This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

November-December 2008

How Canada’s secretive arms trade ruins our peacekeeping reputation

Jenn Hardy

In July 2008, Switzerland’s Small Arms Survey released its 2008 annual report on which countries have the best and the worst records when it comes to transparency and the small arms trade — the diversion of weapons such as rifles and anti-tank guided weapons that can fuel civil conflicts and insurgencies. Canada’s score? A disappointing 14.5 out of a possible 25 points, putting us between Australia and the Czech Republic for sixteenth place out of 40 countries. The most transparent country? The U.S., with its near- perfect score of 21. Well, at least we no longer rank just one notch above Iran, as was the situation in 2007 when we scored a mere 11 points.

nd08_smallarmsWhile we might like to think of ourselves as peacekeepers, the truth is that Canada houses a thriving military goods industry that includes everything from small arms to night-vision goggles. And while the companies that make up this industry are dutifully reporting to the federal government, the last time the feds reported to Parliament on our weapons trade was in 2002.

Governmental secrecy contributes to low rankings on the survey, explains Eric Berman, managing director of the SAS. Canada lost marks because we’re slow to release the data the government does have on our arms industry. For example, a report that looked at which Canadian weapons went where in 2003 to 2005 was only made available in 2008.

Perhaps the feds are so secretive because they don’t want us, or the rest of the world, knowing exactly how huge our military industry is. Last year, after being unable to find the necessary facts on our military goods industry, CBC researchers set to work and in the fall, released a report that contained some shocking numbers. They found that around 500 companies in Canada are making defence and security products and that between 2000 and 2007, Canada exported US$3.6 billion in military goods, making us the sixth largest weapons exporter in the world.

Currently the U.K. (which exported US$19 billion worth of defence gear in 2007 alone), along with the U.S. and Russia, are the world’s top military goods exporters. But with the Tories’ June amendment to the Automatic Firearms Country Control List now allowing us to sell weapons to 11 new countries, including Bulgaria and Turkey, expect our defence gear industry to only grow in the future.

As for the lack of federal reports on our arms industry, Michael O’Shaughnessy, spokesperson for Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada, explains that there is no legislative requirement to create such documents and any such publications, past or future, are produced as a voluntary transparency measure. He does add that a report on our 2006-2007 arms exports is currently being prepared for public release on the Internet.

So maybe the SAS’s annual reports are starting to pay off and that, explains Berman, is his organization’s goal. “We hope through the barometer to encourage greater transparency.” Because without that transparency, “it makes tackling illegal trade all the more difficult.”

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