People and Places

For Some Eyes Only — A peek inside CANSEC, Canada’s biggest military tradeshow

Enough military equipment to run a small, very high-tech war will be laid out at the EY Centre when the annual arms show known as CANSEC comes to town at the end of May. If it blasts, bangs, or snoops — and if it’s made in Canada — it will likely be on display at the Global Defence and Security Show, a.k.a. CANSEC, the country’s largest military trade show.

Window shopping for a sniper rifle perhaps? Photo: Ben Welland, taken at CANSEC 2016
Window shopping for a sniper rifle perhaps? Photo: Ben Welland, CANSEC 2016

It’s held in Ottawa because this is the one city in Canada where CANSEC vendors are most likely to find customers: federal politicians and the people in the military who advise them on the buying needs of the armed forces. There is also a growing security presence at CANSEC — the cops and security guards are there not only to control demonstrators but also to buy some of the hardware that’s on view.

This year’s show, which runs May 31 and June 1, is expected to draw about 11,000 people from all over the world: buyers and sellers of some of the most advanced weaponry available on the planet. About 300 companies will display their wares at this year’s show. Their goods range from the mundane — military-strength fasteners, office equipment, military magazines — to the secret. The CANSEC website lists its exhibitors, but many of the companies on that list choose to be very discreet about who they are and what they sell.

The show also generates at least one day of protests, though demonstrators are kept far from the arms dealers.

Protesters outside the CANSEC perimeter. Photo: Ben Welland, taken at 2016 CANSEC
Protesters outside the CANSEC perimeter. Photo: Ben Welland, CANSEC 2016

Most Canadians don’t think of their country as one that sells a lot of weapons. But in reality, the Canadian arms industry is now a multi-billion-dollar business and one of the country’s major employers; many of the most seemingly innocuous companies in Canada now have a military division. Plus, Canada is the second-largest exporter of arms to the Middle East, mainly because of a controversial $15-billion deal for light-armoured vehicles between global aerospace and defence company General Dynamics and the Saudi Arabian government, which has a history of human-rights violations.

This is a Polaris DAGOR all-terrain, light tactical vehicle (ATV) designed for military use as a reconnaissance and general purpose utility vehicle. It’s armed with a .50 machine gun in this particular configuration. Photo: Ben Welland, taken at CANSEC 2016
This is a Polaris DAGOR all-terrain, light tactical vehicle (ATV) designed for military use as a reconnaissance and general purpose utility vehicle. It’s armed with a .50 machine gun in this particular configuration. Photo: Ben Welland, CANSEC 2016

Earlier this year, a Federal Court judge rejected a bid to block the Saudi Arabian deal, but noted: “The role of the court is not to pass moral judgment on the [foreign affairs] minister’s decision to issue the export permits, but only to make sure of the legality of such a decision.”

Canada also exports state-of-the-art sniper rifles, complete with the best in night-vision technology. In addition to the arms show, CANSEC hosts dinners and a golf get-together. There are speeches from politicians, military personnel, and industry leaders, along with some awards — but that’s not what attracts people.

A presentation by a representative from the Canadian Association of Defence and Security Industries. Photo: Ben Welland, taken at CANSEC 2016
A presentation by a representative from the Canadian Association of Defence and Security Industries. Photo: Ben Welland, CANSEC 2016

No, it’s the opportunity to handle the weapons and other military hardware that pulls people in. This is very much a hands-on event.

The event can also be seen as an exhibition of the world’s troubles and the solutions that are offered by military engineers and scientists. For instance, hundreds of Canadian, American, and allied soldiers have been killed in the Middle East and Afghanistan by remote-control bombs called IEDs (improvised explosive devices). One Canadian company has come up with a device that jams radio signals, rendering the IEDs useless.

About 700 booths sell everything from radar equipment to activewear to guns. And there are lots of guns: pistols, machine guns, rifles, big guns mounted on armoured vehicles. New guns require the best in support technology, such as night-vision sights. They’re also for sale.

A display of small-arms accessories manufacture by the firm CADEX. Photo: Ben Welland, taken at CANSEC 2016
A display of small-arms by CADEX. Photo: Ben Welland, CANSEC 2016

Last year’s big hit was a dog-mounted camera. If a place is too dangerous for people, Watec Cameras has a device that will give a dog’s-eye view of the situation. Strapping a camera onto a dog is not an act of brilliance, but what made the technology so appealing to its potential customers was the power of the camera’s transmitter. It can broadcast through as many as three walls to a viewer 300 metres away. It’s the perfect hardware for sniffing out so-called bad guys.

Of course, there is no guarantee that those bad guys will not use these tools. A top-of-the-line sniper rifle, made by PGW Defence Technologies of Winnipeg, fell into the hands of Houthi rebels in Yemen last year and was featured on their social media pages.

While most of the weaponry on display aims to protect soldiers, the international defence industry is mired in lucrative deals that some say do not do enough to control how the technology is used. Groups like Amnesty International have voiced concerns that the Saudi Arabian government will use those light-armoured vehicles — sold by Canadian company General Dynamics — against their civilian population.

A LAV III Upgrade Project (LAV-UP) armoured personnel carrier configured as an ambulance. Photo: Ben Welland, taken at CANSEC 2016
A LAV III Upgrade Project (LAV-UP) armoured personnel carrier configured as an ambulance. Photo: Ben Welland, CANSEC 2016

When 4,000 or more federal government and Department of Defence decision-makers flock to the EY Centre this spring, they’ll be rubbing shoulders with people from about 60 countries and some 250 VIPs, many of them senior Canadian cabinet ministers. This year, the show’s organizers have set aside private rooms — they are out of the line of sight of other curious show-goers and intended for buyers and sellers to make deals.

A place where buyers and sellers might want to spend some time? Photo: Ben Welland, taken at CANSEC 2016
A place where buyers and sellers might want to spend some time? Photo: Ben Welland, CANSEC 2016

CANSEC’s organizers aren’t just selling access to the latest in over-the-counter weaponry. The show is set up to make it easy for buyers and sellers to network, make new business contacts, find subcontractors as well as customers, and know who is at the show. CANSEC is so big that the organizers created a “business development program tool” that lets other people registered for the show use their cellphones to know who has checked in.

But you are unlikely to be on that list. You can’t drop in and see the latest guns unless you’re a member of the Canadian Association of Defence and Security Industries (CADSI) or part of a federal, provincial, or municipal government. (Though CADSI is also offering passes to recently retired members of the Canadian Forces, since many of them find new work as lobbyists or civilian procurement officers.) Media are allowed in, but not to the CADSI golf tournament.

While not allowed inside the EY Centre, protests are usually part of the CANSEC experience. A “non-violent direct action group” calling itself Homes Not Bombs led last year’s protests. The main march — the War Criminals Welcoming Walk — looped through the ByWard Market, with stops at the U.S. Embassy and at downtown hotels where some CANSEC dealers were supposed to be staying, before ending at the Prime Minister’s office on Wellington Street. The following day, they protested at the EY Centre with their mascot, General Chaos, extending a welcome to visitors. Three people in were charged with trespassing when they tried to go into the show.

The demonstrators are expected to be back this year, but even dogs of war packing video gear will be safely behind lines of police, some of whom may also be shoppers.