The debate over ‘Star Wars’

CHRIS WOOD August 12 1985

The debate over ‘Star Wars’

CHRIS WOOD August 12 1985

The debate over ‘Star Wars’


The parliamentary committee is charged with examining two key issues—whether Canadian firms should help to research the U.S. Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), and whether Ottawa should seek a U.S.-Canada free trade pact. But since the 17-member committee began hearings last month, one of the subjects—SDI, or Star Wars —has dominated the discussions. During the committee’s hearings in Toronto, 15-year-old Gareth Park, speaking for disarmament groups in 40 high schools, told the committee that “We will be the ones who die if SDI is built.” Then, in Vancouver last week Molly Johnston, an 18-year-old drama student, delivered an even more eloquent condemnation. “I don’t want to live in a world full of lasers, particle beams, kinetic projectiles and empty tomorrows. How can I exist in a world that has no tomorrow? When did life and death become debatable?”

Indeed, since the committee began its heavily attended seven-city tour on July 15, it has provided a forum for the expression of concerns over participation in the SDI program. Those fears have been developing since March when President Ronald Reagan invited Canada

and other nations of the Western alliance to join in research aimed at developing a space-based defence system against nuclear attack. The committee members, 12 MPs and five senators, also heard from—and at times argued with —proponents of Star Wars. In Vancouver, Lt.-Gen. Reginald Lane, for one, a former deputy commander of the joint U.S.-Canadian North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD), argued that Canada should take part in SDI in order to strengthen its close relationship with the United States, and to benefit from the technological developments involved. To that, New Democratic Party MP Pauline Jewett, a longtime peace campaigner, said that an arms control agreement between the two superpowers would be preferable to Star Wars. Replied Lane:

“Good luck, Miss Jewett.

You’re not going to influence the United States or the U.S.S.R.”

The free trade issue provoked less passion but there, too, opinions were sharply divided. Alasdair McKichan, president of the Retail Council of Canada, contended in Toronto that Canada had “virtually no choice” but to seek a free trade pact with the United States or be shut out of that market by growing protectionist pressures. But Richard Martin, vice-president of the Canadian Labour Congress, told the committee in Halifax that free trade threatened jobs in meat-packing, electronicand home-appliance manufacturing, machinery fabrication and high-tech services, as well as in brewing and the textile industry.

The all-party committee, which concluded three weeks of hearings in Winnipeg last week, was set up in June after External Affairs Minister Joe Clark set off an angry Commons debate by tabling a discussion paper on Canada’s foreign policy that largely

avoided the two issues. The strength of the views that were put before the committee, and the often-drastic consequences predicted if Canada makes the wrong choices, underscored the political difficulties faced by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservative government as it approaches decisions on both Star Wars and free trade this fall.

Both are high on the Mulroney government’s list of priority issues, and they involve complex decision-making processes. On the SDI issue, Mulroney has publicly wavered, declaring last December that he was “less than enthusiastic” about the program, then expressing cautious support for the plan in June. In the meantime, Ottawa last month received a confidential report on SDI prepared by Arthur Kroeger, a senior policy adviser in the Privy Council Office. The document outlined the feasibility, costs and possible benefits to Canada—as well as the implications for Canadian relations with the United States and its other allies—of involvement in Star Wars. Last week Kroeger returned to Ottawa after touring Europe to gather opinions there on SDi’s implications.

A decision to participate in Star Wars research would clear the way for Canadian high-tech firms to join in the development of a futuristic defence system.

The project has been promoted in Washington as a way to use such devices as laser and directed energy plasma beams in space to detect and destroy as

many as 20,000 nuclear warheads during their 20-minute flight from bases in the Soviet Union to targets in North America.

Clearly, Canadian firms are anxious to get a piece of the action in the $26billion, five-year research program announced by Reagan in March, 1983. Appearing before the committee in Montreal, John Simons, vice-president of Canadian Marconi Co., said that Canada could miss out on “a tremendous technological surge” if it decided not to participate in Star Wars research. Still, other witnesses said that the technological gains will not compensate for the dangers of launching an arms race in space. In Halifax, where the committee’s hearing in July coincided with the 40th anniversary of the first atomic bomb explosion over the test range in New Mexico, Cuthbert Gifford, speaking for the Veterans for Multilateral Disarmament, condemned Star Wars as “the ultimate tool for prolonging the arms race.”

On free trade the committee, chaired by Conservatives Thomas Hockin, the MP for London West, and Quebec Senator Jacques Flynn, heard a diversity of views. Edward Neufeld, chief economist of the Royal Bank of Canada who testified in Montreal, declared that the prospect of gaining unlimited access for Canadian firms in the world’s richest marketplace appeared to be a golden opportunity that should be “accelerated.” But other businessmen said that their industries could suffer in head-tohead competition with higher-volume American industries. Added Peter Nygard, chairman of the Winnipeg-based clothing firm Nygard International Ltd.: “We have nothing to gain, and perhaps a lot to lose, from free trade.”

When the committee’s report is submitted to Parliament later this month, its views on free trade will join a growing volume of material on the issue. And

its conclusions will influence Ottawa’s final decision on whether to embark on talks with Washington aimed at a mutual dismantling of protective trade barriers. International Trade Minister James Kelleher was assigned following the “Shamrock Summit” in Quebec City in March to explore ways of improving Canada-U.S. commerce with Reagan’s trade representative, Clayton Yeutter, and the minister is scheduled to report his findings to Mulroney by late September. In the same month, the longawaited report of a 33-month-old royal commission on the economy headed by former Liberal finance minister Donald Macdonald is expected to endorse the idea of free trade and to support its position with voluminous documentation. A decision on Canada’s trading stance is likely in September, well ahead of the midterm U.S. elections in 1986 that are expected to increase protectionist pressures on Congress.

In the end, the decisions on both Star Wars and trade may not emerge in a clear-cut form. In the case of free trade, the government’s options—spelled out by Kelleher in a January working paper —are wide. Mulroney’s government could decide to seek comprehensive free trade, or a “framework agreement” for negotiating selective tariff reductions, or a form of “sectoral” free trade that would be limited to specified industries —any one of which could take months, and possibly years, to negotiate. As well, the policy statement on Star Wars that is likely in October or November could be more symbolic than substantive. Ottawa’s own research establishment has little money to devote to new, high-tech research—and even a formal rejection of the U.S. invitation would not prevent Canadian companies from bidding on research contracts let by Washington.

The wide latitude available in both cases may simplify Ottawa’s decisions. After the Mulroney government’s political retreats in the past nine months—on proposed cuts in social welfare spending and on the de-indexing of pensions—it seemed likely that Ottawa will be anxious to come up with compromises that avoid seriously offending any sector of Canadian society. In the meantime, the committee hearings have raised pointed questions about Canada’s future, and Mulroney will have to deal with those questions as he prepares to face Parliament when it resumes in Ottawa on Sept. 9.

-CHRIS WOOD in Toronto