by Kristine-Claire Bolisay
Today, I stand before you to discuss the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, also known as the TPNW. Adopted by the UN on July 7, 2017. This was the first legally binding international agreement with the ultimate goal of total disarmament. The treaty prohibits the production, testing, use, and threat of using nuclear weapons. As of September 2022, 68 parties have ratified, or acceded the TPNW. Canada is not among these countries.
Despite its noble intentions, Canada has consistently voted against signing the TPNW. According to a statement by Mark Gwozdecky, the Assistant Deputy Minister for International Security and Political Affairs, the reason why Canada chooses to not sign is because “It is Canada’s view that, while well-intentioned, the ban treaty is unfortunately premature. Without the support of any nuclear-armed states, it will not result in the elimination of even a single nuclear weapon.”
However, there is a growing call from all Canadians urging the government to sign onto the TPNW. Thanks to organizations such as ICAN and Mayors for Peace, cities all over Canada can show their support for the treaty. According to a poll by Nanos Research in 2021, 74% of Canadians agree with Canada joining the TPNW, and this is reflected by the numerous towns and cities across Canada that have signed these pledges. Including Toronto, Vancouver, Victoria, Montréal, Ottawa, and recently, Winnipeg.
Additionally, an open letter with signatures from over 20 countries was even signed by 7 of Canada’s former prime ministers, foreign ministers, and defence ministers. Furthermore, the New Democratic Party and Green Party of Canada have publicly criticized the government’s decision to abstain from attending meetings of state parties to the TPNW.
The minister of foreign affairs, Mélanie Joly, wrote that “Canada believes that a step-by-step approach to nuclear disarmament remains the most viable pathway to achieving meaningful and lasting progress. While not a party to the TPNW, Canada has common ground with treaty states and shares the ultimate goal of a world free from nuclear weapons.” This means, Canada isn’t against the idea of nuclear disarmament. So why hasn’t Canada signed?
To quote Robert Oliphant, the parliamentary secretary to the foreign minister, “We understand and appreciate the sentiment behind the TPNW, but I will reiterate tonight that Canada is not a state party to this treaty, as several of its provisions are incompatible with our NATO commitments.”
While Canada shares the ultimate goal of a world free from nuclear weapons, it abstains from signing the TPNW due to its NATO membership. There are multiple NATO countries that don’t have nuclear weapons, just like Canada, however no NATO country has signed on because it conflicts with NATO’s ideals. And one reason why NATO won’t is because it continues to oppose a “No First Use Policy”. Meaning, NATO doesn’t limit themselves to only using nuclear weapons in retaliation, and they may issue “the first strike” so to speak. This is in contrast to both China and India; both countries have nuclear weapons, but neither will threaten to use, or use their nuclear weapons, except in retaliation. And this refusal to sign is strongly supported by the United States, who very much believes that they “reserve the right to use” nuclear weapons first in the case of conflict. This was originally to protect NATO allies against the Warsaw Pact during the Cold War, but even today, the US’s influence causes all of NATO to still refuse a No First Use Policy.
Canada didn’t participate in the original vote for the adoption of the TPNW in 2017, and voted against a UN General Assembly resolution that established a formal mandate for states to commence negotiations to prohibit nuclear weapons in 2016. This decision may have been influenced by a document sent by the US to NATO members before this vote. This document was to deter NATO members from voting in favour, and to not just abstain from voting, but to vote against the treaty entirely.
It is essential to recognize that Canada’s inability to sign the treaty is not solely its own decision but a commitment mandated by its NATO membership. This isn’t a decision that we ever got to decide or vote on; it’s something that was decided for us. And it isn’t just NATO members; NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg reportedly dissuaded Switzerland, a country that isn’t even part of NATO, from signing, even though Switzerland voted in favour of the treaty originally. And this means the will of Canadians will not be realized, as long as we are a member of NATO.
Even though an ideal world without nuclear weapons seems unattainable, there is evidence that it is possible. Despite the challenges, we must remain hopeful. The world has witnessed progress through treaties and diplomacy, leading to a significant decrease in the global nuclear stockpile since the mid-eighties. And even though the arms race can escalate and de-escalate, we have seen hope with countries like South Africa, which has become the only country that’s ever built its own nuclear weapons and then given them up. Ex-members of the Soviet Union that inherited its nuclear weapons have also relinquished them after the Soviet Union broke apart.
We still have far to go. Very recently, the USA pulled out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) and Open Skies Treaties. Russia pulled out of the New Start Treaty and is planning to station nuclear weapons in Belarus. Plus, with the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, the threat of nuclear weapons is more prevalent than ever.
And as the number of nuclear weapons drops every year, this only increases the call for more leaders to take action. But even if this ideal can’t be obtained today or tomorrow, a world without nuclear weapons is in sight.
In conclusion, while the road to a nuclear-free world may seem long and arduous, we must not lose hope. Together, we can bring about change and work towards a safer future for all. As we advocate for Canada’s involvement in the TPNW, let us remember that with persistent effort, we can create a world free from the threat of nuclear weapons. The impossible is possible. All you have to do is make it so.
“Canada | Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.” International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons
“Global nuclear stockpile 1945-2022.” Statista, 22 February 2023
Legault, Raymond. “Petition e-3828.” House of Commons Petitions
“NATO reportedly urged Switzerland not to sign nuclear treaty.” Swissinfo, 4 April 2023
“Publication Search.” OurCommons.ca, 31 October 2022
Spiegel, Steven L., et al. “No first use.” Wikipedia
“Statement by Canada to the Conference on Facilitating the Entry-Into-Force of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty.” Global Affairs Canada, 20 September 2017
“Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.” Wikipedia
Kristine-Claire Bolisay delivered this speech at Winnipeg Lanterns for Peace on August 9, 2023.