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Canada and NATO

Did you know that Canada was the country that pushed for a political role for the Alliance? That Lester Pearson was one of the key players in the creation and formation of NATO? Do you want to hear his grandson talk about his legacy? You can also find out who was the first ever female NATO Defence Minister and see Canadian troops in action while they were stationed in Europe during the Cold War.

This Treaty is not a pact for war, but a pledge for peace and progress.

Lester B. Pearson,
Speaking at the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty Washington, D.C., 4 April 1949

Canada, a founding member of NATO, was one of the first countries to propose the idea of a transatlantic defensive alliance. Working closely with their American and European colleagues, Canadian negotiators helped write the 14 articles of the North Atlantic Treaty. From the beginning, Canada emphasised that NATO needed to be more than just a military pact — it needed to promote political, economic and cultural bonds between its members. Since signing the North Atlantic Treaty, Canada has participated fully in NATO activities — including stationing troops in Europe for the duration of the Cold War. Ultimately, Canada has worked to expand the definition of security at NATO, pushing for greater emphasis on civilian aspects of security while also contributing to the Alliance’s military capabilities. This retrospective covers Canada’s contribution to and role within NATO throughout the Cold War period.

Discover Canada in the 1950s

How one man had so much impact

Any discussion of Canada’s involvement in NATO must begin with Lester B. Pearson. Secretary of State for External Affairs at the time, Pearson played a key role in drafting the North Atlantic Treaty and helping NATO find its feet as an international organisation. He believed that NATO could — and should — be more than just a military alliance. When it came time to negotiate the North Atlantic Treaty, Pearson and the Canadian delegation pushed for the inclusion of a clause that encouraged members to forge stronger political and economic ties, in addition to coordinating their militaries. This clause — not immediately popular with Allies, but vociferously defended by Canada — came to be known as “the Canadian Article.”

Article 2 of the North Atlantic Treaty

“The Parties will contribute toward the further development of peaceful and friendly international relations by strengthening their free institutions, by bringing about a better understanding of the principles upon which these institutions are founded, and by promoting conditions of stability and well-being. They will seek to eliminate conflict in their international economic policies and will encourage economic collaboration between any or all of them.”

Implementing Article 2 proved to be an even bigger challenge than getting it into the Treaty had been. By the mid-1950s, NATO remained almost exclusively a military organisation. Recognising this as a shortcoming, the North Atlantic Council (NATO’s governing body) asked the Foreign Ministers of Canada, Italy and Norway to “advise the Council on ways and means to improve and extend NATO cooperation in non-military fields and to develop greater unity within the Atlantic Community.” Pearson and his two colleagues— known today as the Three Wise Men — recommended increased political consultation and dialogue among members in a report entitled “The Report of the Committee of Three on Non-Military Cooperation in NATO”. The report’s ideas about enhanced economic partnerships and cultural connections were not implemented, but two major initiatives were adopted: a more robust information programme to explain NATO and its mission better to Allied audiences, and the creation of a NATO Science Programme, which has encouraged scientific and technological innovation across the Alliance and provided support to many Nobel laureates. Ultimately, Pearson and his colleagues laid the foundation for the development of NATO in the non-military field and, more broadly, in the development of political consultation between members.

Lester Pearson’s grandson talks about his grandfather

For all his accomplishments, Pearson was a humble man. He would have been the first person to acknowledge that he did not bring Canada into NATO single-handedly. He worked closely with associates like Escott Reid (his chief aide, who was the first Canadian to propose the idea of a North Atlantic collective security alliance) and Humphrey Hume Wrong (Canada’s ambassador to the United States, who played the most active role in negotiating the text of the Treaty in 1948). Louis St. Laurent (Pearson’s predecessor as Prime Minister) also contributed to NATO’s foundation, delivering a landmark speech to the United Nations in September 1947 where he told delegates that the United Nations had become "frozen in futility and divided by dissension" and that a new collective security body was needed. Paul Martin Sr (Pearson’s Foreign Affairs Minister) negotiated the deployment of nuclear weapons on Canadian territory in 1963. And alongside George Ignatieff (who was later to become Canada’s ambassador to NATO) Pearson was the first NATO Foreign Minister to visit Russia. In 1955, Pearson and Ignatieff participated in a drinking contest with the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev where the Canadians downed 18 shots of vodka (nearly two pints each).

For a diplomat who rubbed shoulders with the global elite, he cut an unusually modest figure, always showing up with a smile and sporting one of his signature bowties. Known to some as “the unhappy warrior”, Pearson was 50 years old when he got into politics and was never comfortable with the “hoopla and circus” that came with being Prime Minister. Nominated for UN Secretary General in 1946, 1950 and 1953 (and blocked by a Soviet veto all three times), Pearson later confessed that this was “the job I really wanted”. Nevertheless, first as Foreign Minister and then as Prime Minister, Pearson helped establish Canada’s position as a key NATO Ally. Listen to the audio file of the interview with Michael Pearson, Lester Pearson’s grandson.

How two men strengthened transatlantic relations

Pierre Trudeau was a NATO sceptic when he first took office as Prime Minister after Pearson in 1968. In a press conference after winning his first election, he argued that Europe had recovered from the war and that it no longer needed “Canadian military ‘might’ to defend itself”. The following year, Trudeau cut Canada’s military presence in Europe by half, reducing the approximately 9,800 troops in Europe to 5,000. Speaking to his Cabinet, Trudeau argued that Canada’s interests lay in North America, not Europe:

We should be protecting our internal security, defending our three seas, and then considering other possible international commitments. It was not logical or rational to protect that which was not ours.”

Trudeau was not alone in his doubts about NATO’s future. There was a broad feeling among Canadians that Canada was being completely overlooked amid rising tensions between the United States and the European Allies. Both the United States and the United Kingdom had announced plans to redeploy, and possibly reduce, their military presence on the continent. France had just withdrawn from NATO’s integrated military structure, insisting that NATO bases and forces must be removed from its territory. All in all, NATO’s value and continued existence were very much in doubt at the end of the 1960s, and Canada was just as sceptical as other Allies.

Trudeau at the North Atlantic Council, 1974 Trudeau at the North Atlantic Council, 1974

Throughout the first half of the 1970s, Canada’s armed forces reached their lowest capacity, with only 78,000 personnel and aging equipment which was nearing obsolescence. In 1974, however, Trudeau changed his mind on NATO, choosing to maintain Canada’s contingent of heavy armoured tanks along the Iron Curtain rather than replacing them with light armoured vehicles as he had previously promised. This change of heart was inspired by Helmut Schmidt — first Minister of Defence and later Chancellor of West Germany — who had a “soft spot in his heart for Canada”.

Over the course of several years, Schmidt and Trudeau developed a personal friendship. In every meeting, Schmidt reinforced the symbolic importance of having Canadian troops along Germany’s East-West border. As Defence Minister, he also sent German troops to conduct joint military exercises in Manitoba and instructed the German armed forces to procure more equipment from Canadian manufacturers. Through this relationship, Trudeau came to recognise the political and strategic importance of maintaining Canada’s military presence in NATO. He continued Canada’s involvement in the Alliance for the remainder of his time as Prime Minister, and sought to build greater economic and cultural ties with Canada’s European Allies.

What happened at the end of the Cold War?

After becoming Prime Minister in 1984, Brian Mulroney initiated a review of Canada’s military capabilities and NATO commitments. This review found that, although the later Trudeau years saw a sustained support for the Canadian Armed Forces in NATO, much of Canada’s military equipment was becoming obsolete and at risk of “rust out”. As a result, the Mulroney government’s 1987 Defence White Paper promised to increase defence spending, purchase nuclear-powered submarines, modernise Canada’s air defences, and consolidate all of Canada’s European-based forces into a single command in West Germany.

Mulroney at the NATO London Summit, 1990 Mulroney at the NATO London Summit, 1990

The end of the Cold War in 1989 and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 changed the security dynamics of Europe and altered Canada’s defence priorities. An economic recession and ballooning government deficits in the same period led the Mulroney government to rethink its planned military expansion. Although Canada continued plans to develop its maritime capabilities, Mulroney chose to cancel an increase in forces envisaged for West Germany and in fact decided to withdraw the last Canadian land forces from Europe. On 10 July 1993, the last Canadian Armed Forces personnel left Europe.

Who was NATO’s first ever female defence minister?

Canadian Defence Minister, Kim Campbell Canadian Defence Minister, Kim Campbell, was the first female defence minister in the Alliance. Here, attending the NATO Defence Ministers’ meeting in 1993. Immediately after this appointment, she became Canada’s first ever female Prime Minister.

Canadian cities lend their names to key NATO decisions

As a founding member of NATO, Canada hosted meetings, conferences and joint military exercises from the early 1950s onwards. Most of these events took place in Ottawa, but various meetings of the North Atlantic Council and NATO working groups made significant policy decisions and announcements in cities across Canada from coast to coast. In 1951, Canada hosted the Council meeting in Ottawa. At this meeting, Allies agreed on NATO’s first expansion, extending membership to the Kingdom of Greece and the Republic of Turkey. They also agreed to establish “a Ministerial Committee composed of representatives from Belgium, Canada, Italy, the Netherlands and Norway, to consider the best means of strengthening the Atlantic Community and of implementing Article 2 of the Treaty”, which ultimately led to the Report of the Three Wise Men. Finally, the Allies signed the Civilian Staff Agreement, which lays out the foundational terms for NATO’s permanent International Staff personnel. In 1963, Prime Minister Pearson hosted the second NATO ministerial meeting in Ottawa. The delegates discussed the ongoing lessons learned from the Cuban Missile Crisis the previous fall, and approved the organisation of nuclear forces (both American Polaris submarines and British V-bombers) under the supervision of NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe. In 1974, Ottawa hosted the Council again. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau delivered a speech on the continued importance of NATO in its 25th anniversary year. Allies issued the Ottawa Declaration on Atlantic Relations, reaffirming their ongoing support for NATO and its vital role in collective security.

...we are gathered today in a building which symbolizes to all Canadians our democratic processes... There are buildings similar to this in each of our countries. Each of them serves to recall the proud heritage of democratic thought to which we all lay claim. Those buildings are more important to NATO in the long run than any array of weapons.

Pierre Trudeau,
Speaking in the Senate of Canada Ottawa, 18 June 1974

In 1983, NATO’s Nuclear Planning Group met in Montebello, Quebec (midway between Ottawa and Montreal) and released the Montebello Decision, which declared that “the policy of the Alliance is to preserve the peace through the maintenance of forces at the lowest level capable of deterring the Warsaw Pact threat”. As such, the Montebello Decision on the Reduction of Nuclear Forces announced NATO’s commitment to removing 1,400 nuclear warheads from Europe. NATO has also organised and participated in meetings in Halifax, Kananaskis, Toronto and Vancouver. Several of NATO’s Secretaries General have also delivered speeches at events across Canada, including in Montreal and Quebec City. In short, every region of Canada has played host to NATO events and meetings, some of which have resulted in significant policy statements by NATO leaders.

In addition to hosting Council and Ministerial meetings, joint military exercises were also organised in Canada with NATO Allies. NATO forces from France, Germany, Hungary, the United Kingdom and the United States learn how to fly at the Canadian Forces Flying Training School in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan; in the 1980s, Canada hosted the Rendezvous NATO exercises in Wainwright, Alberta. By virtue of its vast territory and varied terrain, Canada provides the perfect venue for joint military exercises and training.

Monitoring the Arctic skies

NORAD base control room The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) is a binational command run by Canada and the United States, which monitors the Arctic skies for incoming threats. It is not part of NATO, but is a joint contribution to Allied security. Throughout the Cold War, and continuing today, Canada’s North has hosted NORAD radar stations.


Just as Canada has welcomed troops from NATO Allied countries to North America, it has also sent thousands of Canadians to Europe and to operational theatres around the world. Since 1949, Canada has maintained a permanent representation at NATO Headquarters in Europe, following NATO as its headquarters moved from the United Kingdom to France, and from France to Belgium. During the Cold War, Canada also stationed troops at military bases across Europe, primarily in France and West Germany. The main Canadian Army base was in Lahr, West Germany and surrounding German communities. The Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) had its European headquarters in the town of Metz, France, close to the German border. The RCAF maintained air stations on either side of the border: in Grostenquin and Marville in France, and in Zweibrücken and Baden-Soellingen in West Germany.

So what did daily life look like for Canadian military and families based in Europe during the Cold War? These photos tell the story.

These Europe-based Canadian forces in action were involved in activities as diverse as participating in NATO exercises, holding election booths and competing in tank competitions.

Timeline of significant events

  • 1945: Canada emerges from the Second World War as one of the few countries with an undamaged (and, in fact, rapidly expanding) economy and large, well-equipped military.
  • 1945: Soviet spy Igor Gouzenko defects from the Soviet embassy in Ottawa and reveals that a Soviet spy ring is operating in Canada.
  • 1948: After witnessing the rise of Soviet interventionism in Central and Eastern Europe and the gridlock preventing the United Nations from acting, Canada begins preliminary talks for a transatlantic collective security alliance.
  • 1949: On 4 April, Canada becomes one of the 12 founding members of NATO.
  • 1950: Canada joins the UN-mandated force in Korea with other NATO Allies.
  • 1951: Canada stations troops in France and West Germany.
  • 1956: Canada (along with Italy and Norway) provides recommendations to reinforce the political role of the Alliance.
  • 1957: The Soviet Union launches Sputnik. The United States and Canada create NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defense Command.
  • 1963: American nuclear weapons are deployed on Canadian territory.
  • 1969: Canada’s commitment to NATO wavers; Canada reduces both its military presence in Europe and its overall defence spending.
  • 1960s/1970s: Canada further reduces and reorganises its forces stationed in Europe, while continuing to participate fully in NATO’s political dialogue and international cooperation efforts.
  • 1984: Canada removes the last of the American nuclear weapons from its territory.
  • 1993: With the end of the Cold War in 1989, Canada brings home its last troops stationed in Europe.