The Harper government is forging ahead with plans to increase the prominence of the private arms sector in Canada.
The revelation comes from an up to $3.5-million federal tender for "defense sector research and analysis services" that would help the government and Canadian industry "leverage economic benefits from defense procurements."
Industry Canada, a federal department, is looking for a "long-term vision for a sustainable Canadian defense sector" and wants to boost privatized military "research and analysis performed independently from the government." It's all in an effort to help inform the government on its own defense procurement strategy.
The winning bidder would also advise the federal government on how it can enhance industrial capabilities within Canada to the advantage of private defense firms.
But one critic says the study is another example of Prime Minister Stephen Harper transforming Canada into a bigger player in the international arms market and he warns of insufficient oversight for this changing role.
"It is increasingly clear that the role of the Canadian government, primarily through the Canadian Commercial Corporation, is that of an active promoter — more than a passive facilitator — of Canadian military exports that benefit the defense industry," said Cesar Jaramillo of Project Ploughshares, a Canadian NGO fighting for international policies preventing war.
The Canadian Commercial Corporation (CCC) — a Crown corporation operating at an arm's length of the government — has sought to broaden its defense market beyond that of its biggest client, the US, by facilitating deals to "allies and like-minded nations."
Alongside countries such as South Sudan and North Korea, the Conservative Harper government has refused to sign onto the UN Arms Trade Treaty that regulates the circulation of arms to nations with dicey human rights records.
Jaramillo recently attended the first Conference of States Parties to the Arms Trade Treaty in Mexico in August.
"Canada, a non-signatory, (was) notably absent, along with the likes of Somalia, South Sudan, North Korea, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia," said Jaramillo in an emailed statement. "Most of the world's nations have signed the historic Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) — widely considered to be one of the main diplomatic accomplishments related to disarmament in decades. Canada is the only state in North America, and the only member of NATO not to have signed it."
In the past, the Canadian government said it was hesitant to sign onto the UN Arms Trade Treaty because it wouldn't improve what it sees as already strenuous export controls on military grade products.
"Canada already has some of the strongest export controls in the world," a spokesperson for the Department of Foreign Affairs said in a statement emailed to VICE News. "The ATT actually brings countries up to our export control standards," the spokesperson argued, adding, "there are some concerns that this treaty affects lawful and responsible firearms owners. As such, we have been consulting various stakeholders and experts for their views.
"We remain committed to making a decision on whether to join the Treaty if it is determined that doing so is good for Canada, and for Canadians."
Canada's Automatic Firearms Country Control List (AFCCL), which lists the states eligible to purchase certain military grade weapons from Canadian manufacturers, has almost doubled, from 20 at the beginning of Conservative power in 2006 to 39. That list includes Saudi Arabia — it bought $10 billion worth of light armored vehicles from a Canadian vendor in 2014 — despite well documented human rights violations from the monarchic regime.
Since taking office, the Harper government has sanctioned weapons deals to China, Russia, Egypt, Uzbekistan, and Ukraine under the Yanukovych regime, as well as other deals to Thailand, Colombia, Bahrain, Libya, and Afghanistan.
VICE News revealed earlier this year that Canada's Department of National Defence helped a private arms company sell light armored vehicles to Kuwait by flying them, for a fee, in government jets to that country, which is known to be ruled by an oppressive regime.
For years, the Harper government has touted its "economic diplomacy" strategy calling for government intervention in private business deals abroad "in order to maximize the success of Canada's commercial interests in key foreign markets."
Earlier this year, the Globe and Mail reported the president of the CCC, Martin Zablocki, told an Abu Dhabi-based newspaper he considered the Middle East "a strategic region" for future Canadian arms sales.
Despite an interest in sanctioning deals abroad, domestically the Conservatives have spending plans for the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF). In 2014 Harper unveiled a massive defense acquisition guide and updated it in 2015.
The latest study will likely inform the government as it makes those purchases.
Within years, if the spending plan is carried out, the CAF will rapidly update capabilities and equipment. The government has already moved forward with purchasing things like remote naval weapons systems, Ultralight Combat Vehicles for commandos, and underwater warfare suites.
The procurements will benefit domestic companies looking to score government contracts for new gear. On the wishlist is upgrading Canada's fighter jet fleet, naval vessels, and new weapons for ground forces.
VICE News asked Industry Canada for comment on this story but has yet to receive a reply.
Follow Ben Makuch on Twitter: @bmakuch