Ottawa’s main argument for joining the U.S. missile defence system is that Washington is going to proceed anyway, so we better “be at the table.”

I strongly believe Canada should be at the table. The only question is: which table?

Of course, when Paul Martin talks about being “at the table,” there’s no question which table he means: the one where Canada signs on to the U.S. anti-missile scheme, as Washington has been heavily pressuring us to do.

But there’s another table that’s relevant here. It’s located in Geneva. Sixty-six of the world’s nations sit around it and try to advance the cause of world disarmament.

A key focus at the table in Geneva in recent years has been preventing the arms race from spreading to outer space — a development most experts believe would make nuclear war more likely. Interestingly, Canada has been one of the key players in the battle to keep weapons out of space, and in the overall disarmament talks.

This doesn’t fit with the image of Canada painted by Canadian right-wingers, as a faded power, long past its prime as a serious player on the world stage.

In fact, Canada has been a feisty, independent force on the international stage when it comes to championing disarmament — something that matters a lot to most of the civilized world.

Arms control expert Theresa Hitchens, vice-president of the Washington-based Centre for Defence Information, says Canada has been a leading voice for disarmament since the Geneva talks were established by the United Nations in 1979.

“Your government has been in the forefront in calling for a ban on space weapons,” she said in an interview last week, adding that when disarmament talks bogged down in recent years, Canada put great effort into overcoming the impasse: “Canada was quite creative and very strong.”

Canada’s impressive past performance is at odds with Ottawa’s apparent readiness now to embrace George W. Bush’s National Missile Defence (NMD) system — one of the reasons thousands are expected to protest when Bush visits Ottawa on Tuesday.

Ottawa insists Canada would not be compromising its stand against weapons in space by joining NMD.

That’s “truly disingenuous,” says Hitchens. “Missile defence is the first foray into fighting in space … That’s something your government hasn’t wanted to own up to.”

She notes that U.S. military documents clearly set out Washington’s intention to have missile defence systems based on land, air, sea, and in space.

And while “missile defence” sounds defensive, it is simply the foot in the door, paving the way for offensive weapons. “It breaks the political taboo against weapons in space,” says Hitchens.

In fact, Washington is pretty frank about its aggressive intentions in space. A document entitled Counterspace Operations, released by the U.S. Air Force last August, refers openly to the importance of the U.S. achieving “space superiority.”

It calls for the U.S. to have space capabilities with both “defensive and offensive elements.” The document defines “space control” as “combat, combat support and combat service support operations to ensure freedom of action in space for the U.S. and its allies and, when directed, deny an adversary freedom of action in space.”

This aggressive approach to space is a full turnaround from the days of Republican president Dwight Eisenhower, whose administration first pushed for a ban on weapons in space.

Eisenhower’s initiative eventually led to a unanimous declaration by the U.N. General Assembly in 1963 that “the use of space shall be carried on for the benefit and in the interests of all mankind.”

In 1967, 97 nations around the world signed the Outer Space Treaty banning weapons of mass destruction from space.

A proposed new ban that would be more comprehensive than the 1967 treaty has the support of virtually all nations, except the U.S. and Israel.

But, while Canada has been a leader in pushing for the new ban, our effectiveness in that role would be diminished if we joined NMD.

“It would certainly neutralize Canada’s ability to continue to be a voice against weapons in space,” notes Hitchens.

“Your hands would be dirty with space weaponization.”

So we have to choose which table we really want to sit at — the one where we continue to lead the fight for world disarmament, or the one where we help an aggressive superpower launch an arms race we’ve vigorously opposed for years.

The gala events for Bush on Tuesday will be packed with those who favour acquiescing to the demands of the superpower.

But beyond the Ottawa glitter, my sense is that a feisty, independent Canadian spirit is still loose in the land.

Linda McQuaig

Journalist and best-selling author Linda McQuaig has developed a reputation for challenging the establishment. As a reporter for The Globe and Mail, she won a National Newspaper Award in 1989...