In 1958, a decision by John Diefenbaker’s Conservative government to accept the basing of American anti-ballistic “Bomarc” missiles on Canadian soil ignited a national debate that spanned the next half-decade. The Bomarcs were meant to shoot down Soviet planes headed to North America. Diefenbaker had recently cancelled the Avro Arrow project, convinced by the Americans that the Soviet threat necessitated missile defence, not a Canadian interceptor plane. This is an early case of Americans pushing their technology (the missiles, made by Boeing!) at the expense of Canada’s advanced Avro Arrow.
As initially conceived, the missile system was to be based along the US’s Northern border and shoot down Soviet planes over Southern Canada. Diefenbaker instead convinced the Americans to station the missiles in Northern Quebec and Ontario. He got little credit for this, as Canadians were startled to learn that the missiles would eventually be topped with nuclear warheads. This revelation in 1960 caused outcry and ignited national debate on whether Canada should have nuclear weapons, and the government to indefinitely delay the arrival of the warheads.
Divisions over the issue rocked the Diefenbaker government. Smelling blood, Liberal leader Lester B. Pearson changed his mind and promised his Liberals would accept the warheads. In February, 1963, the Defense Minister resigned and with cabinet in revolt, Diefenbaker’s minority government fell.
In the election campaign that followed, Diefenbaker warned “the Pearson policy is to make Canada a decoy for international missiles.” He was furious with President John F. Kennedy; a bad relationship made worse by a memo that came to light advising the president to “push” Dief on the Bomarcs and JFK’s extended tete-a-tete with Pearson during a 1962 White House dinner for Nobel laureates. A livid Diefenbaker had promised an anti-American election campaign “more bitter” than that of 1911 (though he recanted somewhat.)
Canadians decided Diefenbaker had mishandled the entire issue, electing the Liberals in April, 1963. Some claim American assistance was decisive in Pearson’s victory – he used Kennedy’s ad men and benefitted from US officials happy to publicly criticize Diefenbaker. Though Pearson’s government accepted the warheads as promised, the Bomarcs were gone within a decade due to obsolescence and Pearson’s successor, Trudeau, signing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
While the Bomarc Missile Crisis stands out as a low point in Canada-US relations, it is not the only time when Canada’s involvement in the American military-industrial complex has created controversy. Episodes include the outcry over Canadian universities conducting Department of Defence research during the Vietnam War, the testing of cruise missiles in Alberta in the 1980s and the debate over Canada joining the Iraq War. Most recently, with North Korea claiming it has missiles that can reach the US mainland, the issue of North American missile defence is back, fifty years later. And plus ca change, Boeing and Canada are also doing battle again over military hardware!
Image Credit: FortWiki
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