While most Canadians are aware of the massive destructive power of nuclear weapons, they are rarely asked their opinion about them. Earlier this month, a Nanos poll provided the responses of 1,000 Canadians to a set of nine questions on the theme of nuclear disarmament. The clear preference of 80 per cent of those surveyed was that the world should work to eliminate nuclear weapons.

This sentiment could be seen as merely an abstract aspirational goal, but the poll also addressed levels of support for the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) which entered into force this January. Overall, 74 per cent of those polled expressed support for Canada adhering to this treaty. This support is at odds with the Canadian government’s current rejection of the TPNW, which it has argued is ineffective and contrary to NATO policies. Still, the polling numbers suggest the public is supportive of a nuclear weapons ban of some sort, regardless of the government’s concerns.

Popular support for the TPNW didn’t fade even when respondents were presented with a scenario of U.S. opposition to Canada embracing the treaty. When asked if “Canada should join the UN TPNW, even if, as a member of NATO, it might come under pressure from the U.S. not to do so,” 73 per cent still agreed or somewhat agreed with Canadian adherence to the treaty.

The support for the elimination of nuclear weapons through a treaty arrangement appeared informed by a widespread recognition among those surveyed that there was no adequate response possible if a nuclear war was unleashed. Eighty-five per cent of those polled agreed or somewhat agreed that “no government, health system or aid organization could respond to the devastation caused by nuclear weapons, and humanity’s only hope is through the elimination of nuclear weapons.”

The results suggest that Canadians look to Parliament to take up the question of nuclear disarmament and the negative official stance towards the TPNW. Seventy-six per cent agreed or somewhat agreed that the House of Commons should have committee hearings and should debate Canada’s position on nuclear disarmament. While there have already been petitions and calls from civil society, church groups and some opposition parties for the Commons to hold such hearings, none has been organized. The impression is left that the government is aware that its position on nuclear disarmament is on shaky ground and it seeks to avoid having to defend it in Parliament.

Whether the positions of political parties on foreign policy issues such as nuclear disarmament have much influence on voting intentions is a question that has long interested political observers and operators alike. Here the poll results are more nuanced, but a full 50 per cent responded that they would be more likely or somewhat more likely to support a political party that favoured Canada’s adherence to the TPNW.

Beyond political action, citizens as consumers of financial services also have some clout over policies of concern to them. Several civil society groups in Europe and elsewhere have initiated “disinvestment” campaigns with respect to the nuclear weapons complex. The Nanos poll indicated that 71 per cent of those surveyed agreed or somewhat agreed with withdrawing money from any investment or financial institution if it was known that funds were being invested in nuclear weapons-related activities. Although beyond the scope of the present poll, it would be interesting to know how many of those expressing this opinion would follow up with their financial advisor next time they review their investment portfolios.

As for regional variations in the results, there was greater “pro-disarmament” sentiment in Quebec and Atlantic Canada in comparison with the Prairie provinces. Ontario and B.C. aligned closer to the views of Eastern Canada. Gender differentiation varied among the nine questions posed, but women were slightly more supportive than men for the “pro-disarmament” options. Age did not introduce a large variance in the responses, with the youth element (18-34) generally being more supportive of disarmament positions, with a slight drop in the next band (35-54) before bouncing back up in the 55-plus age bracket.

These results suggest the government is out of step with the views of a large majority of Canadians when it comes to issues of nuclear disarmament. Having rejected the TPNW upon its adoption in July 2017 – and indeed having boycotted the negotiations that produced it (a dubious tactic for an avowed multilateralist like Canada) – the government has little to show for its rhetorical support for nuclear disarmament.

The “step-by-step” approach to disarmament it espouses has not made any perceptible progress in recent years, while the current direction of multilateral arms control and disarmament is heading backwards. The misalignment between the government and the public when it comes to nuclear disarmament will be on display during the upcoming 10th Review Conference of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons slated to be held this August after being postponed from the spring of 2010. What was to be a celebration of the NPT’s 50th anniversary is now under a dark cloud as multi-billion-dollar nuclear modernization is under way in all the nuclear weapon states accompanied by nuclear sabre-rattling and the dismantling of arms control frameworks.

All this suggests that the NPT’s nuclear-disarmament obligation is being honoured more in the breach rather than in the observance. The Canadian government may want to demonstrate that it is not tone deaf with respect to popular opinion on the nuclear disarmament file. One conciliatory step would be to initiate a committee hearing in the House on its nuclear disarmament policy. Another would be to agree to attend as an observer the first meeting of states parties to the TPNW due to be held next January. These steps would be cost-free to the government and would go some way to bring its policies closer to the views held by a super majority of its citizens.

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Paul Meyer
Paul Meyer is adjunct professor of International Studies and fellow in International Security at Simon Fraser University and is the chair of the Canadian Pugwash Group. He was a career diplomat in Canada's Foreign Service with a focus on international security policy, including serving as Canada's ambassador to the UN and the Conference in Disarmament in Geneva (2003-07).

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