VICTORIA, British Columbia — Canada’s potential participation in the U.S. military’s continental missile defense system is once again under consideration, sparking a debate in Canada on whether it makes sense to take part in the ground-based interceptor shield.

Canadian defense sources say work is under way to see what the country could contribute to the U.S. missile defense system. The most likely contribution would be land for the installation of early warning radars, a proposal that will be presented to U.S. officials in the near future.

In 2004, then-Liberal Party Defence Minister David Pratt said the Canadian government was considering making sites available to the United States in Canada’s Arctic for use as missile defense radar sites. But a year later, in a major about-face, then-Prime Minister Paul Martin announced that Canada had decided not to join the U.S. missile shield after all.

But with a Conservative Party government in power, the discussions on what the country can contribute are back on.

Canada’s interest is centered on the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system,which is composed of ground-based interceptor missiles and support and fire control systems. The interceptors are located at Fort Greely, Alaska, and Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.

On April 21, Canadian Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said on television that discussions about Canada’s role in the U.S. missile defense system are needed. “I think we need a broader discussion about that, and I’m not prepared to venture an opinion at this time,” he said when asked about news reports Canada is prepared to join the system.

Defence Minister Peter MacKay dodged questions in the House of Commons on April 22 and April 23 about the government’s interest in missile defense, but he did not issue a denial. “We have, in the past, consistently reviewed our security policies with a mind to ensuring that Canadians were protected at home and abroad,” he said.

U.S. Defense Department spokeswoman Jennifer Elzea said on April 23 that U.S. military officers regularly consult with their Canadian counterparts about ballistic missile threats. But she noted there have been no “recent discussions with the Canadians about a ballistic missile defense shield.”

During the 2006 election, Conservative Party Prime Minister Stephen Harper opened the door for future participation, adding that he would have Parliament vote on any proposed agreement.

Liberal Party defense critic John McKay said the coordinated leak of information to the news media about Canadian government interest in missile defense indicates to him that the planning is at an advanced stage.

“I suspect that these conversations are fairly advanced, and when a debate in public actually occurs, it will be a done deal or as close to a done deal as you can expect,” McKay said.

Canada’s Defence Department has laid the groundwork for participation with a series of reports it produced in 2001 and 2002.

One of the reports noted that the U.S. missile defense system could benefit from the use of Canadian territory. That could involve placing tracking and target control sensors on Canada’s east coast, according to a 2001 report,

“Potential Canadian Involvement in Ballistic Missile Defence.” The report was declassified under the Access to Information law.

“To properly address the Middle Eastern threat, an east coast system would have to be deployed,” stated the report, prepared by the Defence Department’s space directorate. “Canada’s value-added role would be to provide a place to deploy such a system. … Canadian locations could provide TTC (track and target control) of the target missile 2-3 minutes faster than mainland U.S. locations.” 

Steven Staples, president of the Rideau Institute in Ottawa, said the Conservative government is using concern about recent developments in North Korea’s missile program and Iran’s nuclear weapons research to try to revitalize Canadian participation in the U.S. system.

“The campaign to join is heating up,” said Staples, whose organization helped lead public opposition in 2004 and 2005 to participation in the U.S. missile system. “It’s amazing how quickly people forget the debate of eight years ago, and what a waste of money this would be.”

When Martin announced Canada would not take part in a missile defense system, he added that it would focus its contribution on helping defend North America by making improvements in intelligence-gathering, coastal surveillance and continued participation in the joint U.S.-Canadian North American Aerospace Defense Command. 

David Pugliese covers space policy and developments in the space industry in Canada. He has a bachelor’s degree in political science from Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario, and a degree in journalism from Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario.