Challenging Canada's Nuclear Commitments: An Analysis of Defence Discourse

By Allan, Stuart | British Journal of Canadian Studies, May 2004 | Go to article overview

Challenging Canada's Nuclear Commitments: An Analysis of Defence Discourse


Allan, Stuart, British Journal of Canadian Studies


FOR INDIVIDUALS INTERESTED in the historical development of Canadian defence policy, the 1987 White Paper on Defence, Challenge and Commitment: A Defence Policy for Canada, continues to generate a remarkable amount of discussion. For many commentators, this policy initiative signalled a decisive turning point in debates about Canada's national defence, namely by advocating a massive increase in military spending - including the purchase of a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines - just at the time when the Cold War had finally begun to thaw. In an article published in this journal, for example, Michaud (1998: 112) points out that this policy 'offers several elements of interest: it comes on the eve of the collapse of the Eastern Block countries; it is in total conflict with policies expressed in other Canadian White Papers; and it could be related to strong electoral commitments, revealing a troubling partisan aspect.' In examining the role played by different actors involved in the decisionmaking process, Michaud offers fresh insights into how these complex interactions may be best accounted for in terms of different policy making models. In choosing in the end to elaborate upon Lemieux's (1989) theory of the structuration of power, he provides a useful approach to bureaucratic politics for future investigations into the contending forces underpinning the formulation of this particular policy framework.1

In this article, it is my intention to approach the 1987 Defence White Paper from a different angle altogether, albeit in way which I hope will help to establish a complementary line of inquiry. That is to say, where Michaud (1998) accentuates the need to understand the imperatives of defence policy making at the level of individuals within institutions, I want to propose that the 1987 White Paper be viewed on its own terms as a cultural text. Accordingly, I shall endeavour to discern the textual strategies through which this document's authors articulate certain preferred ways to speak the realities of 'Canadian security in the nuclear age' as they chose to define them at the time. Of primary concern, as I intend to show, is the need to examine the mode of address or authorial voice of this document precisely as it initiates a series of rhetorical devices to first render problematic, and then undermine, alternative interpretive positions as being 'outside of the defence policy consensus'. More specifically, I shall argue, its aim is to invoke a certain 'common sense of nuclearism' (Allan 1996) as being consistent with 'Canadian values and traditions'.

Of challenge and commitment

The Progressive Conservative Party, having promised over the course of its successful 1984 election campaign to restore national pride in the armed forces, prepared to chart a new direction in defence policy immediately upon taking office in September of that year.

Pointing to the recent 'failure' of former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau's 'peace initiative' to bring about 'tangible results', officials in the new Mulroney Government moved quickly to declare their resolve to enhance Canada's role in international affairs through a massive re-equipping of the country's 'long suffering' Armed Forces. Work began almost at once to draft policy recommendations for the 'reinvigoration' of the military, principally through the means of a defence review and a foreign policy review (the latter would not lead to a White Paper, but did produce a Green Paper the following Spring, to be followed by a Special Joint Committee report in June 1986). Also within the first year of office, a decision was made to reassign the traditional colours to the uniforms of personnel in the three services. Moreover, officials claimed that, due to the federal spending deficit, the defence budget would not be increased to the level pledged during the election campaign.

Next, the Mulroney Government reaffirmed Canada's commitment to both the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (nato) and the North American Aerospace Defence Command (negotiations with the United States to 'modernise' norad were concluded in March 1985), and then pushed forward the reequipment programs initiated by their Liberal predecessors. …

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