Between 2007 and 2009, Canadian companies exported about $1.4-billion in arms with the United Kingdom, Australia and Saudi Arabia topping the list of buyers.

The sales figures are contained in the latest report from the department of foreign affairs that tracks military sales from year to year.

Those figures don't include sales to the United States, which is by far the largest buyer of arms from Canada. Because of a long-standing agreement between the two countries, Canada doesn't track sales to the United States the way it does for other countries, so it does not appear on the department's list.

Just before the politicians headed home for a week-long break, Foreign Affairs minister, Lawrence Cannon, tabled the Report on Exports of Military Goods from  Canada for the years 2007 to 2009. His department had been under criticism for failing to produce these reports in a timely fashion.

Until today, the most recent report was from 2006. NDP foreign affairs critic, Paul Dewar, has been demanding the reports. Though he didn't have a chance to study the latest one in detail before speaking with CBC News, he says there are some sales that raise concerns.

"When you look at what's happening in the Middle East and North Africa, where we have totalitarian regimes who are using arms — planes, guns, tear gas, water cannon — against their population, a majority of whom are using peaceful means to demonstrate I think it's important that Canadians know what kind of exports we've been [sending to] regimes in these countries."

Between 2007 and 2009, sales to Saudi Arabia alone totalled about $80 million. During the same time period, Canada also sold arms to other Middle Eastern countries including Tunisia ($971,822), Lebanon ($1,468,952), Algeria ($9,235,132) and Libya ($86,682).

The total for all arms exports permits to the Middle East 2007-2009 was $153 million.

By law, companies need a permit to export arms. Under the Export and Import Permits Act, companies wanting to sell weapons such as rockets, missiles, chemical or biological agents, must obtain a permit from the department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada.

Countries that have records of human rights abuses are banned from the list. Still, Dewar and other critics point out that countries such as Libya still qualify as paying customers.

Historically, foreign affairs has been unable to publish these reports regularly. There is no legal obligation to file them, however countries like Canada that sell arms have agreed to make the information public in order to increase transparency.

Top ten: Canada's arms exports, 2007-2009

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Top ten destinations for Canadian arms exports, 2007-2009. Source: Dept. of Foreign Affairs, 2007-2009 data released March 11, 2011. Excludes the United States. (Google Fusion Table/CBC)

(See data here)

According to a 2007 email from a department official CBC News obtained through access to information, "the practice of producing a military report is one that is shared by many like-minded countries, including EU member-states, Australia, the U.S., and so on." The explanation goes on to describe this disclosure as a "voluntary transparency." 

During that exchange of email correspondence in 2007, officials discussed the delays that were preventing them from publishing the reports. Officials blamed a "technical glitch" and the fact that many of the records they were receiving from companies were in paper, instead of electronic format.

"I know the blame for the lack of reporting lies in a technical glitch, but we are going to need to unpack that a little as the PM is going to expect a full explanation of what has gone wrong over the past few years," one email read. 

In another email exchange, an official pointed out that normally, these "reports are tabled in the last quarter of the year following the subject calendar year."

Paul Dewar points out that until the foreign affairs minister tabled the most recent report, it had been years since Canadians knew anything about arms shipments abroad. "For me it's an important document because it's about accountability. It's about a government being accountable on what Canada's arms export are. And it's something we did on a regular basis and we stopped doing it in 2006."

It's unclear why foreign affairs is still having problems. The department denied CBC News's repeated requests for an interview. In an emailed response, a spokesperson explained that the delay was due to "a transition from a paper-based to an electronic system and time required to verify data"

Interestingly, this response echoes the same difficulties the department discussed during those 2007 email exchanges.

Dewar points out that there is nothing wrong with selling arms. But without regular access to reports that detail what we sell and to whom, it's difficult for Canadians to have an open discussion about certain sales which could be troublesome.

Map: Canada's arms sale export permits by country, 2007-2009

(Excludes figures for exports to the United States. See full data here )

David McKie can be reached at david_mckie@cbc.ca

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story did not explain that arms exports to the United States are not included government figures. The story has been updated.
    Mar 11, 2011 9:40 AM ET