Burlington-born Sarah Harmer joins national push against new fighter jets

More than 100 artists, academics, activists and politicians have signed a letter asking the prime minister to spend the billions designated for new fighter jets on climate action, housing and eliminating boil-water advisories on reserves.

Harmer joins David Suzuki and Naomi Klein in the campaign to scrap the $19-billion purchase.

A group called No New Fighter Jets for Canada has rallied more than 100 artists, activists and prominent Canadians against the country's planned fighter jet purchase. (Koozma J. Tarasoff/No New Fighter Jets for Canada)

Burlington-born musician and environmental activist Sarah Harmer has joined a national campaign against the federal government's planned $19-billion purchase of 88 new fighter jets. 

Harmer's name sits alongside those of geneticist and broadcaster David Suzuki, author and activist Naomi Klein, and musician Neil Young on a public letter addressed to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, released by a campaign called No New Fighter Jets for Canada on Wednesday. 

"Military spending has historically gotten in the way or been prioritized at the expense of domestic care for our citizens," said Harmer in a phone interview with CBC Hamilton on Tuesday, from her parents' home in rural Burlington. She said her decision to sign was based on the pollution and carbon emissions caused by the jets combined with a vision to spend government money differently.

Sarah Harmer performs at the Cisco Ottawa Bluesfest on Tuesday, July 13, 2010. Harmer has signed a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asking for the cancellation of the planned purchase of 88 fighter jets. (Ottawa Bluesfest/Patrick Doyle/The Canadian Press)

"The climate crisis is striking me more than ever… Our decisions have to be dramatically in opposition to some of the decisions we've made in the past. We have to do a big 180."

The letter — with more than 100 signatures so far — was spearheaded by the Canadian Foreign Policy Institute, a relatively new organization that "seeks to bridge the gap between government policy and public perception," and the Canadian Voice of Women for Peace, a feminist peace group founded in 1960.

Fought Mount Nemo quarry

Harmer is well known locally for her ardent participation in the fight against a proposed quarry expansion near Mount Nemo. She says she was approached to sign the letter by fellow musicians Tegan and Sara, and was encouraged by the number of people who she admires on the signatory list. Harmer's current home is near the Trenton military base, where she often sees military aircraft in the skies.

"It's hard to watch that amount of waste and expenditure," she said. "We need to prioritize taking care of people rather than military posturing. There are so many demands right now on our money and budget."

Other signatories include former United Nations ambassador Stephen Lewis and authors Michael Ondaatje and Yann Martel.

Hamilton rabbi David Mivasair, of Independent Jewish Voices, and Ken Stone, with the Hamilton Coalition to Stop the War, have also signed the letter, which cites research that estimates the $19-billion purchase will grow into a $77-billion lifecycle cost.

"Those resources could be used to eliminate boil water advisories on reserves, build light rail lines across the country and construct thousands of units of social housing," the letter says. "$77 billion could turbocharge a just transition away from fossil fuels and a just recovery from the pandemic. 

Jets needed to 'counter today's evolving threat,' government says

"Conversely, purchasing new jets will entrench fossil-fuel militarism. Fighter jets consume huge amounts of specialized fuel that emit significant greenhouse gases."

The Liberal government campaigned on cancelling the previous Conservative government's planned sole-sourced purchase of Lockheed Martin's F-35 stealth fighter, meant to replace Canada's aging CF-18 fleet. It is now holding a competition for the jets, evaluating bids from Lockheed Martin, the Boeing Super Hornet and the Saab Gripen that were due last July.

In an email to CBC Hamilton, Canada's Department of National Defence said the jets are needed "in order to counter today's evolving threat environment and remain highly interoperable with its allies and key operational partners."

DND policy, the department said, states that "the Canadian Armed Forces requires a fighter fleet that is capable, upgradeable (and) resilient… to ensure Canada continues to meet its NORAD and NATO commitments in the future.

"The fighter aircraft fleet is a critical Canadian Armed Forces capability necessary to enforce Canada's sovereignty, enable continental security, and contribute to international peace and stability."

Jets to be Canada's second-largest purchase ever

Tamara Lorincz, an activist with Canadian Voice of Women for Peace and PhD candidate in international affairs, says the procurement will be the second most expensive in Canada's history, after the recent purchase of a fleet of warships. The ships are expected to cost $77.3 billion to build, according to a Parliamentary Budget Officer report released in February.

Lorincz believes fighter jets will do little to help ordinary Canadians feel more secure, suggesting spending the money on growing the green economy, reconciliation with Indigenous communities, mental health care, housing and education would all do more to further that aim.

A government decision on the bids is expected in early 2022.