Canada played a critical role in nuclear development. We should play a critical role in reparations

Canada didn't sign the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. But we can still take up its humanitarian provisions.

Canada didn't sign the nuclear ban treaty. But we can still take up its humanitarian provisions

With regards to the United Nation Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons — the first legally binding international agreement to ban nuclear weapons entirely — Canada did something very un-Canada-like: we picked a side.  (Mary Altaffer/Associated Press)

Canada holds contradictory positions in the world of nuclear weapons. We played an essential role in their development, but we never built any bombs of our own. 

No nukes are stationed on Canadian soil; however, they were for 20 years, until we finally sent the last American warheads back home in 1984. 

As a people, Canadians are largely against nuclear weapons; however, Canada is part of a nuclear alliance and our government actively participates in NATO's Nuclear Planning Group. 

Almost 60 per cent of Canadians live in regions that have banned nuclear weapons, like Ontario, Manitoba, and the Northwest Territories, or in self-proclaimed nuclear weapons-free cities like Toronto, Vancouver, and Red Deer, Alta.; however, we currently allow American and British nuclear-capable vessels to visit our ports.

Very simply, in the nuclear arena, Canada is awkwardly straddling a line –– we're not a member of the nuclear club, but we're not exactly outside of it either. This position usually works in Canada's favour, because it lets us simultaneously satisfy both our anti-nuclear impulses and our NATO defence commitments. 

Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons

However, with regards to the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons –– the first legally binding international agreement to ban nuclear weapons entirely –– Canada did something very un-Canada-like: we picked a side. 

When the treaty was being negotiated in 2017, Canada never formally engaged in the process. Along with nearly every other NATO member, we abstained from negotiations at the behest of the United States, the United Kingdom, and France –– our other nuclear-armed allies. 

What has picking this side gotten us? A fair amount of anger and frustration, from both domestic and international activists who feel that Canada has abrogated its moral responsibility on the global stage. At the same time, picking the other side would have set up a bitter and unprecedented fight between Canada and the United States; it could have even called Canada's NATO membership into question. 

In the nuclear policy world, the treaty was billed as a zero-sum decision: the nuclear-armed states and their allies were on one side, and the abolitionists were on the other. And both sides employed similar language: if you aren't with us, you're against us. 

But it didn't have to be a zero-sum decision. As always, there was a middle ground to be found, and there is still time for Canada to occupy it. 

Today, despite the treaty boasting 70 signatories and nearing entry into force (it now has exactly half of the 50 ratifications needed), Prime Minister Trudeau has characterized it as "sort of useless." But the treaty contains a number of humanitarian provisions that are right up Canada's alley. 

In particular, the treaty obligates countries to provide age- and gender-sensitive medical aid to victims of nuclear testing, offer financial assistance to those affected, and to provide environmental remediation to contaminated areas like the Marshall Islands, where countless Bikinians were irradiated and displaced by Cold War nuclear tests, yet remain basically forgotten by the nuclear superpowers. These are policies on which Canada can –– and should –– take the lead. 

Trudeau has characterized the nuclear ban treaty as "sort of useless." (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Trudeau's Liberal government prides itself on its feminist foreign policy, and particularly its promotion of women and girls around the globe. This emphasis should also be applied to the nuclear context. It is a well-established fact that nuclear weapons detonations disproportionately affect women –– not only in terms of the biological effects of ionizing radiation, but also in terms of the social, economic, and psychological impacts of the weapons themselves. For example, a UN study found that the American military subjected Marshallese women to uniquely humiliating examinations after U.S. nuclear weapons tests, which resulted in the social stigmatization of those women. 

Canada is uniquely poised to lead on these humanitarian initiatives by providing financial, medical, and environmental aid to those most harmed. Doing so falls firmly within our foreign policy priorities, it wouldn't affect our existing defence commitments, and, crucially, it would establish Canada as a bridge-builder between two sides that continue to view the nuclear issue as a zero-sum game. 

Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty

We are also already a party to every other major nuclear non-proliferation treaty, including the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, which bans all nuclear weapons testing. This was easy for us to join in 1998; we had no nuclear weapons to test. However, engaging with the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons would give Canada an opportunity to go beyond our existing, relatively painless, obligations. And we would also be the first nuclear umbrella state to do so, thus setting a meaningful and lasting precedent. 

Perhaps most importantly, Canada has a moral obligation to provide aid to victims and environments affected by nuclear testing. We don't like to talk about it much, but Canada played a critical role in the development of these horrific weapons: scientists at the Montréal Laboratory were an essential part of the Manhattan Project, and the first atomic bombs were made with uranium shipped from the Northwest Territories. 

These are unfortunate truths that Canadians have yet to truly reckon with, but committing to a platform of nuclear reparations would be a good start. 

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Matt Korda is a research associate for the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists. He co-authors the Nuclear Notebook, an authoritative assessment of global nuclear forces, for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Previously, he worked at the Arms Control, Disarmament, and WMD Non-Proliferation Centre at NATO HQ in Brussels.