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Arms over rights: Canada's war economy

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Photo: flickr/ATOMIC Hot Links

It's the biggest arms deal in Canadian history. Ever.

The Harper's drive to expand Canada's arms industry is drawing on diplomats, government trade representatives and senior ministers to aid Canadian companies as they aggressively pursue military exports to unsavoury regimes.

Canada has never been among the major players in the international arms trade, "but the Canadian government is intent on changing that," reports David Pugliese, "and the behind-the-scenes maneuvering on a new Saudi Arabia-General Dynamics Land Systems-Canada (GDLS-C) deal is a blueprint for future endeavors, say government and industry officials."

Tim Page, the president of the Canadian Association of Defence and Security Industries, suggests that the new policy to vigorously promote arms exports signals a sea change in the attitude of the Canadian government. The direction for this, he notes, is coming straight from Prime Minister Stephen Harper: "The [prime minister's office] has said we will do all we can do to improve export success and that has now percolated down into the operational environment of the different departments," Page said.

Lee Berthiaume reports that the recent arms deal to sell light armoured vehicles (LAVs) to Saudi Arabia "will go a long way in bolstering the Harper government's case for transforming Canada into a global arms dealer."

Canada has sold LAVs, similar to those used by Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan, to Saudi Arabia in the past. More than 1,000 LAVs were delivered to the regime in the early 1990s, and 700 more were shipped in 2009.

This new arms deal, however, is being lauded as the largest arms export contract in Canadian history, potentially leading to 3,000 jobs in southern Ontario's struggling manufacturing belt and other regions of the country. The enthusiastic government backing for the sale is consistent with the Conservative government's goal to "offset job losses and factory closures in other segments of the manufacturing sector by turning Canada's arms industry into a global player," Berthiaume surmises.

However, while defence and export industry representatives extol the arms deal as "an Olympic win for Canada," critics point to the increasingly "cavalier attitude" towards human rights abuses reflected in the new policy.

When pressed for a response to human rights concerns, "one minister absolved herself by saying she doesn't have 'any influence' over military hardware after it's sold, while an industry spokesperson declined to comment, and other senior sources refused to give their opinions on the record."

Jack Wilson, a professor at the Police and Public Safety Institute at Algonquin College, told Embassy, "If you look at women's rights, they're dead last… if you look in the area of freedom of religion, in Saudi Arabia not only are people who are not Muslims prevented from openly practising their faith, but even within the Muslim community, if you're a Shia Muslim you can anticipate active discrimination. When it comes to people whose sexual orientation is not heterosexual, people do not dare proclaim that… when it comes to political dissent, it's absolutely nonexistent."

The recent contract with the Saudis follows on the heels of an agreement reached last year that saw General Dynamics win a $65.3 million U.S. contract to sell LAVs to the Colombian government, and coincides with government steps to ease restrictions on the sale of military weapons to India, Kuwait, Brazil, Chile, Peru, South Korea and a host of other countries with dodgy human rights records.

Unemployment is tearing communities apart in Canada. People are desperate for jobs, and Harper knows it. But the employees at GDLS count on the Canadian government to ensure that their potentially lethal products are never sold to human rights abusers. That's why we all need to put pressure on Harper to stop promoting arms sales to human rights pariahs right away, and help shift these companies from a war economy to a sustainable green economy that will benefit Canadians for generations to come. 

Celyn Dufay is an activist currently working with the Rideau Institute as a Policy Intern. Last year Celyn organized Ceasefire.ca's "Louder than the Bomb" campaign to abolish nuclear weapons, an action endorsed by over 100 parliamentarians, and the student led 'white poppy' campaign "I Remember for Peace." Ceasefire.ca is a network of 25,000 Canadians who want Canada to be a global peace leader, and is a project of the Rideau Institute.

Photo: flickr/ATOMIC Hot Links

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