If you think the decision to sell arms to Saudi Arabia has inflamed old animosities between Liberal hawks and doves, realists and idealists, continentalists and anti-Americans, just wait until the debate about Canada joining the U.S. ballistic missile defence system gets fired up.
It is a debate Prime Minister Justin Trudeau would prefer to do without. But a lot has changed since the last Liberal government said "no" to signing on to BMD in 2005. Now Canada is increasingly out of sync with its North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies, seen as a free-riding non-participant in its own defence.
Harjit Sajjan can't avoid this elephant in the room as he launches a review of Canadian defence policy. On Monday, the Defence Minister acknowledged that any consultation that omitted reopening the discussion on missile defence could not be considered an "open" defence review.
As his own department's discussion paper unpinning the review explains: "Given the increase in the number of countries with access to ballistic missile technology and their potential to reach North America, this threat is expected to endure and grow more sophisticated in coming decades. In response to this change in the security environment, many of Canada's partners and allies are working closely [on BMD] capabilities."
But just how "open" is Mr. Trudeau to reconsidering a policy that tore apart his party the last time it crept onto the agenda? Not participating in BMD dovetails with the peace-seeker image he likes to project.
One of former prime minister Paul Martin's first moves after taking over from Jean Chrétien was to ask the Americans, miffed about Canada's decision to stay out of the war in Iraq, about joining then-U.S. president George W. Bush's nascent BMD program. Mr. Martin's defence minister David Pratt wrote in an early 2004 letter to his U.S. counterpart: "We believe this should provide a mutually beneficial framework to ensure the closest possible involvement and insight for Canada, both industry and government, in the U.S. missile defence program."
Both Mr. Pratt and his successor at National Defence, Bill Graham, supported joining the U.S. initiative. But much of the Liberal brain trust was outraged. Lloyd Axworthy lashed out against Martin government ministers seeking to "appease Washington power brokers by signing on to an unnecessary missile defence system." A who's who of Canadian celebrities, including Alexandre Trudeau (then the activist Trudeau scion considered most likely to succeed in politics), formed "Stars Against Star Wars" to campaign against Canada joining BMD.
The issue became moot after Mr. Martin was reduced to a minority government in a mid-2004 election and was forced to rely on New Democratic Party votes in the House of Commons. (BMD was and remains a non-starter for the New Democrats.) Mr. Martin's early 2005 decision to officially reject Canada's participation in BMD was denounced as "delusional" by the Conservative opposition. But during his almost 10 years in power, former prime minister Stephen Harper never reversed the policy.
Whether it was public opinion or a shrinking (in real terms) defence budget that led to Mr. Harper's non-action, it ran counter to NATO's move to make BMD part of its "core task of collective defence." As Mr. Pratt told a 2014 Senate committee: "We have 28 NATO nations saying that they endorse the need to protect their populations against rogue missiles, and Canada has been saying all the right things at NATO but not doing anything when it comes to our own situation here in North America."
Since 2005, Iran and North Korea have continued to perfect their missiles – "to the point a threat has become a practical reality," as the Senate defence committee's final report put it two years ago. Russia and China are developing new weapons capable of striking North America, partly in reaction to a $1-trillion plan to modernize America's nuclear arsenal that is championed by Barack Obama, the same U.S. president who won a Nobel Peace Prize for promoting nuclear non-proliferation.
The four-member panel appointed by Mr. Sajjan to review Canada's defence policy includes Mr. Graham and former chief of the defence staff Ray Henault, both of whom are believed to have pressed Mr. Martin to join the U.S. program in 2005. Margaret Purdy, a former associate deputy minister of defence, may be similarly inclined. The same cannot be said for former Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour.
Ultimately, it will be Mr. Trudeau's call. Either way, it will divide his party.