Selling Out to the Saudis: A Historical Analysis of Stephane Dion’s Apology for Canadian Military Export Controls

 Esau, Paul. 2017. “Selling Out to the Saudis: A Historical Analysis of Stephane Dion’s Apology for Canadian Military Export Controls.” Meeting of the Minds Graduate Student Journal 1 (March). doi:10.5281/zenodo.398867.

Keywords: Canada, Arms Control, Arms Trade, Government of Canada


When Ed Fast, Canadian Minister of International Trade under Stephen Harper, announced the largest advanced manufacturing contract in Canadian history on February 14, 2015, it was spun as a political masterpiece. A brilliant economic achievement on paper, the 14-year, $14.8 billion deal promised to directly benefit 500 Canadian companies, and continue an important trade alliance with a strategic partner.  This single contract was projected to keep 3000 Canadians employed for the next 14 years, primarily in London, Ontario where the General Dynamics Land Systems Canada (GDLS-C) manufacturing plant is located.  The only catch was that the deal was to manufacture a military weapons system, namely Light Armored Vehicles (LAVs), and the ‘strategic partner’ was the repressive theocracy of Saudi Arabia.

Canadians have long been ambivalent (perhaps unaware) about their country’s participation in the global arms trade. It is easy to welcome the jobs and capital provided by military exports, and such deals have proven critical to Canada’s military industrial base by sustaining and subsidizing military production. On the other hand, the presence of Canadian military goods in conflict zones around the world has cast a dubious shadow over the industry and its governmental enablers. Since the Second World War, Canadian exports have found their way directly or indirectly to both Iranian and Iraqi forces during the Iran-Iraq War, the American forces in Vietnam, the apartheid-era government in South Africa, the British forces in the Falklands/Maldives conflict, Israeli forces in Lebanon, the governments of El Salvador and Honduras during the insurrections, and now Saudi Arabia during the current regional instability.  In 2016, largely due to the LAV deal, Canada became the second-largest exporter of military goods to the Middle East.  The Canadian policy of pursuing economic advantage through military export has always conflicted with its political and ideological commitment to human security and global development,  but rarely has the discordance been so jarring.

This paper will analyze three recent attempts to justify the LAV deal to the Canadian public through a press release, an op-ed, and a declassified memorandum. It will use the structure of the press release as an organization framework, and highlight the historical premises behind the arguments made in each document. In doing so it will show that the current Liberal government is misrepresenting the scope of its ‘restrictive’ weapons export policy, in practice transforming the policy into a convenient rhetorical shield rather than a rigorous evaluation.  It will further show that the government is primarily concerned with the economic implications of the Saudi-LAV deal, secondly with the strategic consequences, and only thirdly with its military export and human rights commitments.