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Paul Martin is urging Prime Minister Jean Chrétien to join the Americans in creating a continental missile defence system. Foreign Minister Bill Graham, once a vocal opponent, is warming to the idea. The federal cabinet could consider the proposal as early as Tuesday.

But time is running out. Canada needs to tell the Americans we are willing to join them on missile defence. And the sooner we do it, the better.

U.S. President George W. Bush has made the creation of a short, medium and long-range defence system against incoming missiles a major military priority. The first anti-missile installations will be in place by the end of next year, although it will probably be the end of the decade before anything like a credible deterrent is in place. Meanwhile, the U.S. government is spending $8-billion a year on developing and deploying the system.

A plethora of governments are working with the U.S. on one aspect of the program or another. Great Britain has agreed to host a radar site in Yorkshire. Denmark is expected to agree to one in Thule, Greenland. Russia, which initially complained that developing a missile shield would launch a new arms race, now proudly boasts of being a key partner through the U.S.-Russian Missile Defence Working Group.

Germany, Italy and the U.S. are jointly researching a mobile missile-defence system to protect forces in the field. Japan and South Korea are working with the Americans to develop missile defences for their region, while Taiwan and India -- yes, India -- have begun talks with Washington on assessing their needs.

Canada, however, is silent. The Americans have promised not to ask us to join in a continental missile defence system unless we signal our readiness to do so and, thus far, Prime Minister Chrétien is totally unwilling to give that signal.

There can be only two reasons for this government's reluctance to co-operate in developing a missile shield. The first is that we think that the Americans, Brits, Danes, Russians, South Koreans, Japanese, Taiwanese, Indians and others are all wrong in wanting protection from a possible missile attack. The second is that Ottawa is more worried about domestic harmony than collective security.

For a long time, Defence Minister John McCallum was virtually the sole voice in cabinet arguing that the missile shield was inevitable and that Canada should be a part of it. Other voices, including Mr. Graham, worried that the shield would one day lead to weapons in space, and that Canada would be surrendering sovereignty by co-operating with the Americans. Since the schism over war in Iraq, those fears have only grown.

But those fears are misplaced. For decades, Canada and the United States jointly defended the continent against air attack through NORAD. A continental missile defence system, with a NORAD-style joint U.S.-Canadian command, is the logical evolution of that umbrella.

Beyond the military logic lies the economic one. Canadian aerospace and defence industries would benefit from the billions of dollars in contracts available to countries that participate in missile defence.

And signalling our willingness to be a part of missile defence would cost us nothing, while helping to repair some of the recent damage to Canada-U.S. relations.

Based on those arguments, sources report that Mr. Graham has come around, and now supports the idea of at least entering into discussions with the Americans. The idea will be tested in cabinet as early as Tuesday, and perhaps sent to an ad hoc parliamentary committee for consultations, with a final decision to come this summer.

Liberal leadership candidate Paul Martin, for one, thinks Canada should get on board.

"I certainly don't want to see Canada isolated from any moves the United States might take to protect the continent," Mr. Martin said yesterday in an interview to be broadcast tomorrow on CTV's Question Period.

"I don't see why we would walk away from the opportunity to protect the northern half (of the continent) and to have a say over what happens in our airspace."

Spokespersons for candidates Sheila Copps and John Manley said they would address the question of missile defence in the course of their campaigns.

Sources south of the border say the Americans are increasingly optimistic that Canada will soon signal its willingness to join.

But the longer we delay, the less likelihood there will be of a Canadian presence in the command structure.

We can wait until this summer to make up our mind about missile defence. Or we can wait a year for Paul Martin to sign us on. Or we can do it now. Now is better.