Suffield, Chemical Warfare, and Canadian/US Relations

By Diana Chown | 1989-02-01 12:00:00

FOR ALMOST 50 YEARS, scientists from the Department of National Defence have been as busy as beavers expanding their knowledge of, and testing agents for, chemical and biological warfare (CBW) in southern Alberta.

Secrecy, as well as public and media apathy, have surrounded this research into agents of mass destruction. Even today, after Iraq has killed or maimed about 17,000 Kurds with chemical weapons, this issue was not considered to be central to the recent election interest in defence.

Between 1980 and 1985, U.S. funding for research, development, evaluation, and testing in CBW increased an astonishing 365 per cent, to $421 million. And Time Magazine reports the U.S.1988 budget for chemical weaponry to be $970 million.

Sadly, universities are most affected by increased military funding. From 1980 to 1984, while total federal support for U.S. university research in the life sciences declined by 1.2 per cent, Department of Defence support increased by 50.3 percent. Canada seems to be following the American trend: the general militarization of its universities.

The Ploughshares Monitor states that DND funding to Canadian universities increased 33 per cent in one year, 1986 - 87. Canadian universities also substantial funds from the U.S. military, an average of $825,000 per year for unclassified research since 1982. The Mulroney government has shown its commitment to the military industry. The DND industry-university program was instructed in 1986 to increase university funding by 40 per cent over five years.

Canada's CBW Development

CANADA'S MAIN CONTRIBUTION to the development of this technology happens at the Defence Research Establishment Suffield (DRES), on a large army base between Medicine Hat and Brooks. The Voice of Women (VOW) investigated DRES 20 years ago, and their findings are just as disturbing today . According to Dr. Ursula Franklin, the group concluded that the work at DRES, rather than being autonomous Canadian CBW research, could more realistically be described as part of "the Canadian contribution to the United States/ United Kingdom/ NATO military establishment."

DRES was established in 1941 as a United Kingdom/ Canadian chemical warfare experiment station. In order to establish it, the government took over 125 farms. The site was chosen for its positive features, such as its flatness of land and small population. No doubt that's what had attracted the farmers to the area as well. British scientists then formed the core of the research personnel. However, an American chemical weapons specialist was also stationed there, while a Canadian counterpart was assigned to the establishment in Maryland. Also, a joint Canadian/ U.S. commission was set up to conduct biological weaponry research. The Canadian work was done at Queen's University and the War Disease Control Station on Grosse Ile near Québec City. But by 1970, and no doubt earlier, DRES had become the centre of Canadian biological warfare (B.W.) research.

In 1942, a chemical warfare school was started on the base. That, and similar developments in Germany, took place in spite of the Geneva Protocol, a 1925 agreement which had been inspired by the horrific use of gas warfare by both sides during World War I: 100,000 people died and hundreds of thousands were injured by mustard gas. A large number of nations signed the protocol never to use toxic gases in warfare. Unlike Canada, which ratified the Geneva Protocol in 1930, the U.S. waited until 1975 to ratify it.

After World War II

IN 1950, THE CBW POLICY OF THE DEFENCE Research Board, which by then administered DRES, was "to investigate problems of interest to Canada, the U.K. and the U.S." Much of the work was secret. Most field trials of chemical weapons for the "free world" were done at DRES.

In the late 1950s, although a close military relationship with the U.S. already existed, further integration was deemed necessary and the Technical Cooperation Program was set up. The CBW part of this program (which included the U.K.) was known as the Tripartite Agreement. By 1964, with Australia coming on board, this became the Quadripartite Agreement. Canada's and Australia's role, it appears, was to test nerve gases and biological agents at the request of the U.S. and the U.K. A Memorandum of Understanding on CB material between Canada, the U.S. and the U.K. was ratified in 1980. This is apparently the more important of the two agreements.

The testing of CB agents at Suffield involved joint ventures. An example was the aerosol spraying over Suffield in 1966 of B.W. simulants by U.S. Air Force jets. These tests were integrated with others at the Deseret Test Centre in Utah. They were to evaluate area coverage of B.W. dissemination systems. In other words they were to find out how best to spray potentially fatal diseases on people. One of the Air Force goals was, as stated in a recently released report, to know "whether the pathogenic organisms are viable (alive) and virulent (disease producing) when they reach the intended target." The U.S. Air Force report states that although they were using a simulant, the actual intended biological agent was Francisella tularense, the same agent that was to be studied by an American scientist at the University of Victoria last year, before he was forced to cancel his $225,000 U.S. military grant application.

In 1958, the Tripartite Conference on Toxicological Warfare was held in Canada. It was agreed at the conference that "all three countries should concentrate on the search for incapacitating and new type lethal agents." This is according to a U.S. Army Chemical Corps report released through the Freedom of Information Act. The Department of National Defence was calling its CBW research purely "defensive."

As we entered the 60s, U.S. military researchers were considering CBW agents for use against the North Vietnamese. The U.S. Army Chemical Corps began to promote the use of chemical weapons against guerillas. The most widespread use of chemicals in Vietnam was in the form of defoliants. Although Suffield was apparently spared, Agent Orange was sprayed on forests at the Canadian Forces Base at Gagetown, N.B. in 1966. A U.S. Army, quoted in a 1981 article, states that "the Canadian Ministry of Defence offered ... large areas of densely forested land for experimental tests of defoliant chemicals [which] provided similar vegetation densities to those of temperate and tropical areas such as Southeast Asia."

Enter the Voice of Women

DUE TO THEIR SUSPICIONS ABOUT Canada's involvement in CBW testing for the Vietnamese war, the Voice of Women (VOW) became involved in this controversial issue. Some well-known members visited the base in 1968, and others, including Dr. Franklin, interviewed the Chairman of the Defence Research Board. One question asked was, "When a democratic country like Canada becomes entangled in a network of bilateral and multinational research activities in a field such as CBW, who has the overview to know what is going on, who can say 'stop!' when some moral or legal boundary is reached?".

The interview revealed that decisions on the morality, legality, or danger of the research were left to the Chairman's "political masters." Franklin wrote that "it never was possible for us to discern an unambiguous pattern of decision-making or a chain of individual responsibilities." Thus, decisions were left to politicians, often uninformed, who seldom took part in parliamentary debate on CBW.

A large demonstration took place at Suffield during the summer of 1970. Canada had stated in the United Nations that the country didn't possess or intend to develop chemical weapons. This statement apparently meant to assert that Canada was merely testing chemical agents, not possessing them or developing them. This Canadian position was reaffirmed in a 1983 letter from the Canadian Defence Minister's executive assistant to Professor Arthur Forer, a York University biologist who has studied the activities at DRES.

Since 1971, talks about chemical weapons have been going on at the multilateral U.N. negotiating body at Geneva. In 1980, negotiations toward an actual ban began. A dramatic development in these negotiations took place in 1987 when the USSR accepted the U.S.'s demand that all parties to a CW Convention would accept on-site challenge inspection. This led to increased hopes for a conclusion to the ban. However, these hopes now seem dim. In the words of British CBW defence expert Julian Perry Robinson, the U.S. "does not want a disarmament agreement but a level-of-stocks agreement with the Soviets."

Justifying CBW Research

MANY PEOPLE HAVE ASKED why the U.S. and the other members of the Quadripartite Agreement have been so keen to develop CBWs. The military response has been that the work is solely directed to developing a defence against weapons of the Warsaw Treaty countries. However, with the development of binary chemical weapons, this justification loses its credibility. In June 1986, a chemical weapon special advisor to the U.S. Secretary of Defence insisted there was a need for new "deep strike capability" in chemical weapons which would be provided by binary weapons.

To assist in justifying this program, the U.S. accused the USSR of building up their CW arsenals and specifically, of using chemicals weapons in Southeast Asia. Some of these accusations - notably in the case where "yellow rain" turned out to be wild honey bee feces - have not been proven. This discrepancy is similar to that described in a 1987 issue of Scientific American which suggests the reports of Soviet nuclear arsenal superiority have been exaggerated, thus giving a rationale for American nuclear arms build-up.

Besides being considered by the Pentagon as necessary to their military arsenal, it has been suggested that nerve gases have also been developed for crowd-control use within the countries developing the C.W.s. Crowd control is in fact, mentioned in the Canadian policy statement. Another explanation is that the weapons will be used against underdeveloped countries as anti-guerrilla and anti-personnel weapons. Indeed, in a 1970 statement, the then Canadian Defence Minister, Leo Cadieux, said that "if biological munitions were to be used, it would appear that attack on populations is more likely."

Canada/ U.S.Military Integration

IN THE 80s, Canada's CBW relationship with the U.S. is more significant, due to the Reagan Administration's drive for superiority in all areas of weaponry. Thus, the Reagan administration began to emphasize deterrence through its new "Chemical Modernization Program." Much of this program is the development of binary chemical weapons, apparently as a response to the dangers of transporting and storing nerve gas. Two non-lethal chemicals are used, which, when mixed together at the time of use, generate the active nerve gas. By 1986, the U.S. Congress had refused to increase funding for the program unless the plan was approved by NATO. At a 1986 meeting of NATO's Defence Planning Committee, Canada, West Germany and the U.K. accepted the U.S. binary weapon plan, while countries such as the Netherlands, Norway, and Denmark, who could conceivably be victims of a Soviet attack, strongly disapproved.

Canada's decision was made despite the strong reservations of both the Department of National Defence (DND) and External Affairs about the new chemical weapon program. While the former's objections were related to a belief that unitary weapons are more effective, the Arms Control and Disarmament Division of External Affairs perceived the program as providing evidence to the public of an escalation in the C.W. arms race. In spite of these official misgivings, our Defence Minister Erik Nielsen approved the program, insisting that Canada must "share in the moral burden" of the U.S.'s chemical weapon rearmament.

In light of Canadian/ U.S. agreements and our positive attitude at NATO toward the "modernization" of chemical weapons by the U.S., we must expect Suffield to be a testing site for the new U.S. program of chemical weapons. At the NATO meeting, Canada didn't refuse deployment of binary chemical weapons on our soil even though some of the other countries did so. By continuing a research-sharing relationship with the United States, Canada apparently has been compelled to increase her own CBW research. By no coincidence, a DND booklet on Suffield was able to boast that "the 1980s will be remembered at DRES as one of renewal in the areas of chemical, biological, and biomedical research" and that DRES was "no longer a remote testing station, but an establishment with two major integrated laboratory-based programs supported by extensive facilities."

At the same time, B.W. research in the U.S. has been vastly expanded through the "Biological Defence Program." Many scientists in the U.S. are particularly distubed by one increasing emphasis of this program: genetic engineering techniques. The work is aimed at a variety of uses. These include the production of organisms designed to overcome vaccines or the human immune system, and the development of vaccines and antidotes against specific bacteria, viruses and chemical warfare agents. Also part of the program is the type of work that the U.S. scientist at the University of Victoria wanted to pursue: development of rapid detection and identification of biological and chemical agents.

FEARS OF CANADA'S MILITARY INTEGRATION with the U.S. in CBW research are reinforced in a 1987 "Executive Summary" of a Canadian task force made up of members of External Affairs, DND and International Trade, who called for increased U.S./ Canadian military integration. The report holds that, by many existing agreements, the countries have "signalled a requirement for the elimination of their international borders as they pertain to defence, either military or economic." The report also strongly recommends expanding the Canada/ U.S. Defence Development and Defence Sharing Agreements. One recommendation is to expand DND's role by improving its institutional linkages with the U.S. relating to defence cooperation. Another disturbing part of this report reads like an introduction to the Free Trade Agreement. It begins with the assumption that there's a "common understanding between Canada and the U.S. that further integration of the North American Defence Industrial Base is essential and desirable." This report and other developments such as the Canadian acceptance of binary chemical weapons suggest that the Mulroney government intends to tie us ever more closely to the United States in CBW research. Let's not allow that to happen!

Diana Chown belongs to the Edmonton Voice of Women.

Peace Magazine Feb-Mar 1989

Peace Magazine Feb-Mar 1989, page 12. Some rights reserved.

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