OTTAWA -- Canada moved a step closer to joining the planned U.S. missile defence project yesterday, a development sure to ignite a hot domestic debate just months before an expected federal election. Defence Minister David Pratt, in a formal letter to Donald Rumsfeld, his American counterpart, said Canada is ready to negotiate an agreement.
"It is our intent to negotiate in the coming months a missile defence framework memorandum of understanding with the United States, with the objective of including Canada as a participant in the current U.S. missile defence program and expanding and enhancing information exchange," Pratt wrote.
He said such an agreement should provide for increased Canadian government and industry co-operation in the defence scheme.
Opponents of the American plan, including Lloyd Axworthy, the former Liberal foreign affairs minister, some Liberal backbench MPs and New Democrat Leader Jack Layton, have condemned it as the trigger for a new arms race.
Axworthy says Canadian participation would mean sacrificing the country's longstanding reputation as supporter of arms control.
The NDP is soliciting donations on its website for an ad campaign against the program and has received a strong response, Layton said.
He said the tone of Pratt's letter might suggest Canadians are enthusiastic about missile defence.
"I don't think he has a mandate from Canadians," Layton said. "I think it's time that the House of Commons had a discussion about this, that there were hearings at the appropriate committee of the House of Commons."
The government has promised to consult the House before a final decision, but hasn't said whether MPs will be allowed to vote on it.
Layton says the plan is "a profoundly dangerous idea" that will cost Canada billions of dollars.
Pratt said Washington hasn't asked for Canadian money or territory for the plan. He has also said that his latest letter will allow Canadian negotiators access to classified American documents and give them the data needed to make an informed choice.
"It sets out a clear path for future negotiations and will allow Canada to have access to the information about missile defence that we will need to make a decision on participation."
Supporters of Canadian participation argue that opting out would marginalize Norad, the 56-year-old pact that is the linchpin of Canada-U.S. defence relations.
Researcher Philippe Lagasse, in a paper prepared for the Institute for Research on Public Policy, argued that the debate comes down to this: "Should Canada safeguard Norad and its ties with the United States at the expense of its belief in arms control? Or should Canada's arms control principles trump the national interest?"
Foreign Affairs Minister Bill Graham said Canada remains committed to arms control, but also needs to look at ways of enhancing Norad.
Pratt has said a cabinet decision to join or not has to come by October when the Americans plan to have the first handful of missiles ready.