A polite 'no' to Star Wars

MICHAEL CLUGSTON September 16 1985

A polite 'no' to Star Wars

MICHAEL CLUGSTON September 16 1985

A polite 'no' to Star Wars


Throughout the week suspense and speculation intensified in Ottawa. There, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney waited until the eleventh hour to outline formally Ottawa’s policy toward the hotly debated U.S. space defence program. Then, after a day-long caucus meeting the Prime Minister emerged

from the Railway Committee Room in Parliament’s Centre Block to make one of his year-old government’s most important announcements: Ottawa will not formally participate in the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), popularly known as Star Wars. With that, Canada became the fifth of 13 Western nations invited to take part in the program to decline the offer. Said Mulroney: “After careful and detailed consideration, the government of Canada has concluded that Canada’s own policies and priorities do not warrant a government-to-government effort in support of SDI research.”

In issuing his polite “no” to President Ronald Reagan, Mulroney attached two major qualifications. For one thing, he said that he supports the United States proceeding itself with SDI research “in light of significant advances in Soviet research.” For another, he said that privately owned Canadian companies and universities will still be free to bid for SDI-related contracts, estimated to be worth $26 billion.

Still, the decision represented the first public disagreement between Mulroney and Reagan. At the same time, the refusal may make it more difficult for Canadian business to obtain SDI contracts. But Mulroney said: “I don’t think there will be any disappointment in the White House. The government of Canada was the first to provide support for the United States of America, on Jan. 21, with regard to the research and initiatives of SDI.” Mulroney signalled his decision in a CBC radio interview last week. Said the Prime Minister: “Does it hinder your capacity to act independently? Does it mute a noble voice, Canada’s, in the question of arms reduction and arms limitation? These are important questions for a national government, irrespective of the fact that an overwhelm-

ing majority of Canadians favor participation in SDI.” He later talked over the decision with his cabinet during a private meeting at Meech Lake, near Ottawa, last Friday, before discussing it with the caucus on Saturday.

Speaking for the opposition Liberals, Quebec MP and former justice minister Jean Chrétien said: “For the opposition, even if they’re not great in numbers, it’s a great victory for us. And I’m delighted with the position that the Canadian government will not be involved directly with Star Wars. I’m starting to enjoy being in the opposition.”

Earlier in the day the Prime Minister had confronted another, unrelated controversy. An article in Saturday’s Ottawa Citizen said that a Toronto law firm was awarded $200,000 worth of federal government legal work shortly after one of the Prime Minister’s closest friends joined it earlier this year. Mulroney’s friend Sam Wakim, his former roommate at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S., joined the firm Weir and Foulds. Since May, according to The Citizen, the company has been doing specialized legal work for the Export Development Corporation—work that since 1969 had been done by the Ottawa law firm of Gowling and Henderson. William Fox, Mulroney’s press secretary, declared, “Categorically, absolutely, the Prime Minister’s Office has had no involvement in this whatsoever.”

Meanwhile, in his Star Wars decision, Mulroney appeared to be attempting to stake out Ottawa’s political independence from a research program that has aroused Soviet protests, threatened future talks on nuclear disarmament and provoked skepticism—or outright rejection—from other U.S. allies. “If Mulroney had said yes to SDI,” noted John Lamb, executive director of the Canadian Centre for Arms Control and Disarmament (CCACD), “it could have narrowed future government options with regard to diplomatic action on SDI. It could make it difficult in the future to express reservations or opposition if deployment came up.” Other observers added that Mulroney may be less enthusiastic about making defence deals with Washington because of the challenge posed to Canadian sovereignty by the voyage of a U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker through the Northwest Passage in August.

Other, more complex political calculations may also have come into play. Steven Langdon, a New Democratic Party MP who served on a special parliamentary committee which held hearings across Canada during the summer on Star Wars and on Ottawa’s impending decision on whether to enter into negotiations on free trade with the United States, said that Mulroney may have decided that there were important political benefits in a qualified rejection of Star Wars. “I think that Mulroney is going to take pretty dramatic steps in the direction of free trade with the States,” said Langdon. “It’s possible that he would seek to counterbalance that, politically, by saying no to Canadian participation in SDI.”

In reaching its decision, the government had to weigh the possibility that thousands of research-oriented jobs in high-technology industries—and access to advanced new technologies—may be lost if Ottawa decided not to participate in the Star Wars project at the governmental level. Indeed, Mulroney said last March that as many as 10,000 jobs might be created in Winnipeg alone by Canadian participation in Star Wars. As well, the leaders of Canadian electronics and armaments firms supported Canadian participation. And Kenneth Lewis, president of the Canadian Aerospace Industries Association, estimated that SDI could create 50,000 jobs in Canada.

But critics said that high-technology industry is not labor-intensive and that, for security reasons, the U.S. military establishment may ultimately prefer to keep top-secret research projects in the United States. In a study made public in August, the CCACD calculated that if Canada obtained one per cent of the projected SDI budget of $26 billion over the next five years, that would create only 1,680 jobs a year until 1990, of which only 400 a year would directly benefit Canada’s high-technology business sector.

The Star Wars proposal has created international concerns as well. Soviet

spokesmen say that American plans to militarize space could frustrate progress at disarmament talks scheduled to resume in Geneva later this month. Last week Moscow linked a planned test later this month of a U.S. Air Force rocket designed to destroy a derelict satellite in space with the SDI, and added that if Washington proceeded with the exercise the Soviet Union would then consider deploying weapons in space.

At the same time, the U.S. proposal, for allied involvement in Star Wars research has still not won formal acceptance from any allied government. Last spring U.S. Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger invited the 16 countries of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to participate, along with Japan, Israel and Australia. But Australia, Norway and Denmark declined almost immediately. Since then, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and other Western leaders have become increasingly hesitant about joining the project. British hopes of winning $1.5 billion in SDI research contracts were frustrated last month when a British government delegation in Washington learned that Washington would not agree to any set dollar figure for SDi-related research.

Ottawa’s lengthy decision-making process was set in motion after Reagan met with Mulroney in Quebec City last March and repeated Weinberger’s invitation. Mulroney’s own views on participation in Star Wars appeared to swing back and forth. Last March he said that while he supported SDI in principle, “it is quite another thing to be invited to participate actively in a project where you are not the bigger player, where you don’t set the thrust and where you have no control over the parameters.”

In order to learn more about the possibilities, Ottawa in April appointed Arthur Kroeger, a former deputy minister of transport and economic development, to study the strategic, scientific and economic implications of the U.S. invitation. Then, in June a controversy broke out in Parliament when opposition MPs discovered that the Mulroney government might reach decisions on both Star Wars and free trade before Parliament had been given a chance to examine the issues adequately. External Affairs Minister Joe Clark responded by setting up an all-party, HouseSenate committee which subsequently spent a month visiting seven Canadian cities. The 17-member committee, headed by Tory MP Thomas Hockin, heard reasoned defences of Canadian involvement in Star Wars—but more often it heard impassioned pleas for Canada to stay out of any involvement in the arms race.

Meanwhile, a Gallup poll released in July indicated that 53 per cent of Canadians supported Canadian participation in SDI, although only 39 per cent felt that a space-based defence system would make the world safer from nuclear destruction. When the joint committee reported in August it reflected the divided state of Canadian opinion by recommending that Ottawa withhold a final decision until more could be learned about the proposal. “We don’t even know what the invitation is,” Hockin said. With his decision, Mulroney may have retained a flexible role for Canada as a potential peacemaker in discussions between the superpowers—a role that might eventually be much more valuable than research contracts.


in Ottawa