VICTORIA, British Columbia – In a stunning reversal of policy, Canada announced it has decided not to join the U.S. missile defense system, a move that analysts and industry officials say could harm relations between the two countries.

Prime Minister Paul Martin said Feb. 24 that Canada will instead focus its contribution to North American defense by improving intelligence-gathering, coastal surveillance and continued participation in the joint U.S.-Canadian North American Aerospace Defense Command.

“Let me be clear, we respect the right of the United States to defend itself and its people,” Martin said in a televised statement from Ottawa. “However, [Ballistic Missile Defense] is not where we will concentrate our efforts. Instead, we will act both alone and with our neighbors on defense priorities outlined in yesterday’s budget.”

That budget boosts the Canadian Forces’ funding and troop strength over the next five years.

Martin said Canada informed the United States of its decision several days ago and he expects to discuss the issue with U.S. President George W. Bush.

“Canada recognizes the enormous burden on the United States’ shoulders when it comes to peace and security,” Martin said . “By increasing funding to the military, Canada intends to share in this responsibility.”

The announcement is a major about-face for the Martin government, which last January started negotiations with the United States to take part in the missile defense system. Martin was a supporter of Canadian involvement in the shield, saying it would contribute to Canadian security and sovereignty.

But growing opposition in Martin’s own political party and among the Canadian public made it difficult for the government to sign on to the program, said military analyst Steve Staples of the Ottawa-based Polaris Institute. Recent public opinion polls show that only around 40 percent of Canadians support taking part in the shield.

In January 2004, Canada requested access to technical data on the missile defense system so it could decide whether to play a role. The wording of a letter from then-Defence Minister David Pratt to U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld all but stated that Canada would take part.

“It is our intent to negotiate in the coming months a Missile Defence Framework Memorandum of Understanding with the United States with the objective of including Canada as a participant in the current U.S. missile defense program and expanding and enhancing information exchange,” Pratt wrote.

Military analyst Jim Ferguson said the reversal will not go over well in the United States and will raise further questions about Canada’s commitment to the defense of North America.

“You have to think from the American perspective that they must be scratching their heads and wondering what we are doing up here,” said Ferguson, director of the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg.

Indeed, Paul Cellucci, U.S. Ambassador to Canada, said the Bush administration does not understand Canada’s decision not to become involved in the shield.

“We don’t get it,” Cellucci said in Toronto in a Feb. 23 interview with the Canadian Press news service. “If there’s a missile incoming, and it’s heading toward Canada, you are going to leave it up to the United States to determine what to do about that missile. We don’t think that is in Canada’s sovereign interest.”

In a Jan. 10 interview with the Canadian Press , Cellucci said he expected the Martin government would decide to take part in the missile shield. He said at that time he has been told by Canadian officials to expect a decision by the end of March.

Norbert Cyr, vice-president of communications for the Canadian Defence Industries Association, said the Canadian government’s decision likely means almost an end to any Canadian industry involvement in missile defense contracts.

“We are very disappointed,” Cyr said from Saint Jean-sur-Richeleau, Quebec. “We had hoped that a Canadian decision to participate would help improve Canada-U.S. relations and this development certainly isn’t going to help.”

Relations have been strained over the last several years between the two countries because of Canada’s decision not to take part in the Iraq war.

Canada’s Department of National Defence had produced a report in March 2003 determining that Canadian companies could win between $100 million to $180 million a year in contracts for missile defense.

“Time pressure is great for potential Canadian participation — [we] ‘need to get on board’ or be locked out for this decade,” officials said in the 71-page report, titled “Potential Canadian Industrial Participation in the U.S Ballistic Missile Defense System Program.”

Martin’s ruling Liberal Party government had come under criticism in the House of Commons for entering into the missile defense discussions with the United States in the first place. Opposition Members of Parliament from the Bloc Quebecois and the New Democratic Party have repeatedly warned that the system is the first step in a U.S. plan to put weapons into orbit.

Martin also expected to face widespread resistance to the missile defense system at a Liberal Party policy convention scheduled for March 5. Delegates to that convention were scheduled to vote on several policy amendments calling for the government to withdraw from negotiations with the United States over the system. Staples said it was highly likely that those amendments would have been supported, putting more political pressure on Martin to withdraw from the negotiations.

The speculation over Canada’s stance on the missile shield also prompted raucous debate in the Commons. On Feb. 23, Deputy Conservative leader Peter MacKay quoted Martin’s previous statements supporting the U.S. system and accused the prime minister of flip-flopping on the issue.

With the decision made a day later, Conservative member of parliament Kevin Sorenson questioned why the government did not follow through with its pledge to allow the House of Commons to debate the matter before the government made its announcement. He also questioned why Martin had previously supported missile defense, only to turn his back on the program now.

In fact, last February then-Defence Minister David Pratt said the Canadian government was considering making available sites in the country’s Arctic for use as missile defense radars.

A Department of National Defence report noted that the U.S. missile 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 the seven-page May 7, 2001, report, “Potential Canadian Involvement in Ballistic Missile Defence.” The report was declassified under Canada’s 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.”

In an October interview, Canadian Defence Minister Bill Graham acknowledged there is widespread opposition in Canada to the U.S. missile shield. But Graham, a strong supporter of missile defense, said it was important for Canada to take part since it sent a positive message that the country was taking a role in defending the continent.