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Defence minister’s ex-parliamentary secretary says Canada should join ballistic missile defence

By Samantha Wright Allen      

Technologically complex and politically controversial, former and current MPs weigh in on whether Canada should join the U.S.-led defence program as the House Defence Committee studies the subject.

Liberal MP John McKay, pictured at a committee meeting in 2011, says Canada should join the U.S.-led continental missile-defence shield, regaining a say in its sovereignty over defence in light of increasing North Korean threats and technological capabilities. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright
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A Liberal MP who was the defence minister’s parliamentary secretary until January says it’s time Canada join the controversial United States-led ballistic missile defence program.

“Canada wants to be in control of as much of its own sovereignty as it possibly can. I think the threat is real. I think the military experts need to be listened to,” said John McKay (Scarborough-Guildwood, Ont.) of the danger North Korea’s nuclear program poses, which the House Defence Committee agreed to study before the House resumes at a rare summer meeting last week.

Last week Liberal committee member Mark Gerretsen (Kingston and the Islands, Ont.) said Canada should “maybe” revisit the 2005 decision by former Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin to opt out of the U.S.-led continental ballistic missile defence system

In an interview with The Hill Times a few days later, Mr. McKay, first elected in 1997 and around for Mr. Martin’s famously controversial decision, was more forceful. His “sense of it” was Canada should join the program, he said. While the Liberal government showed no appetite for it in its defence-policy white paper earlier this year, North Korean aggression—including launching a missile over Japan Tuesday morning—has “effectively pried it open,” he said.

“There’s clearly a change in circumstances since 2005, changes in capabilities, in threat assessment and I think the committee is potentially an excellent venue to air out those concerns,” said Mr. McKay, who was named parliamentary secretary to the defence minister after the Liberals came to power in 2015, and held the job until January of this year. He was also his party’s defence critic between 2011 and 2013 while it was in opposition.

His voice adds to others calling on Canada to change course, including former Liberal defence ministers Bill Graham and David Pratt, retired general and Liberal senator Roméo Dallaire, a 2014 Senate committee, and a panel of security and defence experts in 2015.

Proponents point out that Canada already helps fund NATO’s Europe-based defence system and is part of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), which tracks the missiles—but operates separately (though under the same commander) from United States Northern Command which has the power to shoot such threats down.

“I think the contradiction needs to be resolved, and the sooner that’s done the better,” said Mr. McKay.

At the time of Mr. Martin’s 2005 decision, he faced caucus resistance, including from Liberals who wanted to boost the party’s position in Quebec where the program was not well supported.

The House Defence Committee met Aug. 22 after months of rising tensions between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and U.S. President Donald Trump. Mr. Trump said Tuesday “all options are on the table.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) said Tuesday that Canada is doing daily threat assessments of North Korea’s missile tests, according to the Canadian Press.

Conservative members Cheryl Gallant, James Bezan, and Pierre Paul-Hus at a House Defence Committee meeting last week in response to potential North Korean missile threats. The Hill Times photograph by Sam Garcia

When asked by reporters last week, Mr. Trudeau threw cold water on joining the missile-defence program, saying the government’s long-standing position was “not going to be changed any time soon.”

Longtime Liberal MP Wayne Easter (Malpeque, P.E.I.) said it’s important for a leader to take a firm stance, but it doesn’t mean the government’s stance can’t change.

“I don’t see that in any way preventing a discussion on the issue,” he said. “A prime minister can’t lay out a wishy-washy position.”

Mr. Easter said he didn’t want to “pre-empt” the decision but “it’s time for a discussion,” adding he’s not so sure things have changed much in the political sphere from his time as a Liberal MP under Mr. Martin versus Mr. Trudeau.

But, he said he hopes the new discussion takes into account research and development that is tied into defence-system partnerships.

“It is not [just] a question of a defence shield over North America; it’s the ability to further enhance your aerospace industry,” he said.

Defence Committee vice-chair Cheryl Gallant (Renfrew-Nipissing-Pembroke, Ont.), who along with Conservative colleagues called for the group to meet, did not respond to an interview request. Party members have not yet offered a unified position and Mr. Pratt, the former Liberal defence minister, noted in an interview with The Hill Times that the Tories are “between a rock and a hard place,” having had a decade to start the process while in power. Former defence minister Peter MacKay told CBC News he regrets not signing on when he had the chance under the former Conservative government of Stephen Harper.

Three former defence ministers, including Liberal David Pratt, say Canada should join BMD. The Hill Times photograph by Samantha Wright Allen

“The discussions have to be restarted to find out what the U.S. would be looking for and whether or not it would be in Canada’s interests to proceed,” said Mr. Pratt, Canada’s defence minister between 2003 and 2004.

The summer has been a turning point, said Mr. Pratt who said Canada shouldn’t leave decisions solely to the Americans and “presume” they will protect Canada.

University of Manitoba’s deputy director of the Centre for Defence and Security Studies Andrea Charron is urging caution in the debate about whether Canada should join ballistic missile defence. Photograph courtesy of Andrea Charron

University of Manitoba’s deputy director of the Centre for Defence and Security Studies Andrea Charron said the Defence Committee should hear from “people to explain to them how exactly how difficult it is, how unproven it is, how expensive it can be” to pursue ballistic missile defence.

She urged caution on the issue and noted that saying yes doesn’t necessarily mean Canada will have the final say in addressing air threats. With few interceptors, limited time, and potentially more important strategic targets to protect, a seat at the BMD table doesn’t guarantee Canada “any more say.”

“I understand the impulse to want to defend Canada but the technology is unproven. And at this point we’re talking about one particular rogue state,” she said.

“You want to usually defend against the most likely threat and the most lethal threat and the one that’s going to come often. That’s not necessarily North Korea.”

Co-chair of the Canada Korea Interparliamentary Friendship Group Ali Ehsassi (Willowdale, Ont.), like other Liberal MPs, didn’t have a sense of whether reopening the issue had widespread support within the Liberal caucus.

His riding has a large Korean community and while those in his constituency are concerned, he said it’s “premature to say that there’s one approach that would work best.”

Former Canadian diplomat Colin Robertson said that for the Liberals to change course on the politically sensitive file, pressure would have to come from within caucus, the United States, or from an uptick in North Korean activity.

“I think [the committee meeting] is significant, but my gut would be it’s probably a steam-venting exercise in the parliamentary committee,” said Mr. Robertson. “But perhaps something may come of it because they will hear from witnesses who will—my bet is most of them will say we should look at this.”

The committee is still compiling its experts and dates but will meet again before the House sits next on Sept. 18.

swallen@hilltimes.com

The Hill Times

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