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A displaced Yemeni family takes shelter under a tree west of the suburbs of Taez, Yemen, on April 1, 2021.

AHMAD AL-BASHA/AFP/Getty Images

John Boyko is the author of The Devil’s Trick: How Canada Fought the Vietnam War.

We Canadians try to be on the right side of history – but too often we fail. We fail largely because morality and money are seldom on speaking terms. Consider our role in two immoral wars.

Canada was officially neutral in the slow-motion tragedy that was the Vietnam War – but we were not. Canadian soldiers and diplomats were in Vietnam throughout the war as part of the International Control Commission, charged with observing a non-existent ceasefire. Canadian doctors and nurses ran Canadian-built hospitals in Vietnam and more than 20,000 Canadians joined the American military to fight in hamlets and jungles. Over 30,000 young Americans evaded military service by coming north. They were joined by thousands of refugees who fled the postwar madness. But there was more.

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Throughout the Vietnam War, Canadian companies, and American subsidiaries operating in Canada, produced and sold to the United States a wide range of goods that included ammunition, aircraft engines, grenades, gun sights, TNT, generators, military vehicles, spare parts and more. Over the course of the war, Canadian steel and iron exports to the U.S. rose by 54 per cent. The majority of the nickel used by American plants building war planes, missiles and armoured vehicles came from Canada.

Canada also played a role in the chemical warfare in Vietnam. The Dow Chemical Company’s plant in Sarnia, Ont., manufactured napalm – a blend of gasoline, benzene and polystyrene that, when dropped from helicopter gunships or fixed-wing aircraft, burned the flesh of those it touched, destroyed fat tissues and left victims writhing in insufferable agony.

The Uniroyal Chemical Company produced Agent Orange at its plant in Elmira, Ont., about 130 kilometres northwest of Toronto. The herbicide defoliant burned the leaves from trees and robbed the Viet Cong of jungle cover. Scientists determined that Agent Orange was carcinogenic and that those who ate contaminated food, drank affected water or were exposed to the spray suffered dramatically increased incidents of cancer. Exposure also caused genetic damage, resulting in the birth of terribly ill or disfigured children.

The people of Elmira were exposed to Agent Orange for years, and their fight for restitution continues. In 1966 and 1967, American army helicopters tested Agent Orange in New Brunswick at Canadian Forces Base Gagetown. Hundreds of people in the region suffered long-term consequences, but it took a generation for the Canadian government to admit what it had allowed to happen and to offer compensation.

Canada’s profiting from the immoral war was simple to explain. Canadian defence production minister Charles (Bud) Drury said in 1966 that arms sales to the United States were responsible for 13,000 to 15,000 Canadian jobs, with spin-off jobs probably totalling 110,000. In 1968, Treasury Board president Edgar Benson stated, “Unemployment would rise if arms shipments to the U.S. were stopped. It is to our benefit to continue the program.” Vietnam-era diplomat John Holmes observed that with respect to Vietnam, “you hang on to your principles but find a way around it.”

It would be nice to think that we learned from our Vietnam War experience. We have not. In 2017, we exported $1.03-billion in arms, with the U.S. our best customer. Second was Saudi Arabia, which has been tagged by Amnesty International for violating human rights at home and in its dirty war in Yemen. Canada’s sales to Saudi Arabia primarily involve light armoured vehicles that are made by General Dynamics Land Systems in London, Ont. The multiyear deal was signed by the Harper government and later renegotiated by the Trudeau government.

In November, 2017, the standing committee on foreign affairs and international development was considering changes to laws regulating arms production and sales to foreign customers. Christyn Cianfarani, president and chief executive officer of the Canadian Association of Defence and Security Industries, appeared before the committee and said she represented more than 800 Canadian defence and security companies that generated $10-billion in annual revenues and employed more than 63,000 Canadians who earned wages 60 per cent higher than average manufacturing wages. The committee ended up recommending no changes that would threaten those impressive numbers.

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Human Rights Watch reported last year that the Saudi-led war in Yemen has resulted in the world’s largest humanitarian crisis. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Yemen has seen 233,000 deaths in the conflict. More than 25 per cent of those killed in air raids are women and children. More than 16 million people in Yemen are now experiencing food insecurity.

Yet, in 2019, Saudi Arabia continued to be Canada’s second-best customer, accounting for $2.9-billion, or 76 per cent, of non-U.S. military export sales. According to the federal government’s own report on the export of military goods, “the Government of Canada strives to ensure that … Canadian goods and technology are not used in a manner that is prejudicial to human rights, peace, security or stability.” Please.

Brock University assistant professor Simon Black has led protests against continuing our involvement in the Yemen war through continuing our arms sales to Saudi Arabia. “Most Canadians don’t realize that weapons manufactured here continue to fuel a war that has led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people,” he has said.

He’s wrong. We know. We knew in the 1960s when we were profiting from the immoral war in Vietnam. And we know now.

A voice in the wilderness on the issue is Liberal MP Adam Vaughan, who said: “I believe the humanitarian crisis in Yemen requires us to suspend military shipments to the region and provide more in the areas of food and medicine.” We won’t do it.

We won’t because the lessons taught in the Vietnamese jungles are the same as those being taught again in the streets of Yemen. But lessons taught are not lessons learned, because, in the end, money doesn’t talk – it swears.

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