Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



Program Name/Specialization

Canadian History


Faculty of Arts

First Advisor

Kevin Spooner

Advisor Role



Recent sales of Canadian military equipment to Saudi Arabia have highlighted a contradiction between Canadian policy on paper and in practice. This dissertation seeks to explain these contradictions by exploring the evolution of Canadian conventional military export policy in the key years between 1946 and 1960. It loosely divides this 15-year span into three periods, which correspond to the genesis of Canadian military export policy (1946-1949), its expansion and formalization (1950-1955), and its first existential challenge (1956-1960). With a particular focus on the Department of External Affairs, this work explores the political considerations and bureaucratic debates which shaped government decision-making during these periods.

After the Second World War, Canadian policymakers struggled to reconcile the commercial and strategic benefits of selling arms with the political risks in both the domestic and international environments. Through a series of reactive and somewhat contradictory precedents, they engineered a bureaucratic system of export controls to evaluate potential military exports, as well as a series of rudimentary restrictions to guide their implementation. By 1950, the Canadian government had accepted that military exports were economically and strategically necessary, and become an opportunistic exporter of military equipment to the non-communist world. This consensus would be challenged in 1956 due to geopolitical instability and domestic scandal but would prove too entrenched for significant modification.

The military export policies adopted during these years were flexible, pragmatic, and reactive; they incentivized risk-aversion and commercial competitiveness, but not internal consistency. Policymakers emphasized a rotating series of idealistic restrictions in official reviews and public statements, yet the defining internal principle was discretionary flexibility. In other words, preserving the ability of Canadian officials to evaluate exports on a case-by-case basis, not consistently enforcing export restrictions based on specific criteria. Flexibility was important because of the key external objective: mirroring American military export policy specifically and other allied policies generally. This alignment maintained western solidarity and multilateral agreements regarding military exports, used collective action to diffuse the reputational risks of arms dealing, maintained privileged Canadian access to the American military industrial complex, and allowed Canadian military producers to compete equally in the global market.

Policymakers often found themselves trapped between the idealistic multilateralism which ostensibly guided Canadian foreign policy, and the pragmatic considerations incentivizing Canadian arms sales. Obscuring this contradiction required the government to resort to a sort of categorical ambiguity in which key binaries such as military/civilian, offensive/defensive, enemy/ally, and peace/conflict were redefined as convenient. The resulting policy/praxis gap can be construed as hypocrisy and remains a foundational component of Canadian military export policy today.

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