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Time to join U.S. missile defence, say two former Liberal defence ministers

A modified Standard Missile 2 interceptor is launched Thursday, June 5, 2008 from the guided-missile cruiser USS Lake Erie west of Kauai, Hawaii. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, US Navy

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A modified Standard Missile 2 interceptor is launched Thursday, June 5, 2008 from the guided-missile cruiser USS Lake Erie west of Kauai, Hawaii. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, US Navy

OTTAWA - Two former Liberal defence ministers have told a Conservative-dominated Senate committee that Canada should participate in the contentious U.S. ballistic missile defence program.

Bill Graham, who served in defence under Paul Martin until 2006, says it's good that the 2005 decision to stay out of the plan is under review by Parliament, but cautioned the issue is emotional and filled with misunderstanding.

"I argued at that time that we should be involved in BMD, and I still think we should," Graham testified Monday.

"Participating in BMD would help preserve Norad (North American Aerospace Defence Command) and Canada's overall security relationship with the United States."

There was a fundamental misunderstanding in the public that missile defence would lead to the weaponization of space, said Graham.

In declining to take part, Graham also said he believes Canada has allowed the role of Norad to be diminished and resulted in the U.S. paying more attention to its own interests.

"Is it feasible for us here in Canada to watch from a distance while fundamental decisions about the security of this continent are made in Washington without our input?" he said.

The Liberal government spurned an opportunity to join the program under U.S. President George W. Bush, but the issue has resurfaced with committees in the House of Commons and Senate studying the notion.

The Harper government has remained silent except to say there's no change to the current policy.

Dave Pratt, defence minister in 2003 and 2004, started the discussions with the Americans, but said missile defence was a tough sell within the Liberal caucus at the time because it was seen as cozying up to Bush and his defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

"Some members of our caucus did not want to associate themselves with those political characters in any way," he said.

"We were also facing — I would say — a strong contingent within the youth wing of the Liberal party that was very much opposed to this. They saw this as proliferation rather than a defensive measure. Did we — at the time — do a good job of explaining that? Well, we tried as best as we could."

Pratt also said he doesn't believe Martin was fully behind the idea because the government was facing an election in 2004.

A former Canadian diplomat who recently testified before the committee said he believes the Harper government is weighing examination of the issue as part of its long-promised review of Ottawa’s defence strategy.

Colin Robertson said there isn't any pressure — that he is aware of — coming from the United States to join missile defence, but there is growing international unease about the capability of rogue countries such as North Korea and Iran.

When discussions took place 10 years ago, Pratt said, it was suggested that interceptor missiles would not be placed on Canadian soil and that the only request would be for radar stations.

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