Liberals face heightened political pressure over North Korean missile threat

Conservatives are demanding that the Trudeau government open negotiations with the Trump administration for Canada to join the U.S. ballistic missile defence. They say recent North Korea advances in missile and nuclear technology make it imperative to join the controversial program.

Canada committed to modernizing Norad to face 'all perils of threats,' says defence minister

A missile is launched during a long and medium-range ballistic rocket launch drill in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in August 30. (KCNA/via Reuters)

The political heat was turned up Wednesday on the Liberal government's refusal to join the U.S. ballistic missile defence program, with the Opposition Conservatives demanding negotiations with the Trump administration for Canada's inclusion in the controversial program.

Recent North Korean missile and nuclear tests have been "game changing" and the isolated nation represents a "direct threat," according to the party's defence and foreign affairs critics.

While Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan acknowledged the global "threat picture has changed," he refused to budge on the policy of keeping Canada outside of the U.S. missile umbrella.

The U.S. ballistic missile shield has been under development for more than a decade. It consists of land- and sea-based missile interceptors and radar, which critics claim have yet to be proven capable of working in a war-time situation.

But the Opposition calls the Liberal reluctance to join the missile defence program a short-sighted approach.

"Military leaders on both sides of the border have acknowledged North America is facing new threats," said Conservative MP James Bezan, the defence critic, who pointed to recent testimony before a House of Commons committee.

"The deputy commander of Norad, Lt.-Gen. St-Amand, informed the standing committee on national defence last month that Canada does not have the capability to defend itself in the event of a missile attack. He said it is not U.S. policy to shoot down a missile targeted at Canada."

Conservative MP James Bezan is demanding the Liberal government open negotiations with the Trump Administration for Canada’s inclusion in ballistic missile defence. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The remarks from St-Amand, the most senior Canadian officer at Norad, shocked MPs and destroyed a long-held political assumption in Ottawa that the Americans would, in the event of a ballistic missile attack on North America, defend Canadian cities as a matter of reflex.

Foreign affairs officials, testifying on the same day, insisted North Korea doesn't see Canada as a threat and might even perceive this country as a moderating influence on Washington.

The Liberal government's recent defence policy, tabled in early June, opted to uphold a 2005 decision by the Liberal government of former prime minister Paul Martin to keep the country outside of the ballistic missile shield.

It was a decision Conservatives said Wednesday should be revisited within the context of revising the over five decade-old Norad agreement.

Looking at all threats

In defending their policy, the Liberals have said they are planning to modernize the North American defence arrangement to consider more than just missiles falling from the sky.

"Our current policy has not changed, but as I stated, when we look at Norad modernizations, we'll be looking at all perils of threats," Sajjan told reporters following question period.

The vagueness of the language irritated the Conservatives.

"To me that doesn't sound like engagement. It doesn't sound like they're looking at modernization," said Bezan.

Sajjan insisted a careful, thoughtful review of the variety of emerging threats facing North America will take time and suggested it will not be rushed forward because of recent international tensions.

Lt. Gen. Pierre St-Amand, left, told a commons national defence committee in Sept. that the U.S. is under no obligation to defend Canada in the event of a ballistic missile attack. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

"It's not just looking at the one threat from an air perspective," he said. "We need to look at the land-based threats, and I obviously can't go into details about this, but what are those — the threats? What type of systems do you need? What type of command and control structure?"

He was quick to add: "I can assure Canadians is we will monitor this threat and making sure that, that Canadian security is protected."

The Conservatives who were not reassured, attempted to paint the position as dangerous dithering.

"We should not overstate the threat to Canada, but it is also irresponsible to ignore the new threat," said Erin O'Toole, the Conservative foreign affairs critic.

Conservative clarity

The Conservatives, for their part, were hard to pin down on the issue of ballistic missile defence until Wednesday.
When the last major political debate raged in 2005, then opposition leader — and later prime minister Stephen Harper — was in favour of it.

Despite being in power for nine years, his government never took any steps toward joining the program.
And as North Korean missile and nuclear tests progressed over the summer, the Conservatives hedged on whether they supported joining the U.S. system, saying they had not had the policy debate within caucus.

About the Author

Murray Brewster

Defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.