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Militarism in Canada Today: What do we do about it?

Updated: Aug 23, 2022

A Talk to Veterans Against Nuclear Arms (VANA), Toronto, 22 April/08

Raymond Zoller from Bar, Montenegro, CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

I. Introduction

Militarism today is bad for the global economy, terrible for the environment, hugely destructive of human rights and of life itself, and a major risk to the future of humanity.

Why then, do we put up with it? Why is it virtually ignored, not only by Parliament, the media and the general public, but also, with some notable exceptions, by fellow member NGOs working in international development, education and the environment? The answer, I believe, is partly due to its complexity, partly because military action in the past, of which we have been a part, was considered to be essential for our survival, and partly because certain values which we hold dear are also associated with the military. These values and qualities include personal fortitude, bravery and a willingness to sacrifice one’s life for a higher cause. Unfortunately, the institutions in which these values are attributed have now become the single biggest threat to our common security and our lives.


Militarism is defined by Webster as “the continuous and belligerent maintenance of strong armed forces”. Oxford says it is “reliance on military strength and methods.” The Houghton Mifflin Canadian Dictionary goes even further: It is “the glorification of the ideals of a professional military class,” and “the predominance of the military in the administration or policy of the state.”

The global reach

Militarism in Canada cannot be separated from militarism world-wide. The economist Kenneth Boulding wrote that the world military system is a single system, in which the component national forces derive their legitimacy, and therefore budgets, from rival national and military forces. Recognizing this, he said, “is an important step towards achieving a collapse of the legitimacy of military organizations.”

“The modern military establishment, in the organizations it dominates, the money it controls, the politicians it commands, the scientific community it subsidizes, and under the cloak of patriotism that protects it, has become a polar force in its own right. It embraces and controls the civilian authority that legally and constitutionally is presumed to be the source of its restraint” (John Kenneth Galbraith).

II. The Dimensions of Militarism

Thirty-nine years ago I wrote a peace research review entitled “Militarism 1969: A survey of world trends.” It concluded with this summary:“Militarism is a function of several interdependent social policies and processes. It is these which strengthen and maintain militarism, rather than a single root condition or cause. Namely:

  1. Militarism is maintained by the continued manufacture, purchase and exchange of arms.

  2. It is fed by the recruitment and training of armed forces. These include regular members of military units, reserves, militia, Special Forces, mercenaries and heavily armed police.

  3. It is nourished through Military Pacts and by bilateral or multilateral defence treaties [based on a perceived enemy].

  4. It is supported by the cult and practice of secret intelligence agencies.

  5. Militarism grows in a social climate characterized by nationalism, patriotism and an over-emphasis on authority, buttressed by attitudes which stress the perversity and weakness of human nature.

  6. It is fostered by economic, political and military interest groups which resist social change. [and who benefit materially from the arms trade].

  7. Finally, it is enhanced by those who believe that only violent means can overcome severe social injustice.

Militarism is also enhanced by the media that offer their opeds, columns and editorials unequally to lobbyists and think-tank writers, funded by defence departments and their allies.

III. Current Trends & Realities

1. Defence spending, procurement and the armed forces

Bill Robinson and Steve Staples of the Rideau Institute found that Canada’s military spending will reach $18.24 billion in the current year, an increase of 9% over the previous year. After the next two years of planned increases it will be 37% higher than it was in 2000-2001.

The Ottawa Business Journal and the advertisements placed there by CADSI, the Canadian Assn. of Defence & Security Industries, describe the major procurements and projects the government has announced, a total of $27.9 billion over the next 25 years, for frigate life extension, a strategic and tactical airlift fleet, heavy to medium life helicopters, logistics trucks, joint support ships, new tanks and other vehicle acquisitions

It should be said that much Canadian defence procurement has multi-purpose capacities: for war-making, peacekeeping and humanitarian aid. All told, the Canadian government has given about $5 billion to defence corporations over the past 30 years in grants and unrepaid loans. The Canada Pension Plan has invested more billions of dollars in several war companies, including some of the world’s top weapon makers. The Canadian Cadet Program, at a cost of $155 million (2002-2003 estimates) has included 56,000 Canadian youth 12 to 18 years of age.

As Canada expands its military, so do most other countries, with the annual global military bill coming to $1.4 trillion, enabling huge expansions of destructive power. Russia has commissioned another batch of new intercontinental ballistic missiles which, its military boasts, can hit targets more than 6,000 miles away and penetrate any prospective missile shield. Even small island states in the South Pacific have planned national armies to defend themselves. Against whom? Why, other island states involved in the same process, while arms manufacturers cheerfully watch their profits rise. An estimated 600 million small arms now circulate in the world today, weapons which do most of the killing, maiming, abducting and destroying happening today in many parts of the world.

2. Canada embedded in a Military Alliance

Canada joined NATO in 1949 seeing it as a defensive alliance against the threat of Soviet expansion in Europe. The Cold War ended almost 20 years ago but NATO, rather than ending, as did the Warsaw Pact, has expanded its borders and members to 26. President Bush now seeks NATO membership for the Ukraine, Georgia, Macedonia, Albania and Croatia. Its military wages war in Afghanistan, and its nuclear weapon policies, supported by Canada, threaten to destroy the Non Proliferation Treaty and its 13 Steps for nuclear disarmament. Those policies state that nuclear weapons are to be maintained and improved indefinitely. They can be targeted on non nuclear weapon states, can be kept in Europe, and are “essential for peace” At least 100 NATO nuclear warheads are, in fact, now stored in non nuclear weapon states in Europe. All of these policies violate the Articles of the NPT.

3. Maintaining secrecy on military-related security policies

On Valentine’s Day, 2008, Canada and the US signed an agreement which allows for the deployment of US troops inside Canada. There was no official announcement, nor was there a formal decision by government. The agreement was not between two governments but signed by military commanding officers. US Air Force General Gene Renuart and Canadian Air Force Lt.-General Marc Dumais signed a Civil Assistance Plan allowing the military from one nation to support the armed forces of the other nation during a civil emergency.

A Binational Planning Group (BPG) was established in late 2002, one whose mandate is neither accountable to the US Congress nor to the Canadian House of Commons. It has two wings: a Combined Defense Plan and the Civil Assistance Plan. The BPG is involved in supporting the ongoing militarization of civilian law enforcement and judicial functions in both countries, such as in the areas of immigration, police and intelligence.

Another example of secret diplomacy is the Security & Prosperity Partnership. Four years after the launch of the SPP there has been no public consultation or parliamentary debate. The Council of Canadians is calling for public consultation and parliamentary debate and an end to talks aimed a promoting continental integration of Canada and the US.

4. DND Spending on Think Tanks and University Grants

In an article in Walrus Magazine. “How think tanks are muddling our democracy”, George Fetherling quotes Donald Abelson at the University of Western Ontario, that think tanks today have a “profound determination to market their ideas to various target audiences”. Fetherling comments: “listing heavily to political starboard (right wing)…their goals were those of the new conservatism. In Canada, that meant corporate and personal tax breaks, closer ties with the US, private health care… and more recently increased military spending.

Amir Attaran of the University of Toronto comments on how the Department of National Defence spends millions of dollars on think tanks and scholars “to offer up agreeable commentary.” A current DND policy reads that, to receive money, the Conference of Defence Associations (which received $500,000) must “support activities that give evidence of contributing to Canada’s national policies’.”

The writer then lists the grants from DND’s Security and Defence Forum received by scholars at Canadian universities: York, UQAM, Wilfrid Laurier, Laval, McGill, UBC, Manitoba, UNB, Carleton, Dalhousie and Calgary each received between $580,000 and $780,000, while Queen’s obtained a grant of $1,480.000. Why? The writer claims that DND sponsors policy scholars who create the ideas, news and views that shape Canadians’ perception of the military and the war. “When DND needs a kind word in Parliament or the media – presto! – an SDF-sponsored scholar often appears, without disclosing his or her financial link.”

5. Militarism and the Environment

Physicians for Global Survival, in a research report entitled The Impact of Militarism on the Environment, concluded that military activities have extensive adverse impact on the environment . Today the world’s militaries consume approximately 25% of all global jet fuel. The Pentagon is considered the single largest US consumer of oil. An F16 jet on a training mission lasting less than one hour uses twice as much fuel as the average motorist uses in a year.

The estimated number of nuclear warheads built worldwide since 1945 is over 128,000. Many of them use separated plutonium, which has a half-life of 24,000 years. At the end of 2005. there were 15,000 metric tons of high-level waste from the nuclear weapons complex in the US and still no safe place to store it. In the former Soviet Union – in Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Belarus, the Urals and Siberia – millions of people live in areas contaminated from nuclear testing, accidents or deliberate dumping of radioactive materials. Thousands of civilians have died; many more of them and their offspring linger on, poisoned and disfigured by what is known as “radiation sickness.”

6. Radarsat II and the Militarization of Space

Is Canada’s Radarsat II is a satellite for peace or war? Or both? “The Canadian Space Agency emphasizes the peaceful uses of these eyes in the sky… These ingenious machines have the ability to serve many civil purposes, but they also have the ability to act as spies in the sky, and more ominously, to act as a very precise gun sight for missiles launched from air or land, or from space. Much of their use depends on who gets the data that they send back to earth” (Peace Magazine).

Richard Sanders writes that for the past 12 years, in exchange for NASA’s launch of Radarsat I, the US government has controlled 15% of the observation time. US government agencies also have free access to all RADARSAT data over six months old .

7. Cultural Values and Attitudes

One reason why it is entrenched in our society is that militarism is also associated with values, and with popular sports with which so many of us associate. There are many examples in the North American culture, such as:

  1. Almost every day new films and videos are shown which focus on killings and assaults, sometimes with the latest weapons for mass obliteration of often unidentified enemies.

  2. Who of us is not embarrassed by the childish yet potent rants by Don Cherry, champion of both hockey fighting and a tougher military, on Canada’s ubiquitous TV program, Hockey Night in Canada?

  3. And who cannot identify with Bobby Nadeau, the goalie of the Chicoutimi Junior hockey team who refused to defend himself from an unprovoked attack by the opposing goalie? A sports writer wrote that “he is now tainted with a reputation for not fighting back” (16).

  4. Who can forget the picture of Charlton Heston brandishing his rifle at the National Rifle Assn’s conference and his identification with the sanctity of the right to possess and use guns?

  5. Or the graphic words of General Petraeus of the US Army, who pleaded with Congress not to withdraw troops from Iraq because “now we have our teeth in their jugular”? Or those of General Hillier who used similar language: “the job of our (Canadian) troops is to kill people.”

  6. At last year’s football final in Toronto, the Grey Cup was brought into the Rogers Centre by the Canadian military. It could be seen, riding triumphantly on a tank, followed by a recruitment detachment from DND.

IV. Conclusion

Canada is not among the most militarized states today. But it is allied to one which is. The Alliance, in turn, is part of a global network of security and defence institutions governed by military thinking. If this thinking prevails, then our children and grandchildren will be forced to live in a militarized world for the next 50 years. Canada’s plans and immediate purchases are for weapons systems to last at least 25 of those years. And, as a member of NATO, Canada supports the long range planning for new nuclear weapons into the 2050s. More wars of indeterminate size and ferocity are now assumed, and new weapons budgeted for. The Walrus Foundation just held a fund raising luncheon and panel discussion in Ottawa with the theme: War in the 21st Century: does Canada have what it Needs?

What Canada needs is not to assume new wars, but new policies on how to prevent them, to take seriously the warnings that, environmentally, our world may not make it into the mid-Fifties. And, given the increasing danger of nuclear war, premeditated or by accident, the odds for survival that long grow shorter with each passing year.

Unless sufficient numbers of us, here and abroad, connect and are able to say with one voice, and be heard by the decision-makers: “Enough! Stop living the worst case syndrome and repeating the enemy-obsessive mantras that ricochet off the walls of Parliament, and which sully too many editorials and public discussions. If we choose to survive, and if we really want to live in peace, then let us prepare for peace!”

V. What do we do about it?

There is, of course, no one thing we can do which will bring about an end to the militarization of Canada and the world. But there are many things we can and are doing which can slow this destructive process and finally end it. Here are eight of them:

  1. Maintain what is already being done by NGOs in opposing land mines, cluster bombs, small arms and nuclear weapons, while helping to strengthen international law and the major treaties which underpin it..

  2. Continue to challenge NATO’s nuclear weapon policies, as well as those of the other Nuclear Weapon States. Seek an end to uranium mining and production in Canada. Join a uranium network, such as CFSC-Uranium. Show how grievously the environment has been damaged by the production of nuclear weapons and the failure to safely store nuclear wastes.

  3. Publicize, then seek an end to the ongoing production and sale of military commodities in Canada. Ask why no specific data can be obtained for the sale of weapons and their components to the US. Tell people about the arms bazaars frequently held in Canada, including the latest one in Ottawa called CANSEC 2008.

  4. Try to find out what the think tanks and university scholars funded by DND are researching and writing about in using these funds. Ask questions of the directors or administrators of university research institutes.

  5. Challenge the Canadian government’s lack of transparency in reporting the sale of military exports, in security and defence issues with the US, the integration of military commands and the Security and Prosperity Partnership.

  6. Establish a method for publicly monitoring the militarization of Canada, and seek support from other NGOs who share this concern. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists uses a Doomsday Clock. The Fraser Institute employs Tax Freedom Day. The IDRC shows second-by-second increases in global population concurring with decreases in available arable land.

  7. Seek with other NGOs a Ministry of Peace which defines a defence policy that is nonviolent in its objectives, methods and operations. Consider withholding the percentage of one’s income tax estimated for war-making. Inform the government and Conscience Canada and contribute that amount to the Peace Tax Trust Fund.

  8. Study and become familiar with the many dimensions of militarism, its role in history and in our present world. Examine the relationships between cultures of war and peace, on the one hand, and militarism and pacifism on the other. Such studies could lead to new insights & actions on government policies related to cultural attitudes and values that are common to us all.

It is time to turn our backs on the unilateral search for security, in which we seek to shelter behind walls. Instead, we must persist in the quest for united action to counter both global warming and a weaponized world… To survive in the world we have transformed, we must learn to think in a new way. As never before, the future of each depends on the good of all. (Statement of 110 Nobel Laureates)

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