Canada's Saudi weapons sales a moral race to the bottom

Photo: Alisdare Hickson/Wikimedia Commons

Suppose you discovered that a neighbour was employing 50 drug dealers at the local elementary school. Each dealer was paid good, taxable wages and benefits, and their faces were featured in ads expressing great pride in their work to make the local economy strong and stable.

The drug lord himself was donating munificently to the local United Way, speaking at service clubs about the importance of keeping kids off drugs, and shushing off protesting do-gooders by claiming there was no use calling the police on him, because even if his operation were to be taken down, someone else would just take his place.

That sickening conundrum pretty much sums up the current status of the Canadian weapons industry and, specifically, London, Ontario's General Dynamics Land Systems plant, which is providing $15 billion in killer weapons to the Saudi regime to repress women at home and mercilessly slaughter civilians in neighbouring Yemen. The company is seen as a good corporate citizen for donating to local charities and for helping hundreds keep food on the table. And besides, it's Ottawa that made the call to proceed with the weapons deal.

Public relations mess

Meanwhile in Ottawa, Liberal spin masters are struggling to keep up with an ever-growing list of Saudi atrocities: the genocide of Yemenis being committed, in part, with Canadian equipment, the daily work of enforcing Saudi gender apartheid, the beheading and dismembering of opposition journalists, and the detention and torture of women's rights activists. Media lines are manufactured for political leaders who, with furrowed brows and dour faces, express their profound misgivings over the latest developments. And while they're likely not fans of hurtin' music, one cannot help but suspect that deep inside their respective bunkers at Global Affairs and the Prime Minister's Office, Chrystia Freeland and Justin Trudeau are taking solace in the Patty Loveless country music classic, "You Can Feel Bad If It Makes You Feel Better."

Indeed, as the Liberal leads on the continued sale, production, and export of $15 billion in killer weaponry to the Saudi regime, the Freeland-Trudeau duo have twisted themselves into so contorted an ethical pretzel that they will likely suffer permanent muscle spasms. With each new reported Saudi atrocity, Canadian leaders dig in their heels and issue increasingly earnest statements about "troubling" revelations, respect for human rights and the rule of law, and their "frustration" over an issue that they refuse to directly address. Their justifications for failing to take any action -- halting arms sales, withdrawing an ambassador, imposing economic sanctions -- have been part of a moral race to the bottom in which crass arguments about financial penalties, secret contracts, and being boxed in by the Harper Conservatives provide poor cover for complicity in genocide.

While Trudeau has complained that cancelling Canada's contribution to the brutal suppression of women and the murderous terror campaign being waged in Yemen could cost $1 billion (small change compared to his $4.5-billion investment in a leaky pipeline or $9.2 billion in a lethal megadam at Muskrat Falls), he told Toronto reporters last month that the whole thing is "incredibly frustrating."

Boilerplate rationales

Earlier this year, Trudeau was asked by NDP Foreign Affairs Critic Helen Laverdière, "what [do you] think about Canada potentially being complicit in international human rights violations? How can we say Canada's foreign policy is progressive and feminist when we continue to sell arms to Saudi Arabia?"

Trudeau's reply was boilerplate: "Our approach fully meets our national obligations and Canadian laws." While he and Freeland rely on standard talking points -- they have no choice but to honour an inherited contract and the purported value of Canada's word would suffer if they reneged on the contract -- the public record clearly shows that this deal is a conundrum of the Liberals' own making.

In fact, in 2016, then Global Affairs minister Stéphane Dion had the opportunity to cancel the export of these killer vehicles. But he secretly approved them all. Even then, when the Saudi war against the people of Yemen was drawing international outcry over serious human rights violations, a Global Affairs memo -- partly declassified thanks to a lawsuit initiated by Law Professor Daniel Turp -- "recommended approval of the Saudi export permits because it could help Saudi Arabia wage war in neighbouring Yemen." As The Globe and Mail reported, the memo was clear: "The acquisition of state-of-the-art armoured vehicles will assist Saudi Arabia" in the prosecution of its ongoing attacks against Yemen.

In signing the export permits, Dion did not consult with human rights groups, but rather only sought the opinion of those within his own bureaucracy, Innovation Canada, and the Department of National Defence. "No concerns were raised," the Global Affairs memo said, even though two months earlier, The Globe and Mail reported that Canadian-made combat vehicles were being used in the slaughter of neighbouring Yemeni civilians. In the end, however, the profits of home-grown weapons manufacturers took precedence, with Global Affairs concluding:  "The export of these vehicles is key to ensuring a strong and viable defence industrial base in Canada."

The argument that Canada's good word would be sullied by cancelling the Saudi weapons contract is disingenuous at best. Indeed, never mentioned is the fact that the sale violates Canada's legal commitment to honour a series of domestic and international obligations to uphold human rights, which are daily violated with Canadian weaponry in the Saudi-waged war. But the "we honour our contracts" line has been standard Liberal pablum throughout history. One might cite Pierre Trudeau, who argued in the 1960s that there was no point in ending arms sales to the U.S. to wage war in Vietnam because it would only hurt a Canadian economy profiting handsomely from the mass murder in Southeast Asia. More recently, former foreign affairs minister Lloyd Axworthy refused to stop weapons shipments for an Indonesian military carrying out atrocities in East Timor in the late 1990s because a contract had been signed. 

While the Liberal record on the Saudi weapons deal has been a sordid one, no major political party in Parliament has its hands clean. Indeed, during the 2015 federal election, then NDP leader Thomas Mulcair was clear that if his party were elected, they would not cancel the deal either. As The Globe and Mail reported, Irene Mathyssen, the NDP MP for London-Fanshawe, said her leader "was very clear in the debate that we would honour the contract, we don't renege on contracts. It's a signed contract and we will honour that contract."

Of course, that was the voice of an NDP riding high in 2015's federal election polls. 

Three years later, though, as a third party MP whose party's chances in 2019 are diminished, Mathyssen is singing a different but still ethically challenged tune, calling for cancellation of the contract. But as she justifiably seeks alternative employment for the weapons makers, her analysis completely ignores the problem of Canadian militarism by insisting the solution lies in supplying other militaries with said weaponry. She told The Globe and Mail last week that the London-based General Dynamics Land Systems could compete for a separate $2-billion contract to supply military vehicles to the Canadian Armed Forces (the like of which have been used to suppress Indigenous outbreaks of democracy at places like Kahenesatake in the Oka crisis, or which have been sold to the police forces of Winnipeg and Fredericton, among other communities.)

The NDP remains a party similarly enamored of Canadian militarism. In a particularly shameful moment from the June 2017 Report of the Standing Committee on National Defence, the NDP not only embraced a $62-billion warship plan (that could eventually cost well over $100 billion), it actually had the gall to question the Liberals on an apparent willingness to reduce the number of warships to be built. "New Democrats will work with our colleagues in Parliament to ensure the Canadian Forces are properly equipped and that Canadian industry is the primary beneficiary from the recapitalization of the Canadian Forces," they write, noting that they actually support increasing war spending.

Moral race to the bottom

This moral race to the bottom infects daily discourse with the kind of cynicism that bolsters the arguments of those who decline to vote because no political party presents the kind of alternative vision that would make a difference. In the city that hosts the weapons makers, there is an uneasy peace, as The Globe and Mail reported in an in-depth piece last weekend. The paper's Report on Business section interviews numerous individuals and company representatives making a good living off this "troubling" contract, but everyone seems bereft of solutions.

While there are plenty of examples in recent history of workers who have refused certain jobs because of moral considerations, it can be easy for those of us not directly affected to sit back and judge those who walk through the plant gates each day feeling conflicted because, with mortgage payments and tuition to pay, they do feel very much trapped. Instead of putting our collective imagination and political organizing together to explore how said jobs could be saved by conversion to civilian-based production, it feels as if, on the one hand, we've succumbed to the myths of Canada's world benefaction while, on the other, conceded that the economy can only spin with industrial-scale weapons production.

Instead of the hand-wringing so many of us have been reduced to -- who wants to eliminate good-paying union jobs, we ask -- why have we not been able to come up with an alternative? The solutions for transition to a more compassionate economy are certainly there. In much the same way, the Iron and Earth coalition in Alberta is exploring how to shut down the tar sands while providing decent jobs to people in renewable energy (the evidence is solid that it is far more profitable -- and better for the planet -- to invest in renewables), study after study has shown that investments in civilian infrastructure are far safer and viable in the long term than the concentrated billions pumped into multinational weapons makers.

But we have a federal government that upholds militarism and a population so infused with the notion that we must protect ourselves against non-existent "threats" that the military and its industrial support base receive a free pass. The Canadian Commercial Corporation scours the globe looking for weapons sales opportunities, acting as a pimp for the local weapons makers. And the push is on to divert our attention from the traditional view of death merchants -- callous, cigar-chomping individuals sitting in their smoke-filled boardrooms, chuckling over their profits as they insulate themselves from the sounds of children crying in the rubble -- to a more palatable vision that posits the people who do this work are just like you and me.

Weapons makers are you and me

Indeed, Canada's war industry association -- the Canadian Association of Defence and Security Industries (CADSI) -- has a social media campaign popping up all over Facebook featuring earnest-looking colonial souls talking about My North, My Home -- Our Canada, It's All our Duty. In a video that looks like a football promo, we are introduced to urgent-sounding music, images of floods, mountain climbers, and scuba divers, and a narrator who intones: "They say when the going gets tough, send in the Canadians." As we are told, "They say the world needs more Canada," we see beneficent white colonial soldiers showing Black children how to read, and in a shout-out to how open-minded we are, we get a very brief glimpse of a hijab-wearing woman behind a computer. After that, it's all white people, all the time, talking about our north, our passion, our commitment, our safety. We hear about "empowering young women to pursue skilled trades," and while there are some very quick images of a couple of people who do not enjoy white skin privilege working on something, the only voices we hear are of reassuring white folks talking about building a stronger, safer Canada. 

This latest propaganda campaign by Canada's war industry is yet another attempt to remind us that our lives are wonderful because the jobs we do building weapons and "security" materiel -- code word for border controls and mechanisms that prevent refugees from finding asylum -- are an important part of who we are as a nation. It's a clear response to the revulsion that does get expressed over weapons deals, and a good example of the divide-and-rule tactics used by an industry that should have no right to exist.  

While the propaganda campaign is a nauseating one, perhaps it is open to creative subversion. Corporations, like governments, are ultimately made up of people, a fact we tend to forget when taking on seemingly impenetrable monoliths like big banks funding pipelines and multinational war profiteers. Is there a way we can undermine this person-to-person outreach undertaken by the war industry to encourage those who rely on its wages to seek alternative employment or, better yet, transformation of their workplace? It is hard, tiring, frustrating work, for sure, but history shows us campaigns in which persistent personal outreach has resulted in workers leaving their positions (especially if we can work with them to find other jobs). 

A new documentary about Scottish workers who refused to repair the Hawker Hunter Chilean air force engines for the Pinochet dictatorship, Nae Pasaran, provides us one such example. In East Kilbride, they refused for four years to repair engines for the planes used in the coup that overthrew the democratically elected Salvador Allende. As The Guardian reports, "The four engines -- which had likely come from the Hawker Hunters involved in the attack on the presidential palace in Santiago -- were eventually dumped outside in crates. Without protection from the elements, they were useless within a year." (Four years later, they were mysteriously stolen in the middle of the night.)

It was a powerful action. As The Guardian continues:

"The entire squadron of 29 Hawker Hunters was close to being grounded by the boycott. Although India, Israel and South Africa came to Pinochet's aid, probably with spare parts, East Kilbride was the only place in the world where those engines could be properly repaired."

Upholding Nuremberg in Canada

What can be done about the Saudi-bound killer vehicles? There is a vast machinery that connects the Saudis with Canadian weaponry, from the plant in London to the trains that transport them eastward to the shipping docks in Halifax, where they are loaded for overseas shipment.  

A Nuremberg Actions campaign to stop weapons shipments to the death squad dictatorships of Latin America in the 1980s at California's Concord Naval Weapons Station saw an 875-day blockade of trains and trucks trying to export those weapons, and over 2,000 people were arrested. As Vietnam veteran turned anti-war resister Brian Willson noted at the time (before he was run over by a train, miraculously surviving but losing both of his legs in the process), "One truth seems clear: if the munitions train moves past our blockade, other human beings will be killed and maimed. We are not worth more. They are not worth less."

Can we as individuals expressing outrage at the Saudi weapons deal engage in similar actions of non-violent resistance?  

We've known about this deal for years, but there has yet to be an organized, on-the-ground campaign to confront those who benefit most from it. What holds us back?

The late priest and anti-war activist Daniel Berrigan, arrested hundreds of times for working against war (including taking part in the very first act of nuclear disarmament when, as a member of the Plowshares Eight, he helped dismantle nuclear warheads in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, in 1980), wrote in 1971:

"We have assumed the name of peacemakers, but we have been, by and large, unwilling to pay any significant price. And because we want peace with half a heart and half a life and will, the war, of course, continues, because the waging of war, by its very nature, is total -- but the waging of peace, by our own cowardice, is partial. So a whole will and a whole heart and a whole national life bent toward war prevail over the velleities of peace…Of course, let us have the peace, we cry, but at the same time let us have normalcy, let us lose nothing, let our lives stand intact, let us know neither prison nor ill repute nor disruption of ties."

It's words like these that remind us of a path towards solving problems, one that can only be opened up once we start recognizing and acting on the truth. The Saudi arms deal has been so wrapped up in the obfuscation and confusion of a purposefully created ethical fog that it becomes difficult for some to act. Indeed, while 90 per cent of people polled in this country are opposed to future Saudi weapons deals, far fewer (46 per cent) called for cancellation of the current deal.

While those numbers might make our efforts on this or any other issue seem impossible to overcome, it is always worthwhile to look at history and the work of people like Erica Chenoweth, co-author of Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict. Based on a remarkable research analysis of social movements and revolutions, she points out that all it takes to topple a dictatorship and end systemic injustices is the sustained participation of 3.5 per cent of the population. With 46 per cent of Canadians polled calling for cancellation of the weapons deal, the sustained participation of one in 10 of those individuals (and in all likelihood, far fewer than that) could well make all the difference.

Matthew Behrens is a freelance writer and social justice advocate who co-ordinates the Homes not Bombs non-violent direct action network. He has worked closely with the targets of Canadian and U.S. 'national security' profiling for many years.

Photo: Alisdare Hickson/Wikimedia Commons

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