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Canada Is Ramping Up Its Arms Trade

Back in February the Canadian government proudly announced it had sealed the “largest export deal in the country's history”: a $10–13 billion monster that will create and sustain 3,000 jobs. But is bolstering Canada's economic stability worth providing...

A New Zealand light armored vehicle, similar to the vehicles Canada will soon be exporting to Saudi Arabia. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Back in February the Canadian government proudly announced it had sealed the “largest export deal in the country's history”: a $10–13 billion monster that will create and sustain 3,000 jobs. Contrary to what you might think, the commodity my people are sending overseas isn’t maple syrup or lumber; it's light armored vehicles. The recipient? Saudi Arabia, everyone's favorite champion of human rights and democracy.


While "light armored vehicles" sound like fairly chill, non-threatening machines, they’re actually “amphibious reconnaissance vehicles” that are often mounted with machine guns. The Saudis have already used these kinds of vehicles to suppress Arab Spring protests in Bahrain, in the hopes of preventing any encroaching Iranian involvement in the area. So basically, Canada’s record-breaking arms deal just provided a significant advantage to the Saudis who are in the midst of an already very complex and hostile arms race in one of the most volatile regions in the world. Nice one, eh! Bolstering economic stability by increasing Canada’s presence in the arms trade has become a cornerstone of conservative policy in the country over the past few years. One of the more controversial deals, especially in light of recent events, was the $80,000 arms deal with the brutal Ukrainian Yanukovych regime in 2011, which was enabled by Prime Minister Stephen Harper's refusal to sign the landmark UN Arms Trade Treaty (ATT)—a treaty that even the US signed. On its own website, the Canadian Government claims to “strongly support the ATT” in a seven-year-old post they have conveniently ignored editing, while simultaneously ignoring demands to put the treaty they originally agreed to into effect. This issue is certainly underreported, but the NDP issued a statement last month requesting that the Government of Canada follow the lead of Germany and suspend all arms trade with Russia following the invasion of Crimea, because apparently they haven’t already. It appears that this request has gone unanswered.


After losing nearly 46,000 jobs in December 2013 alone, Canadians are clearly hurting for work; so maybe we shouldn't be looking the gift artillery in its armed mouth. After all, new jobs have to come from somewhere, and they certainly won’t be coming from the public sector. So they might as well come from selling arms to one of the most brutally repressive regimes in the world, right?

This strategy feels even more hypocritical when you take a peek at other stances the Conservatives and their buddies are campaigning on. There’s the ongoing Ethical Oil lobbying foundation started by Alykhan Velshi, a former Conservative communications director, who is continuously attempting to pacify Canadians to the tar sands by running TV commercials that argue Canadian oil is the lesser of two evils, when compared to the oil being produced in Saudi Arabia. These ads viciously attack the Saudis for their human rights violations, and yet our International Trade Minister still feels confident about Canada’s decision to sell weapons to their government. As reported, the Minister’s spokesman insisted that Canada “rigorously assesses all exports of military goods and technology on a case-by-case basis,” adding that deals are only given the green light “if such exports are consistent with Canada’s foreign and defense policies, including human rights.”

This is not to mention Harper’s new "Office of Religious Freedom,” which is emblematic of an open and accepting Canada, while also providing the Conservatives with a great PR look for the country’s religious minorities. Unfortunately, slanging LAVs to a country where religious conversion from Islam is considered apostasy and punishable by death seems slightly counter-productive to dropping 5 million a year in hopes of "protecting, and advocating on behalf of, religious minorities under threat" in Canada.


It seems the glory days in which Canada was held in high regards as a global peacekeeper have come to an end, thanks to economic instability. Ever since the massive cuts to the defense budget in the United States Canada has been looking to unstable developing nations to market its tools of death.

For more information on Canada’s increasing role as an arms exporter, I got in touch with Hilary Homes, an ATT campaigner from Amnesty International Canada. She told me: “Amnesty isn’t opposed to arms sales; we’re opposed to irresponsible arms sales. We’ve been campaigning for the ATT to assess and regulate the risk of weapons being used for human rights violations through sales and licensing. I think people often focus on tanks, guns, and ammunition and forget that transport is needed to move forces, and LAVs often have other equipment like automatic weapons mounted to them. Our government likes to think it’s got a good record in terms of the export regulation of arms. Amnesty would really like Canada to sign on to the ATT and become more rigorous. When you see a sale of this size to a country like Saudi Arabia, it raises red flags.” As for Canada’s reluctance to sign the UN’s ATT, Hillary explained: “Canada voted in favor at the UN when first considering the text, but has yet to sign it. Internationally, Canada is way behind the game on that one and really doesn’t have a valid reason. The US signed the ATT; they didn’t even sign the Landmine Treaty. Canada needs to live up to prior commitments.” Hilary directed me to Ken Epps, an expert on the Canadian military industry and its arms exporting deals, who is currently serving as senior program officer at Project Ploughshares, an NGO that “works with churches, government,  and civil society, in Canada and abroad, to advance policies and actions to prevent war and armed violence and build peace.” Hilary described Ken has someone who has “been in the room,” alluding to his firsthand experience with arms deals.

Ken told me he thinks the Canadian government “intends” to play a large role in the arms trade, adding: “The Saudi deal has certainly been couched in those terms.” He referred me to an article he wrote that demonstrates “the different programs that have been around for some time but are now getting a boost from the current Canadian government all pointed toward increasing Canada’s arms exports. The Saudi deal is the first major indication that things are moving in the direction they want.”

In a way, Ken says Canada’s recent deal with the Saudis is “not news,” as “between 1988 and 2008 Saudi Arabia was the second largest customer, next to the US, of Canadian military goods… it’s just the size suggests that Canada is really trying to boost arms exports.”

While Canadian arms dealing may not be a brand new phenomenon, such a large sale to the Saudis is noteworthy. As Ken told me: “This new arms deal is being promoted by the government as jobs, with very little attention paid to the risk of this equipment being used in the next outbreak of conflict in the region "Canada should not be creating jobs dependent on countries where human rights are a major concern. Workers should not be in a position where they are building equipment that they could see on the news being used to attack civilians. I think that’s a pretty poor job creation strategy.” Follow Nicky Young on Twitter.