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1985: Canada opts out of “Star Wars” defence plan

The Story

It's official: Canada will not be participating in the United States' Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI). The proposed missile-defence plan, nicknamed "Star Wars," would be a virtual shield that aims to destroy weapons launched by the Soviet Union. After meeting with his caucus, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney announces the Canadian government won't support SDI research. But, as this CBC clip mentions, Canada isn't completely shut out: private Canadian firms and universities are free to bid on SDI contracts. For Mulroney, it was an easy decision. Canada wouldn't gain many jobs from SDI or have much influence on whether the system was deployed. Opposition parties and peace activists are pleased with Mulroney's announcement. Even as he declines a role for Canada, Mulroney says he supports U.S. plans for SDI, noting that the Soviets have been developing similar technology for years.

Medium: Television
Program: The National
Broadcast Date: Sept. 7, 1985
Guest(s): Ed Broadbent, Jean Chrétien, Brian Mulroney, Jim Stark
Anchor: George McLean
Reporter: David Halton, Joe Schlesinger, Christopher Walmsley
Duration: 5:33

Did You know?

• United States President Ronald Reagan proposed the Strategic Defence Initiative in March 1983.

• The plan was dubbed "Star Wars" by Dr. Carol Rosin, an aerospace consultant and opponent of the plan.

• Canada was one of 13 Western nations invited to participate in the plan; by the time of this clip five had declined.

• Under SDI, a nuclear-powered satellite hovering in space above the United States would detect incoming nuclear ICBMs, or intercontinental ballistic missiles. It would then point lasers at the missiles, deflecting or destroying them before they could fall to Earth.

• The Soviets protested the plan and threatened to opt out of disarmament talks. However, in 1987 Soviet leaders disclosed that they had been working on a similar program.

• SDI was never extensively tested. A single trial of the laser detection system, carried out in an underground shaft, produced inconclusive results.

• Making the system work was difficult due to the complicated physics involved in ballistics and space travel. Many critics also pointed out that SDI couldn't protect against other bomb delivery systems such as cruise missiles or airplanes. It would also be powerless to distinguish a decoy missile from the real thing.

• In January 1988 the Economist reported that "most scientists and many politicians" had come to doubt whether SDI could really work.

• South Carolina congressman John Spratt, a Democrat, pointed out that a space-based plan violated an anti-ballistic missile treaty between the Soviet Union and the United States. Spratt advocated a ground-based system instead.

• SDI wasn't a priority for the next president, George H.W. Bush, who scaled back the plan in 1991.

• By 1993 the Cold War was over and there was little justification for SDI. A more limited system called NMD, or national missile defence, took its place.

• In 2001 the concept, this time called ballistic missile defence (BMD), was resurrected with the election of U.S. President George W. Bush. The Bush administration believed there was a potential threat from a rogue Third World nation armed with nuclear weapons and vowed to implement the plan by 2004.

• In 2003 Canada began deliberating about whether to play a role in BMD. In February 2005 Foreign Affairs Minister Pierre Pettigrew told the House of Commons that Canada would not be participating in the U.S. ballistic missile defence plan.

• Unlike Reagan's disappointed-but-understanding reaction in 1985, Bush administration officials were apparently displeased with Canada's decision. One week later, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice indefinitely postponed a planned visit to Ottawa.


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