Canada-based light-armoured vehicle (LAV) manufacturer General Dynamics Land Systems - Canada (GDLS) appears to be working on a deal to sell arms to Qatar. It follows a similar deal with Qatar’s Gulf region neighbour, Saudi Arabia.

Both of these countries, important allies for Canada and the United States, have dire human rights records and histories of meddling with conflicts in the region. Saudi Arabia, in particular, has waged a brutal bombing campaign in Yemen since 2015.

Back in March, The Maple revealed that International Development Minister Harjit Sajjan had been instructed by his ministry to lobby for the LAV deal during his meetings with Qatari officials at the FIFA World Cup last year. Recently, during a parliamentary committee, Sajjan repeatedly insisted that he ignored those instructions when pressed on the matter by Bloc Quebecois MP Alexis Brunelle-Duceppe.

Nonetheless, the language in Sajjan’s briefing notes indicated that Global Affairs Canada (GAC) not only approves of the deal, but is actively working to see it come to fruition.

While working on this story, The Maple tried to get comment from Unifor, the union that represents GDLS workers in London, Ontario. We did not receive a response.

So instead, we spoke to Simon Black, a professor of labour studies at Brock University and an organizer with Labour Against The Arms Trade (LAAT), which was originally set up to oppose the GDLS deal with Saudi Arabia and to support efforts to end Canada’s arms trades with Israel. We asked him about the potential deal with Qatar and LAAT’s broader mission.

The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Alex Cosh: Give us a bit of background as to how LAAT got started. What are its main objectives?

Simon Black: We're a grassroots coalition of labour and peace activists, who in the context of the $14 billion light-armoured vehicle deal with Saudi Arabia signed by the Harper government and upheld by the Trudeau government, realized that there was very little labour movement opposition to this deal.

When I say little labour movement opposition, I mean that little was expressed publicly, not that unions thought the deal was a good idea. But it just wasn't a priority for Canada's labour movement to oppose this deal, despite Saudi Arabia’s brutal military intervention in Yemen and record on human rights, including being one of the worst countries in the world for workers’ rights. So we really started as a grassroots campaign to first convince the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) that it should oppose the arms trade with Saudi Arabia. That started in the summer of 2019.

By 2020, the CLC had signed on to a letter — which was also signed by a number of different civil society organizations, human rights groups like Amnesty International, peace groups, and humanitarian organizations like Oxfam — to Justin Trudeau that demanded his government end this arms deal, and that the government work with unions in the arms industry to develop a plan for a just transition for arms industry workers should the deal be cancelled.

In regard to this campaign, we have focused on two things: One is trying to drum up further labour movement opposition to Canada's arms trade with Saudi Arabia, and also we've worked on a campaign around a two-way arms embargo on the state of Israel, a kind of secondary campaign that's been led by Labour 4 Palestine.

The second thing that we've tried to do is convince our civil society partners who've been involved in a loose coalition of organizations opposed to these arms deals that it's important and necessary, if we want to win the labor movement support in a campaign like this, to ensure that front and centre in the demand to end these arms deals is a demand for a just transition for arms industry workers.

AC: While I was working on the story regarding the potential LAV deal with Qatar, I tried to get a comment from Unifor, which represents GDLS workers, but I haven't heard anything from them. What are some of the challenges that your organization faces in trying to mobilize large unions like Unifor in this kind of advocacy?

SB: We haven't had a lot of trouble in mobilizing other unions and to convince them to sign on to the campaign to end Canadian arms exports to Saudi Arabia.

Our last letter, which was a joint letter, was signed by various kinds of civil society organizations. It was also signed by a range of trade unions and labour federations, including the Amalgamated Transit Union of Canada, the Canadian Labour Congress, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, CUPE, the United Steelworkers, the CSN in Quebec as well. Unifor is outside of the CLC, so when the CLC speaks on an issue like this, it does not speak for Unifor.

Unifor itself hasn't made a public statement about the Saudi arms deal since the 2015 federal election, when the union seemed to be unsure about what its public stance should be. There was a moment in the campaign when one of the local leaders in London, Ontario, where these light armoured vehicles are being manufactured, seemed to be reprimanded for speaking out of turn, and the union has not really made any public comment on this arms deal since then.

Now, the union has taken a position on other arms exports. For instance, Unifor has taken, to its credit, a very strong stand when it comes to arms exports to the state of Israel. In fact, it's one of the unions that has called for a two-way arms embargo on Israel. So it's not that it's unwilling to take a stand against arms exports and the arms industry in the name of human rights, but it seems that the main roadblock to taking a position around both the Saudi arms deal and I suspect this Qatari arms deal is the fact that it represents workers at the General Dynamics Land Systems factory in London, Ontario, which manufactures the LAVs.

AC: In regards to the call for a just transition for arms industry workers: It is a similar call to what we hear for workers in the fossil fuel industry. Is there a roadmap for this in the arms sector? What are the kinds of skills that arms industry workers have that could be reapplied in other industries?

SB: Well, historically, there are examples in which workers themselves and their unions in the arms industry have tried to think about organizing around and planning for socially useful production — socially useful alternatives to the production of arms.

You can look back to an example in the 1970s of unionized workers at one of the main arms manufacturers in the U.K., Lucas Aerospace. They came together in 1976 to develop an alternative plan, and it was really comprehensive. We're talking about a 500-page technical document that laid out the skills, capacities and tools in the plant that could be used to produce an alternative to what they were producing. They came up with really innovative ideas for the time, including things we think of today as green technologies, including wind turbines, hybrid cars, heat pumps and energy-efficient houses. The plan was in response to the company’s announcement that thousands of jobs were to be cut to enable “industrial restructuring.”

This is not the only example: There's a history of arms industry workers thinking about socially useful alternatives to the arms trade. This applies to the fossil fuel industry, and it applies to asbestos — the unions in the asbestos industry were very active in thinking about what could be the alternatives for their workers. So it's not that there's not an appetite for thinking about these things in the union movement to develop alternatives.

But it raises the question: Who really controls production and the other big economic decisions under capitalism? Of course, unions don't control production, especially not in the Canadian context, where unions don't have a great deal of say over the big questions over what's produced, what workers actually make or what services they provide. But it doesn't mean that unions can't start thinking about that; it doesn't mean Unifor couldn't strike a committee, for instance, whether it be at the national level or at the local level, that would investigate the relationship between the arms industry and the war in Yemen or the human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, including their records on workers’ rights.

LAAT accepts that Unifor is in a tricky position, given that it represents the workers at General Dynamics Land Systems, and that their jobs may be on the line when it comes to these arms deals. But I think what Unifor could be doing is political education with its workers to investigate the connection between these arms deals and human rights violations and workers’ rights violations in the Gulf states, and Canadian foreign policy.

More broadly, it could also be striking committees to investigate possible alternative uses for the facilities at the GDLS plant, especially given how precarious manufacturing has been; it should be thinking about and encouraging its members to think about alternatives: What could their skills and capacities be used for, and towards what kind of socially useful alternatives? What might a plan look like to convert the facility? What is the role of the state in this? This doesn’t only apply to the arms industry, but industries like auto manufacturing as well. This is what the union could be doing in response to the threat of closures of auto plants such as GM in Oshawa. Green Jobs Oshawa has been trying to push the union to do just this.

There's a good example of how the union has done this in the past when it was the CAW in the late 1980s. The leader of the union then was Bob White, and White was very active in the peace movement in the 1970s and 1980s. There was a plant out in Winnipeg that was due to win a contract for the manufacture of fighter helicopters, and the Canadian peace movement came to White and said we want your union to oppose this contract. White took it to the rest of the national leadership team, and given the union's commitment to peace and human rights, the union agreed and said it would contribute to the campaign to oppose the contract.

Now, the national leadership got in hot water with the local leadership over that plan. But they did it on principle, and I think it's a good example of how Unifor can think about its own history, about how there have been other cases in the past where questions of its members’ jobs, of human rights and of foreign policy have all been in the mix.

Now, as Sam Gindin, former research director at CAW under Bob White and later Buzz Hargrove, recalls, not too long after this, that contract ended. And Bob White received a note from the local saying that the position the national union had taken was the right one; the local leadership joined with the national union to argue for producing civilian aircraft rather than military aircraft; in the long term that would have provided much more stable demand. So the current leadership should be doing the same: Thinking about the long-term viability of the LAV plant in London and alternatives that save workers' jobs, protect their communities and end complicity in a very dirty arms deal.

The union has managed to navigate those questions and to come up with an answer that stands on principle in the past, and the principles that the union purports to stand for when it comes to international solidarity, social justice, and questions of peace and war. So it can do the same in response to the Saudi or Qatari deal. We hope that Unifor’s new national leader, Lana Payne, a committed feminist and someone who has a strong track record of standing on principle, will be open to the union staking out a new direction on the Saudi and Qatari arms deals.

AC: Even though your campaign has galvanized around these two particularly egregious arms trading partnerships with Saudi Arabia and Israel, there does seem to be this recognition that there's something inherently problematic and unethical about making a profit from weapons in and of itself. I think many on the left and in the labour movement more broadly would agree with that. But then within these spaces there are also cases like the question of whether or not to support sending arms to Ukraine, for example, which have prompted more discussion, debate and controversy. How does your organization navigate these more thorny questions about whether there are ever cases where it's acceptable or just to manufacture and export weapons?

SB: The arms trade fuels war. U.S. armed violence supports repressive and authoritarian regimes, diverts scarce resources from human needs, and generally has a devastating impact on human rights and human security. Canadian arms and other kinds of “security” equipment have been deployed to repress workers’ movements in Colombia, for example, and have been used in brutal wars such as Yemen, and to maintain a regime of apartheid against the Palestinian people.

The estimated value of the international arms trade is well over $100 billion annually. The UN World Food Program estimates that it would take less than half of that to end world hunger by 2030. We think the big threats to human security, such as climate change and economic inequality, are not military in nature. So we advocate for and we seek to build within the labour movement support for a new approach to human security, that centres decent work, international solidarity and social justice.

AC: In terms of the potential LAV deal with Qatar, assuming it does go through, what will your organization's activities look like in the coming months?

SB: Well, we've already been discussing it with the civil society organizations, who've been in kind of a loose coalition to oppose the Saudi arms deal, about a campaign to end Canada's arms trade with Qatar as well.

I think that like with Saudi Arabia, there needs to be an understanding, that we have to build within the labour movement, as to why Canada has arms deals with the Gulf states like Saudi and Qatar. It's less about the military and industrial base; jobs and resulting corporate profits are not unimportant, but they're secondary to the larger context of the political economy of Canada's relationship with the Gulf states, and that's about Canada being a kind of junior partner in the American empire.

I also think we need to continue to raise consciousness about Canadian foreign policy, of which these arms deals are just a part of, in relation to this particular part of the world. It's important to campaign on this not only because of the human rights abuses in Qatar and Saudi Arabia, but also because it illustrates the hypocrisy of Canadian foreign policy and the disconnect between our government’s rhetoric and reality. Many Canadians still believe that Canada is a benevolent force in the world and that its foreign policy is motivated by human rights, or as the Trudeau government has said, a “feminist foreign policy.”

The arms deals with Qatar and Saudi Arabia shine a light on the true nature of Canadian foreign policy. It's really about making the world safe for Canadian investments and making Canada a safe place for Gulf capital and investment. And It's about managing the interests of the American empire in that particular part of the world.

It's important to build a critique of Canadian imperialism within the labour movement, a critique that we’ve not had since the labour movement mobilized against Canada's participation in the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

AC: It sounds like a big part of what you’re speaking to is a need for an independent Canadian foreign foreign policy. Would that be a fair assessment of what you're calling for?

SB: I think so. If you're thinking about how we fit in as an organization in terms of rebuilding the left, a Canadian left would need to develop a kind of democratic socialist foreign policy; what that looks like, what it entails, what it means for the Canadian state, or independence, for multilateralism, around a whole range of issues from war and insecurity, to climate change. I think we're just trying to make a small contribution to that in our work.

Now, let's turn to the members' corner...

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