Late last month the Prime Minister of Canada, Paul Martin, publicly announced that the government of Canada would not be participating in the United States' proposed Missile Defense shield. It took a few days for the ripples to spread through the American media. Last Wednesday's National Post, a Canadian newspaper, reported that Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice had cancelled a scheduled trip to meet with her Canadian counterpart as a direct result of this decision. The US state department vigorously denied this assertion.

Several other media reports have gone on to suggest that the Prime Minister made this decision for political purposes because the "majority" of Canadians were against such involvement. Worse still, Canada has now begun to take hits for hiding behind the US for its strategic defense needs.

It should be noted that practically the entire western world, since the end of World War 2, has been "hiding" behind the USA. Canada is no exception, but it does happen to be smaller than most of the other countries (not physically, but GDP and population-wise). The total population of Canada is marginally more than the population of New York and Massachusetts combined, and yet no one would suggest that New York and Massachusetts should maintain its own customs and immigration controls, Air Force, Navy, Coast Guard, Army, Special Forces and accompanying infra-structure. Yet this is exactly what Canada does.

Admittedly the United States government has to protect two coasts, as well as overland borders with Canada and Mexico, but even with the huge amount of money at the disposal of the US treasury it is apparently not enough to adequately seal the 1,500 mile Mexican border. By comparison Canada has to patrol over 4,000 miles of coastline in an attempt to live up to its obligations to secure the continent. The truth is that Canada doesn't have the people, the money or the resources to perform such a task. Take a good look at a map to see just how preposterous it is to suggest that Canada's coastline could be secured.

The Prime Minister announced last week that he was committing a $12 billion increase in funding to the Canadian military to help with continent-wide security. This in itself was a tough decision since Mr. Martin is running a minority government. In a country that has more than two parties it is possible to have a situation where the so-called governing party doesn't have the votes to actually govern, at least not without compromises. To be able to pass any legislation, or to win a vote, traditional enemies sometimes become awkward partners.

Both the Bloc Quebecois (a separatist party, based in Quebec whose stated goal is to leave Canada and form its own country) and the NDP have been urging the Liberal government to refuse President Bush. The left-leaning NDP have made a lot of noise over the last few years about missile defense. They made it crystal clear that they felt Canada should not be involved in an arms escalation into space. It seems to have escaped them that they cannot possibly influence such a decision if the USA decided to instigate such an escalation. NDP leader Jack Layton has spent years complaining that Canada should not become involved in missile defense, but as soon as he got his wish, instead of supporting the Prime Minister, he stood up and complained that Mr. Martin had lied to parliament because he hadn't "told them" of his decision. This bizarre behavior rapidly deflated much of Mr. Layton's credibility.

Later in the week the Canadian Ambassador to the US insinuated that the decision on Missile defense was somehow being influenced by two trade disputes between Canada and the USA. His assertion was that the political environment in Canada was not conducive to cooperation since the USA continues to ignore a litany of NAFTA tribunal decisions to remove the duties on softwood lumber. (It should be noted that the USA holds a majority of votes on that same NAFTA panel, i.e. the US's own delegates have approved the removal of the duties on more than one occasion, but they remain in place.) The Ambassador may be correct if he were speaking for Canada's lumber industry but contrary to popular stereotypes not all Canadians are lumberjacks. Canada's economy is on a historic high, the government has balanced the budget several years in a row, the Canadian dollar is abnormally inflated against the US dollar and unemployment and inflation are currently under control. To imply that softwood duties are the reason that "most Canadians" are against Missile defense is completely absurd, the inference being that Canadians must think their economy will suddenly collapse if we stop selling trees to the USA. "Most Canadians", if they even care about the softwood issue, are certainly capable of distinguishing between the two issues.

However, the average Canadian knows very little about missile defense. The media have done a terrible job of informing them of just exactly what Canada's contribution would be to such a defense system. Most Canadians think that President Bush is asking Canada to allow the United States to deploy US controlled missiles on Canadian soil. Any loyal citizen of any free country would have a problem with relinquishing such sovereignty and it is certain that the USA would never allow such a thing to happen in the US, it is therefore hardly surprising that Canadians might have a problem with such a suggestion. However, this is not what the USA wants. What the Pentagon has asked for is that Canada allow the installation of more sophisticated tracking systems to be integrated into NORAD, specifically to accommodate the Missile defense system. Canada has already complied with many of these requests.

About 50% of Canadians either don't care about missile defense or don't mind if Canada continues to cooperate. Many of the 50% who are against it either don't understand exactly what is being asked of them or are caught up in many Canadians' traditional anti-war rhetoric. Some are simply against it because they're not interested in paying the huge amounts of money necessary to try and make the system work; but many of them also have long memories.

In 1952 the United States pressured Canada to stop work on the world's first safe jet airliner the Avro Jetliner. The general thrust of the argument was that there was no established market for a civilian jet aircraft and that Canada should be spending its time and manpower building F-100's to assist in the Korean conflict. Canada complied and basically relinquished the civilian jet market to Boeing, who shipped their 707 two years later. The Jetliner was scrapped even though Howard Hughes had stated he would be placing an order for dozens of them for TWA. This decision still galls many Canadians, but this was only the beginning. Only a few years later Avro Canada built and flew the most sophisticated fighter aircraft on the planet, the CF-105 Arrow. The Arrow was far in advance of anything else in the skies and it included the first fly-by-wire system. With five aircraft already built and flying, the Arrow was a very real and tangible source of future jobs and revenue for Canada, orders were pouring in from Europe and around the world. However, in 1959 the Avro factory was ordered by the Canadian government to stop construction of the Arrow. That weekend tens of thousands of people lost their jobs. Prime Minister Diefenbaker and his advisers had been persuaded by the United States President and by the Pentagon that fighter aircraft were a thing of the past and that the future lay in missile defense.

Avro soon closed its doors altogether (reduced to making railroad cars) and the Canadian government promptly purchased a large stockpile of BOMARC missiles from the USA, ostensibly for shooting down Soviet bombers. This missile defense system was soon found to be completely inadequate, even before it was installed at considerable cost to Canadians. But it was too late, by that time Canada had already given up its advanced fighter program and so was forced to buy antiquated fighter planes from the US arsenal to replace the BOMARC. To add insult to injury the entire Arrow program was eradicated, all five planes were cut up and destroyed and all paperwork pertaining to the program was also ordered destroyed. The day after the cancellation, Bob Gilruth, head of the newly formed Space Task Group (which would later become NASA), arrived in Toronto to interview and hire away the cream of Avro's engineering team who by this time had lost both of their prime projects.

Canadians bought into missile defense in 1959 and it cost them dearly. They lost a major industry, they lost one of the greatest aircraft that was ever built and they lost their best engineers. Most Canadians still mourn the sad fate of the Avro Arrow and they consider it one of the stupidest mistakes in Canadian government history. The plane is now an icon to Canadians in the same way as the Canadarm has become an iconic representation of a small country's ability to compete on the world stage. The Arrow was lost forever because of misguided and misinformed policy and because of a terrible miscalculation in the ability of missiles to defend a continent. Over four decades later missiles are being offered again as the panacea for a rapidly ailing NORAD. Instead of having to knock down Soviet Backfire bombers they are now touted to be able to knock out ICBM's which move at many times the speed of sound. The BOMARC was confounded by ICBMs and now forty years later the US government is proposing to use today's BOMARC equivalent to plug the hole. Make no mistake, I don't think there is a Canadian alive that doesn't hope that America succeeds in plugging that hole. If the American President and the Canadian Prime Minister were to explain to the Canadian people just what it is they would be getting for their renewed trust, they might find that a lot more than 50% of Canadians would give them a green light to proceed.