No member of the Mulroney government has so deservedly earned a reputation for being close-mouthed as Erik Nielsen, 61, the deputy prime minister and minister of national defence. Before going to Nielsen's office on Parliament Hill for an interview, Maclean’s Senior Contributing Editor Peter C. Newman had been warned that he would be lucky if Nielsen would cite more than his name, rank and serial number. But he was not the least reticent about urging a stronger Canadian defence. Then, after two hours, the taciturn minister relaxed and told Newman: “When you last interviewed me, in 1962, you described me as sipping away at a cool Scotch. I hope this time you will note that I don Ï drink any more and am sipping 7 Up. ” Newman later asked a Nielsen confidant how the minister could possibly remember an interview 23 years ago. “That 's easy, ” came the facetious reply, “Erik hasn't given an interview since. ” Nielsen, who has represented his Yukon constituency as a militant Progressive Conservative since 1957, served with the Royal Canadian Air Force from 19U2 to 1951 and came into his present portfolio with strong views on national defence. Excerpts:
Maclean’s: Everyone seems obsessed by Star Wars, but surely we must deal with more mundane defence matters—such as the fact that in any comparison of the ratio between regular and reserve military manpower among the NATO countries we rank the lowest.
Nielsen: You don’t have to stay within NATO countries to find that comparison either. One of the most remarkable comparisons with respect to reserve strength is that between Switzerland and ourselves. [Switzerland, which has less than a quarter of Canada’s population, has 656,000 reservists.] It is a serious inadequacy to believe that our reserve forces of some 20,000 men and women at the moment is adequate for the level of preparedness for which we should be striving.
Maclean’s: Are reserves not the most cost-effective way to build up manpower?
Nielsen: I suppose the best example of that is the rapidity with which our forces in Canada were able, because of sound foresight and good planning, to cope with the events of 1939 and subsequent years. This was done in such a magnificent fashion that we had the third-largest navy in the world by the time the Second World War was over. We have to have that kind of planning
and that kind of reserve capacity in this country, although it has been almost totally neglected in the recent past. Maclean’s: Turning to a more controversial issue, do you think we need nuclear weapons in Canada?
Nielsen: I don’t believe we have to be a nuclear nation to achieve an adequate
standard of defence. I had a letter from a lady the other day who expressed the viewpoint that even if every man, woman and child were armed to the teeth, we still couldn’t defend Canada. Well, that indicates to me an attitude about one’s country that I find very difficult to accept. It’s surprising the number of Canadians who believe that we won’t have to defend ourselves.
Maclean’s: That we should let the
Americans defend us?
Nielsen: Yes, but if you adopt that attitude, you become a colony of Big Brother to the south. And I’m one of those Canadians who is fiercely independent—and who resists any suggestion that the United States should be telling us what to do in Canada. When I think back to our participation in the Second World War, we were there up front because most Canadians thought that freedom was endangered and that it wouldn’t take very long to be threatened right here in Canada. We made the decision to become involved in 1939,’ the United States did not until 1941.
Maclean’s: As the first minister of national defence from a northern constituency you must have some special feelings about our present inability to defend the North.
Nielsen: That’s true, but I’ve been saying that since I first came here in 1957. I remember learning for the first time with a very high degree of astonishment that there were ice islands floating out in the Arctic waters that were permanently manned by the Russians, who had been there for two decades—and now you can add another two to that. We haven’t done much to meet the need for addressing our own occupation and presence in our own Arctic. That needn’t necessarily mean that there should be more land bases there. We can establish our presence by other means. And you have air spaces too. But it doesn’t sit well with me to lean back and rest assured that some other country is going to provide that air presence. We should be supplying it ourselves. Maclean’s: One of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney's promises was a new White Paper on Defence, the first since 1971. But your government has already taken so many decisions—the new uniforms, reinforcing our NATO contingent, the North Warning System—that the future policy options have narrowed. Nielsen: I hope to have a White Paper ready for the standing parliamentary committee this fall—but the world doesn’t stand still. The decisions that have been taken would have been taken with or without a White Paper. There is every logical argument which compelled
us to act on the North Warning System. That was long overdue. The Distant Early Warning Line is so full of holes that I have always been very much a critic of past arrangements because of the lack of sovereignty control. Maclean’s: What about Star Wars? Does it have any connection with the northern surveillance system?
Nielsen: Nothing “Stars” and nothing “Wars” about it. You’re speaking about the Strategic Defense Initiative [SDI] of the United States, which has no connection whatsoever with the North Warning System, which is a modernized radar installation for recognizing aircraft.
Maclean’s: How will you reach a final decision on whether or not to participate in this Strategic Defense Initiative? Nielsen: We have appointed [former special adviser to the Privy Council Office] Arthur Kroeger to study the issue. At the moment all we have is an invitation to participate and we do not yet fully know to participate in what. When we have some hard data upon which to base judgments as to whether or not it is in Canada’s interest, then we can make a decision.
Maclean’s: Is it realistic to assume that if President Reagan goes ahead with the system, somehow the Russians are supposed to wind down their offensive nuclear missiles?
Nielsen: The critics never ask themselves about what the other side is doing. The cruise testing is the best example. But the Russians have had the cruise for two or three years. They were testing in the field long before the United States was.
Maclean’s: You seem to have established a good working relationship with Caspar Weinberger, the U.S. secretary of defence. Does he have any special interest in Canada?
Nielsen: Oh yes. In fact, Weinberger tried to join the Canadian air force. There were a number of U.S. citizens who wanted to become involved in 1939, and Weinberger was one of them. He tried to enlist in the RCAF in Vancouver but had a vision difficulty.
Maclean’s: Do you enjoy being minister of national defence?
Nielsen: The defence of our country, and I would say this whether I was defence minister or not, has to be the top priority. There is nothing that any parent would not do to protect his or her family and home. When you put it in a national perspective, we are just looking at a larger family and a larger family home. Nothing—really nothing—should receive greater priority than the security of one’s country. All of the social benefits and all of the economic advantages we might enjoy now are in jeopardy if we are not prepared to meet any given threat.
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