Project Ploughshares, which has played a role in criticizing and shaping Canadian military policy since the organization’s formation in 1976. Ploughshares is not only critical of Canada’s current agreement to supply even more LAVs to Saudi Arabia, but also of the larger discontinuities between Canadian military production, export, and policy.

In fact, the history of the Canadian arms industry since 1976 is riddled with moments when the organization helped to bring public pressure to bear upon the more dubious aspects of Canadian military production and export. Ploughshares was regularly quoted in newspapers, consulted by government committees and policy reviews, and enjoyed significant public support into the 1990s in research initiatives, advocacy campaigns, and organized affiliate groups across the country (Regehr 1994). Project Ploughshares used its platforms and leverage to promote export restrictions, budget reductions, and policy alternatives that sought to bring Canadian policy in line with novel interpretations of security, defence, and the global environment.

The advocacy practised by Canadian disarmament NGO Project Ploughshares regarding military policy and the arms trade in the 1990s was an attempt to shift Canadian priorities from national security to common security/human security, and that shift required a drastic change in Canadian military production and export policy.

Ploughshares has advocated for policies of transparency and regulation as the most effective means of constraining the global proliferation of arms, and pursued these specific policy initiatives in both the national and international forum.

This edited article is excerpted from Paul’s 2017 thesis for his Master of Arts degree in History from the University of Lethbridge in Lethbridge, Alberta. The thesis is entitled Disarming Security: Project Ploughshares, the Just War, and the New World Order and includes chapters on “Ploughshares and the Just War,” “Canada’s Defence Industrial Base,” and “Project Ploughshares in the Early 1990s.”


Bangarth, Stephanie & Jon Weier. 2016. Merchants of death: Canada’s history of questionable exports. ActiveHistory.ca, April 18.
Chase, Steven. 2016a. Canada now the second bigge4st arms exporter to Middle East. The Globe and Mail, June 14.
_____. 2016b. Saudis use armoured vehicles to suppress internal dissent, videos show. The Globe and Mail, May 11.
Epps, Kenneth. 2015. Arms export win is human rights loss. The Ploughshares Monitor, Spring.
Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada. 2017. Export Controls Handbook, August.
Global Affairs Canada. 2017a. Priorities.
_____, 2017b. Report on Exports of Military Goods from Canada – 2016.
_____. 2016. Memorandum for Action to the Minister of Foreign Affairs.
Regehr, Ernie. 1994. Project Ploughshares. Coalitions for Justice. Ed. Christopher Lind & Joe Mihevc. Ottawa: Novalis.
_____, 1987. Arms Canada: The Deadly Business of Military Exports. Toronto: James Lorimer.
Siekierski, BJ. Selling armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia: A Canadian tradition. iPolitics, February 11.

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