Regehr and Roche: We are in perilous times, yet Canada is silent on the proliferation of nuclear weapons

By Ernie Regehr and Douglas Roche*

President Vladimir Putin and other Russian officials repeatedly threaten the use of nuclear weapons in the Ukraine war. China is rapidly expanding its arsenal of nuclear-armed missiles. In response, the U.S. is signalling intentions to increase its number of deployed nuclear weapons.

Nuclear disarmament agreements have collapsed and a renewed nuclear arms race is underway (though the “nuclear club” of states in possession of these weapons calls it “modernization”). An existential nuclear crisis of frightening proportions is unfolding.

Nine countries currently possess around 12,000 nuclear weapons, with 90 per cent of these held by Russia and the U.S. All told, some 2,100 nuclear weapons are kept in a state of high operational alert, meaning they could be fired with 15 minutes’ notice. Just one of these weapons would inflict far more damage than the atomic bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, which together killed an estimated 214,000 people.

In 1970, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) came into existence. Now comprising 191 countries, it obliges states to pursue comprehensive negotiations in “good faith” toward the elimination of nuclear weapons. At the 2000 NPT review conference, all states pledged an “unequivocal undertaking” to accomplish total elimination. But instead of proceeding toward negotiations, the nuclear states reneged on their legal obligations under the treaty and ignored a unanimous ruling by the International Court of Justice in 1996, which determined that the use or threat of the use of nuclear weapons by a state is generally illegal, and that nuclear disarmament negotiations must be concluded.

Two successive meetings of the NPT parties in 2015 and 2022 fell apart. The U.S./Russia New START Treaty, limiting deployed strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550 on each side, is the only remaining bilateral nuclear disarmament agreement, and it expires in 2026. Talks to extend the New START Treaty have broken down, with each side blaming the other for the impasse, and so the world enters a nuclear jungle. What do the Canadian Prime Minister and Foreign Minister say about all this?

The answer is nothing. You can search all day, but you will find that neither has made a single speech or substantive statement to Canadians on this, the gravest crisis – the threat of global humanitarian catastrophe – facing the world since the Second World War.

Canada, as a member of the Manhattan Project as well as the NPT, clearly has the credentials and duty to speak on this subject. But Ottawa’s deafening silence is broken only when it affirms NATO’s Orwellian characterization of these weapons of mass destruction as the “supreme guarantee” of our security. Canada refuses to join the new Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which bans the possession of nuclear weapons for those who sign up (70 states have so far ratified the treaty). And it has ignored the desperate plea made by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in March for a concerted drive by all countries to lessen the risk of nuclear Armageddon.

In this desperate global situation, Canada needs to show the same resolve it showed on earlier occasions regarding nuclear weapons. Canada showed its leadership when Lester Pearson sent a UN peacekeeping mission to the Suez crisis in 1957, as Nikita Khrushchev threatened to fire nuclear weapons at Western Europe. We showed leadership when Pierre Trudeau proposed a strategy to “suffocate” the nuclear arms race in 1978; when Brian Mulroney declined, in 1985, to participate in the U.S. “Star Wars” anti-missile space program; and when Jean Chrétien kept Canada out of the Iraq war in 2003 over dubious claims regarding “weapons of mass destruction.”

The current nuclear crisis calls for the bold reassertion of Canadian leadership. The Prime Minister and the Minister of Foreign Affairs both have the moral and political duty to speak directly and regularly to Canadians about the nuclear crisis the world faces, to elaborate Canada’s posture in response to that crisis, and to set out the measures and policies it has and will continue to pursue in international settings to mitigate it.

At a minimum, Canada should be a leading voice urging the nuclear powers, including the NATO nuclear alliance, to undertake mutual commitments to never be the first state to use nuclear weapons and to take all nuclear weapons off of high-alert status. Canada should be calling for and monitoring progress toward a New START successor treaty and should promote intensified strategic dialogue among the major powers.

This leadership must start with the Prime Minister. The failure to publicly address the nuclear crisis is a shocking failure of leadership – a failure these perilous times cannot afford.


Originally published in the Globe and Mail, June 27, 2024

* Ernie Regehr is the founding executive director of Project Ploughshares. Douglas Roche is a former senator and Canadian ambassador for disarmament. They are members of Canadian Pugwash Group.