Canada has marketed itself for many years as a peacekeeping nation and benevolent international actor. But this appearance is only plausible if one’s point of comparison lies directly south of the border.
The Canadian state has long had a privileged relationship with the United States and Britain — the two leading empires of the last two centuries. In reality, its appearance as a tenderhearted broker in international affairs is a public relations sleight of hand. Ottawa has deployed its relatively sophisticated military in action far more often than most people recognize.
Canada is now preparing to equip its Navy with new frigates at an estimated cost of $70 billion ($100 billion over their life cycle). As part of the largest single outlay of public money in Canadian history, the fifteen vessels will be kitted out with a mixture of offensive and defensive weapons, “in a mix never seen before in any surface combatant.” Thus far, this expenditure has not elicited any parliamentary opposition.
The 7,800-metric-ton vessels have space for a helicopter and remotely piloted systems. The frigates have electronic warfare capabilities, torpedo tubes, and various high-powered guns. They will also possess Naval Strike Missile harpoons that can fire missiles from a distance of 185 kilometers (115 miles). Most controversially, the surface combatants look set to be equipped with Tomahawk cruise missiles capable of striking land targets up to 1,700 kilometers (1056 miles) away.
The US-based firm Raytheon has only ever exported these Tomahawk missiles to the UK. If the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) acquires them, it will be the only navy besides the United States’ to deploy the missiles on surface vessels.
“Canada’s new Frigate Will Be Brimming With Missiles,” is how the Drive recently described the surface combatant vessels. In the article, War Zone reporter Joseph Trevithick concludes that the ships “now look set to offer Canada an entirely new form of maritime power projection.”
Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing
Over the past three years, Canadian vessels have repeatedly been involved in belligerent Freedom of Navigation (FON) exercises through international waters — claimed by Beijing — in the South China Sea, Strait of Taiwan, and East China Sea. To counter China’s growing influence in Asia, Washington has stuck its oar into long-standing territorial and maritime boundary disputes between China and the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, and other nations. As part of these efforts to rally regional opposition to China, the US Navy has engaged in regular FON operations, which see warships travel through or near disputed waters.
Canadian frigates have also regularly patrolled the Black Sea, which borders Russia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Romania, Georgia, and Ukraine. In July 2019, HMCS Toronto led a four-ship Standing NATO Maritime Group exercise in the Black Sea. Soon afterward, it participated, with two dozen other ships, in a NATO exercise that included training in maritime interdiction, air defense, amphibious warfare and anti-submarine warfare as part of an effort to send “a strong message of deterrence to Russia.”
During the 2011 war on Libya, Canadian vessels patrolled the Libyan coast. Two rotations of Canadian naval vessels enforced a six-month blockade of the North African country. On May 19, 2011, HMCS Charlottetown joined an operation that destroyed eight Libyan naval vessels. After the conflict, navy head Paul Maddison told Ottawa defense contractors that Charlottetown “played a key role in keeping the Port of Misrata open as a critical enabler of the anti-Gaddafi forces.”
A month before the March 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq commenced, Canada sent a command and control destroyer to the Persian Gulf to take charge of Taskforce 151 — the joint allied naval command. Opinion sought by the Liberal government at the time concluded that taking command of Taskforce 151 could constitute being legally at war with Iraq.
Throughout the 1990s, Canadian warships were part of US carrier battle groups enforcing brutal sanctions on Iraq. And in 1998, HMCS Toronto was deployed to support US airstrikes. During the first Iraq war, Canada dispatched destroyers HMCS Terra Nova and Athabaskan and supply vessel Protecteur to the Persian Gulf before a UN resolution was passed.
An Imperial History
Historically the Canadian Navy’s influence has been greatest nearer to home. There is a long track record of naval interventions in the Americas. As military historian Sean Maloney states:
Since 1960, Canada has used its military forces at least 26 times in the Caribbean to support Canadian foreign policy. In addition, Canada planned three additional operations, including two unilateral interventions into Caribbean states.
At the request of Grenada’s government, Ottawa deployed a vessel to the tiny country during its 1974 independence celebration. As Kai Schoenhals and Richard Melanson described in their book Revolution and Intervention in Grenada, Canada and the UK “also sent three armed vessels to St. George’s to shore up the [Eric] Gairy government,” which faced significant pressure from the Grenadian left.
When twenty-three thousand US troops invaded the Dominican Republic in April 1965, a Canadian warship was sent to Santo Domingo. Paul Theodore Hellyer, Canada’s minister of defense at the time, explained that this deployment was in order for Canada “to stand by in case it is required.” Two Canadian gunboats were also deployed to the independence celebration in Barbados the following year, a bizarre diplomatic maneuver that was designed to demonstrate Canada’s military prowess.
As Sean Maloney writes:
We can only speculate at who the “signal” was directed towards, but given the fact that tensions were running high in the Caribbean over the Dominican Republic Affair [the recent US invasion], it is likely that the targets were any outside force, probably Cuban, which might be tempted to interfere with Barbadian independence.
Of course, the Canadian government did not consider its own naval vessels to be a threat to Barbadian independence.
Immediately after US forces invaded Korea in 1950, Ottawa sent three vessels to the region. Ultimately eight RCN destroyers completed twenty-one tours in Korea between 1950 and 1955. Canadian ships transported troops and bombed the enemy ashore. They fired 130,000 rounds at Korean targets.
According to a Canadian War Museum exhibition:
During the war, Canadians became especially good at “train busting.” This meant running in close to shore, usually at night, and risking damage from Chinese and North Korean artillery in order to destroy trains or tunnels on Korea’s coastal railway. Of the 28 trains destroyed by United Nations warships in Korea, Canadian vessels claimed eight.
The official record Canadian Naval Operations in Korean Waters 1950–1955 details a large number of RCN attacks that would have likely killed civilians.
Further back in time, Canadian warships were also dispatched to force Costa Rica to negotiate with the Royal Bank in 1921, to protect British interests during the Mexican Revolution, and to back a dictator massacring peasants in El Salvador in 1932.
Delusions and Duplicity
Where do Canada’s political parties stand on the new frigates “brimming with missiles”? It was Stephen Harper’s Conservatives who instigated this massive naval expenditure, while the Liberals have happily continued down the same path. For its part, the center-left New Democratic Party has yet to object to the initiative, while the Bloc Québécois has simply pressed for more shipyard work in Québec.
Canada’s real track record in world affairs bears very little resemblance to the smug and self-satisfied stories it tells about itself. Instead of proffering olive branches, it is spending $100 billion to strengthen its navy’s capacity for throwing its weight around, all in support of US imperialism and Canadian corporations abroad. And with no sign of dissent coming from the Canadian political class, that pattern of duplicity looks set to continue.