Airshow Canada: The Eighth Most Censored Story Of 1995

Airshow Canada '95 attracted over 100 military manufacturers and several large foreign military delegations. Yet few Canadians are aware that the show exists, let alone see its implications

By David Thiessen | 1996-11-01 12:00:00

Since its inception in 1989, Airshow Canada, the biennial aerospace trade show adjunct to the Abbotsford International Airshow in British Columbia, has managed to avoid the kind of publicity that closed the ARMX trade show in Ottawa - so much so that on April 19, 1996, Project Censored Canada ranked the military activities surrounding the show the eighth most censored news story of 1995. Indeed, few residents of B.C., let alone the rest of Canada, realize that Airshow Canada is the fourth largest aerospace trade show in the world and North America's premier forum for the aerospace industry (military and civil), and its customers (democratic or dictatorial, benign or utterly evil).

The show has seen rapid growth in the seven years it has existed. Two hundred firms exhibited at the first show in 1989, 37 of which represented military firms.1 By 1993 (a mere two shows later), 15,000 delegates from 70 countries discussed trade with 509 exhibitors - at least 104 of which represented major military manufacturers. It was the 1995 show, however, that cemented Airshow Canada's position. Not only did military giants Sikorsky, Rockwell International, and Loral Aeroneutronic join, but government involvement rose, including a large Saudi Arabian military delegation.

This push to join Airshow Canada reflects the nature of the post-Cold War arms trade, a movement away from "hard-core" arms bazaars toward venues that promote the dual interests of aerospace corporations (whose civil and military hardware have always comfortably co-existed). As Airshow Canada concludes in its Brief to the Province of British Columbia,2 "the world market for civil and military aircraft ... is well in excess of $100 billion U.S., not including missiles, and has led to large increases in exhibitor space requirements as industry and government vie for a share of this multi-billion dollar pie."

In scrambling for a piece of the pie, governments have embraced a duplicity concerning the exporting of military goods: They talk of international arms controls, while seeking greater domestic export opportunities. It is one thing to say, as Peter Smith (president of the Canadian Aerospace Indus-try) wryly commented, that "it is not for those who manufacture or assemble weapons to grapple with the moral issue of who the arms should or should not be sold to" if the rightfulness is determined, as Smith concludes, "by the rules of the game in government policy."3 It is something altogether different when government and industry are driven only by profit, and work in tandem to find ways around the rules. In October of last year, for example, the parliamentary newsletter Ottawa Letter reported that Trade Minister Roy MacLaren and Industry Minister John Manley were concerned that a too-altruistic stand on Canada's arms export regulations would be economically harmful. MacLaren, in fact, went as far as wondering "whether we've actually lost a lot of business because of the rules on defence exports." "We need to recognize," concluded Manley, "that there are and will always be conflicts..." and that "we have Canadian defence firms with expertise, we have Canadians who are employed in these businesses, and we want to see them succeed."

Manley and MacLaren have little to fear. Most of the talk about arms sales controls after the Gulf War - in which American soldiers were killed with arms made by Americans - has given way to a larger than ever effort to locate new military export opportunities. The Liberal government's recent attempt to sell 39 Canadian Forces F-5s to Turkey showed how much they are willing to distort our military export regulations - policies that disallow the sale of arms or related technologies to areas in conflict or with a history of serious human rights abuse. And their support of Airshow Canada shows the same hypocrisy. In 1989 André Ouellet called ARMX "a profitable and scandalous effort to sell weapons to Third World Countries."4 Jean Chrétien said at Airshow '95, "from Airshow Canada's beginnings in 1989, the government of Canada has supported this event" - yet Airshow '95 attracted 51 of the same military firms that attended ARMX '89.

The trend that Ouellet lamented - to see the "third" or lesser industrialized world as the primary "aerospace" market of the future - has been the central impulse behind Airshow Canada's mushrooming prominence. As Airshow Canada states in its Brief to the Province of British Columbia, "Airshow Canada has achieved its objective of creating a sustaining, world-class event by attracting aerospace procurement personnel from developing countries to meet Canadian aerospace companies [with the] intent of creating business and joint ventures between Canada and the developing countries."

With the traditional arms markets of North America and Europe in decline, the Middle East, Latin America, and in particular the Asia Pacific region are now seen as the arms markets of the future. "The region of South East Asia is one of the last in the world where defence budgets continue to expand in the post-Cold War era," Derek da Cunha of Singapore's Institute of South East Asian Studies told a meeting of defence officials at the Defence Asia '95 exhibition.5 "Everyone in the world sees this region as important for defence exports," said Ross Hamilton of the Australian Submarine Corporation at the same event, "and to not get your foot in the door now will mean missing seriously large sales as they arise."

Never was this more evident than at Airshow Canada '95. For starters, the Canadian International Development Agency, according to Airshow Canada's Aerogram publication, was willing to "pay for more than 80 delegates from the developing world to attend the show." (At a time when Canada's foreign aid has reached an all time low - 0.03 % of GNP - this says a lot about the Liberals' pledge to address the social causes of war and to "adopt a broader definition of national and international security.") In addition, not only did the Canadian Ministry of Defence Export Services and the Canadian Defence Production Office attend the show, but Canada's Department of Defence also joined with Bristol Aerospace (one of Canada's leading defence firms) in an effort to sell the modernized F-5s it had tried selling to Turkey. And, a few months before the show, Airshow Canada proudly announced that ComDef (a Washington, D.C.-based arms symposium) would move to Vancouver "to tap into the natural synergy between participants at both events."

Despite all this, the city of Abbotsford, as well as local and national media, continue to promote (and occasionally defend) Airshow Canada, claiming that it is a civil trade show with little military activity. More accurately, Airshow Canada reflects a growing willingness by organizers, the military industry, and the Liberal government to hide (behind prominent civil displays) the fact that they are willing to dismiss Canada's arms export regulations. In fact, a report6 released last spring by Ottawa unveiling the Liberals' export strategy for 1995-96 lists Airshow Canada as a venue through which the government will "assist industry ... in establishing key contacts in the foreign country defence community." The report also reflects the same attitude as that expressed by MacLaren and Manley. "Accessible and suitable markets exist for Canadian [military] products in the newly industrialized economies of the Asia-Pacific and Middle-East regions," it urges. Nations tagged as "Priority Countries" or "Growth Markets" include Korea, Taiwan, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Indonesia, Turkey, and China. Apparently, the virtual genocide of the Kurds by Turkey, the East Timorese by Indonesia, and the Tibetans by China should not stop military manufacturers from exporting to these regions. Airshow Canada makes the effort as easy as possible.

David Thiessen belongs to Fraser Valley Project Ploughshares.


1 Firms designated "military" by Project Ploughshares' Military Industry Database (i.e., on contracts awarded by the Department of Defence, military export contracts awarded by the Department of Defence, military export contracts arranged by the Canadian Commercial Corporation on behalf of foreign governments, Pentagon contracts placed directly with Canadian firms), and/or Canadian firms who received Defence Industry Productivity Program grants since 1980, as well as general public knowledge regarding major foreign arms manufacturers.
2 Airshow Canada, Brief to the Province of British Columbia (1993), p. 6.
3 Toronto Star (April 8, 1995).
4 House of Commons Debates, May 19, 1989, p. 1988.
5 As quoted by Robert Birsel, Reuters Press (, Sept. 14, 1995.
6 Minister of Supply and Services, Canada's Export Strategy: The International Trade Business Plan 1995/96. Integrated Plan for Trade, Investment, and Technology Development, Industrial Sector II (Defence Products) (1995).

Peace Magazine Nov-Dec 1996

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