An analysis of Canadian arms export data for 2020

September 15, 2021

By Kelsey Gallagher

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 42 Issue 3 Autumn 2021

The government of Canada publishes federal arms export data in its annual Report on Exports of Military Goods from Canada. The report for 2020 reveals that Canadian military exports were at historically high levels, and that some of the customers were among the world’s worst abusers of  human rights. While the 2020 edition includes minor improvements in transparency, significant information is still missing or obscured.


In 2020, Canada exported $1.96-billion in military goods to non-U.S. destinations. Although this figure was only about half that for 2019—which is the highest ever—it is the third-highest ever recorded and at least double that of almost all years between 1978 and 2017.

The decline from 2019 was mostly due to lower exports to Saudi Arabia, which fell 54.9 per cent. However, Saudi Arabia remained Canada’s top non-U.S. customer for military goods, consuming 67 per cent of Canada’s exports to non-U.S. destinations. Fully 93.9 per cent of Saudi-bound exports were light armoured vehicles (LAVs) and their associated components, manufactured by General Dynamics Land Systems-Canada in London, Ontario.

As a key belligerent in the ongoing war in Yemen, Saudi Arabia has been accused of many breaches of international humanitarian law, some of which could constitute war crimes. The United Nations Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen has directly cited Canada’s provision of weapons to Saudi Arabia as “helping to perpetuate” this war.

Canada’s second-largest non-U.S. customer was the United Kingdom, with exports rising by 5.6 per cent over 2019 levels to $122-million—the highest value since 2009. The top export categories for the UK were aircraft and associated components ($29-million), “technology” ($28.4-million), and imaging and countermeasure equipment ($14.9-million).

The next biggest non-U.S. customer was Turkey. From the high point of $151-million in 2019, Turkish exports fell dramatically to $48-million in 2020. Early in 2020, Canada suspended arms exports to Turkey and later shut down all exports to that country of WESCAM targeting and surveillance sensors. (See the Ploughshares report Killer Optics: Exports of WESCAM sensors to Turkey – a litmus test of Canada’s compliance with the Arms Trade Treaty.)

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Exports to Belgium, which reached record-high levels in 2018 and 2019, fell by 96 per cent to $6.1-million. The unusually high prior export values relate to the transfer of  Canadian-made LAVs to Belgium for use in training Saudi security forces in northern France. The drop in 2020 likely indicates that this contract had run its course.

See Table

The total number of permit applications received by Global Affairs Canada (GAC) in 2020 was down by nearly 25 per cent, which the government attributes to the pandemic.    As well, GAC denied more export permits for controlled goods than for any year since at least the mid-2000s. Nearly 75 per cent of the 58 reported denials were for dual-use goods, which have both commercial and military functions; of those, 65 per cent were to China and almost all the rest were to other parts of the Asia-Paficifc region.

Most of the remaining export permit denials were for full military goods to locations that included Hong Kong, Bangladesh, Cameroon, Nigeria, and Libya.

Several permits were denied because the goods requested posed a substantial risk of contributing to the serious violation of human rights; Canada, as a State Party to the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) is obligated to deny such exports.

However, two denials were for proposed exports to Libya, which is under a UN arms embargo. Because under Article 6 of the ATT Canada is prohibited from exporting arms to countries under such an embargo, these applications should not have entered the risk assessment process. It appears that Canada has not yet fully incorporated all ATT obligations into its domestic arms control regime.

Although more permits were denied in 2020, more than 99 per cent of permit applications for full military goods were approved, in line with prior years. Many of these permits were to countries facing credible allegations of violating international humanitarian or human rights law, as well as other abuses. Thus it appears that Canadian officials are still approving many more applications for arms exports than are justifiable.


While the Annual Report on Military Exports has become more transparent in recent years, the current edition still contains overly generalized and unhelpful data.

Applicants for export permits must give details about the actual weapons being transferred and the end-use or end-user in the recipient country. None of this detail can be found in the report. Instead, exports are slotted into 22 broad categories derived from Group 2 (the “munitions list”) of the Export Control List (ECL).

As well, GAC continues to double count goods. When the goods covered by an export permit contain items from multiple categories under the ECL, the total export value is repeated across all those categories. The exact value of transfers is thus impossible to determine.

Export data on dual-use goods is still significantly under-reported. As other States Parties to the ATT, such as Sweden, report on dual-use exports, it is not clear why Canada continues to omit such data from its annual report.


Canada only partially reports on military exports to the United States—Canada’s largest customer. The data in the latest report includes export values for only four of the 22 categories of the munitions list. Thus huge amounts of data remain off the public record, despite Canada’s obligation under the ATT to be both transparent and universal in reporting foreign arms exports.


Under the ATT, Canada must control and report on the brokering of arms exports. Brokering occurs when the Canadian government permits a Canadian citizen or corporation to facilitate the transfer of military goods between two other states.

The 2020 report, for the first time, includes brokering data. However, because the data is so general, with little detail on exactly which weapons are being brokered or the nature of end-use, it is of only minor use. As is the case with direct exports, GAC appears to double count brokering data.

Most conventional brokering permits issued by Canada in 2020 were for transfers to locations deemed partially free or not free by the Freedom House “Freedom in the World” index. Among the goods transferred were imaging and counter-measure equipment and associated components from Australia to Egypt, and bombs, missiles, and associated components from France to Saudi Arabia.

This second example is particularly troubling. There is considerable evidence that Saudi Arabia has breached international humanitarian law while conducting airstrikes in Yemen. If Canadian-brokered explosives were used in Saudi airstrikes, Canada would almost certainly be in violation of the ATT.


Canada continues to export large quantities of military goods, with much of the total going to opponents of human rights. Some of these weapons end up in today’s most deadly conflict zones.

While the Report on Exports of Military Goods from Canada is helpful in gaining a general understanding of the Canadian arms trade, researchers must still rely on secondary sources and open-source information to truly understand how Canadian-made weapons are being used abroad.

Photo: A screen grab from Al Masirah TV/Al Jazeera showing Saudi light armored vehicle captured by Houthi forces.

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