Baird's office ordered late change in arms treaty stance

CBC News has learned the office of Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird ordered last-minute changes to Canada's position on an international arms treaty, as well as to its delegation to meetings at United Nations headquarters.

The office of Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird ordered last-minute changes to Canada's position on an international arms treaty, as well as to its delegation to meetings at United Nations headquarters, CBC News has learned.

According to documents obtained under the Access to Information Act, the minister's office ignored advice from the department and ordered civil servants to invite Steve Torino, president of the Canadian Shooting Sports Association (CSSA), to meetings that ran from July 11-15, 2011, in New York City. The CSSA is an organization that represents thousands of firearms enthusiasts. 

The goal of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) is to set common standards for the import, export and trade of all conventional weapons in order to prevent illicit or irresponsible transfers of weapons that would fuel conflict, encourage terrorism or organized crime. 

The original list of delegates to ATT preparatory meetings included 10 employees from Foreign Affairs and National Defence but not Torino.

Roster changed

In a June 8, 2011, email to colleagues working on the treaty, the head of Canada's delegation, Habib Massoud, said Gordon Cameron from the minister's office gave him notice to expect a last-minute change to the roster — something that had evidently occurred before. 

"Like last time, if we are instructed by (the ministers office) to include Mr. Torino on the delegation list we would, of course, do as we are instructed," Massoud wrote. He added that he had informed Cameron that not including Torino was "our best advice."

Ken Epps is with the disarmament group Project Ploughshares in Waterloo, Ont., and has taken part in previous delegations to UN conferences on arms control.

"This is setting a different precedent from what had been the standard procedures prior to that where there had always been a balance on the delegation from the NGO (non-governmental organization) side," he said. 

Hélène Laverdière, the NDP's foreign affairs critic and a former diplomat, agreed.

"We can see that what they suggested was thrown aside and politicized, you know, politics replaced good management and that's what we see with this government all the time," she said.

'Minister's prerogative

Chris Day, Baird's director of communications, said that is not true. 

"As has always been the case for international meetings, the composition of Canadian delegations to this type of international gathering is the minister's prerogative and responsibility," Day said.

Tony Bernardo, executive director of CSSA, said that "the inclusion of Mr. Torino was in recognition that there is a legitimate sporting arms industry in Canada and Mr. Torino provides valuable input as to the potential impact the actions of the Canadian delegation could have on Canadian citizens."

Subsequent correspondence also shows the minister's office ordered last-minute changes to Canada's long-standing position on the treaty. 

Canada did make a significant new proposal at the international conference, to exclude all hunting and sporting weapons from the agreement.

The change attracted heaps of scorn. Countries including Nigeria, Brazil, Australia and Mexico publicly opposed the suggestion. 

Epps, who attended last summer's conference on his own, said the newly released documents have "confirmed that the gun lobby in Canada is having a significant impact on Canadian foreign policy."

Canada simply wants a treaty that in addition to establishing international standards for transferring arms, "respects the legal trade in arms, including the legitimate trade or use of hunting and sporting firearms," Day said.

Laverdière called Canada's new position an embarrassment. 

"Canada, who was at the forefront of many international agreements for arms control, is now the country which is trying to weaken those agreements."

A final meeting to hammer out and ratify the Arms Trade Treaty is due to take place in July 2012.


Alison Crawford is a senior reporter in CBC's parliamentary bureau, covering justice, public safety, the Supreme Court and Liberal Party of Canada.