In the heat of the federal election campaign last December, Stephen Harper declared that protecting Canada’s sovereignty was Ottawa’s most important duty.

In surprisingly defiant language, Harper pledged that a Conservative government would not allow foreign vessels, including U.S. submarines, to enter Canadian Arctic waters without our permission. Harper pledged $3.5 billion to build three military icebreakers and a system of underwater sensors to detect unauthorized activities in our waters.

“You don’t defend national sovereignty with flags, cheap election rhetoric and advertising campaigns,” Harper said. “You need forces on the ground, ships in the sea and proper surveillance.”

U.S. Ambassador David Wilkins attacked Harper’s sovereignty plan, noting that Washington has never recognized Canada’s claim to those waters. All this helped Harper shed his image as a pro-American water-carrier who’d be quick to cave in to the Bush administration.

What a difference six months — and some private time with the president — make. The Harper government has quietly shelved plans for military icebreakers and underwater sensors. Yankee subs can presumably glide into our waters without filling out a single Canadian application form. Without the sensors, we don’t even know they’re there.

The Canadian military is still getting lots of new money, but it will be spent on things that please, rather than annoy, the Bush administration — notably aircraft and helicopters that will allow Canada to contribute more effectively to the U.S. “war on terror.”

Particularly pleasing to the Americans is a $3 billion contract for heavy-lift planes, awarded, without competition, to U.S. aerospace giant, Boeing. It’s all part of Harper’s plan to massively increase military spending, well beyond the substantial increases made by Paul Martin’s Liberal government.

Steve Staples, a defence analyst with the Ottawa-based Polaris Institute, says Harper’s plan will raise military spending within five years to $21.5 billion a year — by far the highest level of Canadian military spending since World War II.

But that was during a world war that killed tens of millions of people. What’s the threat today? Al Qaeda? “How many tank divisions does Al Qaeda have?” asks Staples.

There’s been a dramatic change in Ottawa’s defence priorities. Supporting U.S. military ventures has apparently moved to the top, while defending Canadian Arctic sovereignty — something that will become more relevant with the melting of Arctic ice and the opening of a northern sea passage — seems to be mostly regarded as a pre-election teaser.

And contributing to UN peacekeeping missions, long valued by Canadians, has been quietly abandoned as a defence priority. We’ve gone from being one of the world’s leading contributors to UN missions to being an embarrassing laggard, contributing fewer peacekeepers today than does tiny, poverty-stricken Burkina Faso.

This momentous change reflects the priorities of the Bush administration, and Canada’s defence lobby. But it’s something the Canadian public would have had little sense of, listening to Harper on the campaign trail.

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...