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Dismantling the Myth of 'Canada the Peacemaker'

1 May 2000

By Richard Sanders, Coordinator, Coalition to Oppose the Arms Trade.

The belief that Canada is a major force for global peace, forms the basis of a powerful myth that is integral to our culture. This myth shapes the image that we have constructed of ourselves and it moulds the way that others see us. Like all myths, it has very little basis in reality.

The symbolic gestures and diplomatic postures that our government parades in public, compose a carefully calculated mask to hide their behind-the-scenes actions. Our government makes proud statements about its restrictive arms trade guidelines while encouraging and assisting military producers to make deals that undermine international peace and security. During this, the UN Year for a Culture of Peace, Canadian peace activists will continue to challenge our national "peacemaker" myth by helping people face the truth about this country's real role as a "war maker." To do this, it is important to expose Canada's active participation in:

  • The international arms trade,
  • Undeclared wars against Iraq, Somalia and Yugoslavia, in the 1990s,
  • The provision of weapons testing ranges (air, land and sea) for use by foreign militaries,
  • A military alliance that threatens to use nuclear weapons, i.e., NATO,
  • The proliferation of uranium and nuclear power plants.

International Arms Trade

Canada was the world's ninth largest arms exporter in 1997.[1] We ranked even higher, however, in terms of our military exports to the "Third World." In that category, we ranked seventh.[2]

The Key to Military Equipment Types," on page 5, outlines the wide range of Canadian military exports. These numbered equipment types are referred to in many of the tables in this issue. All of the data on Canada's military exports is from annual reports published by the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT), called Export of Military Goods from Canada.[3]

These reports are significantly flawed. They omit all data on military exports to the U.S., which is by far, our largest buyer. The magnitude of this flaw is evidenced by DFAIT's estimate that 80% of Canadian military exports in 1997 went to the U.S.![4]

Toothless Guidelines. As anyone who has written to protest Canada's military exports will know, DFAIT is proud of its 'guidelines' governing military exports. These guidelines state, in part, that: "Canada closely controls the export of military goods and technology to countries that are involved in or under imminent threat of hostilities... and whose governments have a persistent record of serious violations of the human rights of their citizens, unless it can be demonstrated that there is no reasonable risk that the goods might be used against the civilian population."[5]

These guidelines are worse than toothless, they are essentially meaningless. They do not state that Canadian companies cannot sell military equipment to governments engaged in war, or that might be used against civilians. They merely state that such sales will be "closely controlled." In the bureaucratic, through-the-looking-glass world of government bureaucracies, "closely controlled" can actually refer to concerted efforts to assist corporations in their relentless drive to increase military exports (as long as that increase is "closely controlled").

DFAIT's most recently published policy document on aerospace and defence sector exports, states that: "China, Japan, India, South Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines offer potential for Canadian defence products.... Australia offers important opportunities for addition to good prospects for the development of strategic alliances aimed at penetrating markets in Southeast Asia.... Countries such as Chile, Argentina, Mexico and Peru represent emerging markets that require strategic positioning by Canada and Canadian A&D [i.e., "aerospace and defence" (sic)] firms, especially in terms of follow-up to the success of Canadian participation at FIDAE '96 [Latin America's largest arms bazaar!]. The Middle East remains an important market, particularly for defence-security firms....

The region accounts for more than 40% of all defence-product transfers and is expected to absorb over $150 billion by the year 2000. Saudi Arabia is expected to purchase $32 billion worth of military equipment and other targets include the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait.[6]

Aiding and Abetting Wars

During the 1990s, Canada exported military equipment to several governments engaged in war. Chief among these was, of course, the U.S. that has always been Canada's largest purchaser of military equipment. Even during the worst excesses of the 1960s - during the Vietnam War, when three million people were killed in Southeast Asia - Canadian industries were assisted by our government in ensuring a steady supply of military hardware to fuel the U.S. war machine.

The fact that the U.S. has engaged in more interventions and invasions than any other country this century has never stopped the Canadian government from actively promoting military exports to our friendly neighbour to the south. Neither have Canada's military exports been stopped because the U.S. has armed, financed, trained and equipped dozens of covert wars, organized death squads, backed military coups against elected governments, undermined and rigged elections, assassinated foreign leaders and propped up ruthless dictators who offer bargain basement, union-free factories and all-round cheap access to natural resources.[7]

In 1991, the U.S. led the devastating war against Iraq, and with the support of Canada and the UN, has lead the economic blockade which has killed almost two million people! Canada also supplied military hardware to many of the other "coalition forces" which participated in that war. In 1998, the U.S. overtly bombed Afghanistan, Iraq and Sudan.

One might reasonably expect that the U.S. government's standing as the world's rogue superpower and its unbridled thirst for starting wars and backing military dictatorships, should mean that it would be subject to more arms export restrictions than other, less violent governments. Unfortunately, as usual, the opposite is true. Our government has never placed any restrictions on military exports to the U.S. In fact, there is only one country for which Canadian companies have never been required to obtain military export permits from our government. That country is, of course, the U.S.

In the 1990s, DFAIT permitted military exports to at least 17 governments that engaged in wars during the late 1990s.8 These mostly internal wars, which SIPRI and the Center for Defense Information called "major armed conflicts," were in: Algeria, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Ethiopia, India, Indonesia, Israel, Kenya, Pakistan, Peru, Philippines, Russia, Sri Lanka, Turkey, the United Kingdom, Yugoslavia and Zaire. Canada's declared military exports to these warring nations, during the 1990s, totalled just over $300 million.

Supporting 'Security' Forces in Repressive Regimes

One need only examine the evidence amassed here to see that Canadian corporations and the government are still very much complicit in crimes against peace, crimes against humanity and war crimes. Some of the governments purchasing Canadian military hardware are notorious for violating human rights. Many so-called "security" forces armed by Canada are well known to routinely engage in torture and extrajudicial executions.

In 1998, the following countries purchased Canadian military hardware, even though torture by their military and/or police was reported that year by Amnesty International to be "widespread," "endemic," "systematic," "officially sanctioned," "frequent" or "commonplace": Argentina, Brazil, China, Egypt, Israel, Mexico, Peru, Philippines, Turkey and Venezuela.

Between 1990 and 1998, the Canadian government permitted the military exports to numerous undemocratic and repressive regimes. For instance, Canada has sold arms to:

  • Brunei, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Oman: Countries which have never had any elections;
  • Bahrain: Its only legislature has been dissolved by decree since 1975;
  • Kuwait: Women still do not have the right to vote or stand for election;
  • Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Kenya, Mauritania, Morocco, Lebanon, Pakistan, Singapore, St. Vincent, Togo and Turkey: Women held less than 5% of the seats in parliament in 1999;
  • Bahrain, China, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE: Unions, strikes and collective bargaining are strictly outlawed; and * India, Kuwait, Lebanon, Mozambique, Oman, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Tanzania and UAE: Central governments spent more on their militaries than on health and education combined.


Canada is selling military hardware to foreign police and military institutions that are well known to be regularly and systematically abusing human rights. The regimes that our government continues to prop up are guilty of the most extreme forms of civil rights violations: secret arrests, unfair trials, cruel treatment of prisoners, torture, disappearances and extrajudicial executions. Economic and social rights to education, health, housing and employment are ignored or undermined by many recipients of Canadian military exports. Canada is selling tools of war and repression to many regimes spending vast amounts on security structures to quell demonstrations and strikes by those striving for a better life.

For several years, the UN has declared Canada to be the best place in the world to live. Does this privileged rank depend upon exploiting our position in an unjust global economic order? When purchasing inexpensive products from farms, mines and factories around the world, we might ask ourselves: Why are these products so cheap? Do the workers receive fair wages? Are their living and working conditions safe and healthy? Dismantling the myth of "Canada the Peacemaker," is one step toward building a culture of peace in which citizens refuse to support corporations and governments that are profiting from war and repression.


1. World Military Expenditures and Arms Transfers 1999. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and SIPRI Yearbook 1999: Armaments, Disarmament and International Security.

2. SIPRI Yearbook 1999. "Register of the transfer and licensed production of major conventional weapons, 1998."

3. Export of Military Goods from Canada.

4. Canada's International Business Strategy (CIBS), 1997-1998, Aerospace and Defence, Priority Markets. Web site:

5. Export of Military Goods from Canada.

6. CIBS.

7. Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions since World War II, by William Blum (1998). This excellent 450-page book summarises U.S. involvement in 55 countries.

8. SIPRI Yearbooks, 1994-1999 and The World at War (January 1, 2000),

- Richard Sanders, Coordinator, Coalition to Oppose the Arms Trade Ontario,Canada

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