While the Trudeau government scrambles to save Canadian lives in the face of a killer virus, it has moved to enable death-dealing arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

Never has the government been more vocal with its human rights rhetoric. Never has the willingness to arm human rights violators been as real.

Once, Canada imposed arms embargoes against systematic human rights violators. Justin Trudeau’s government, like Stephen Harper’s, has turned its back on that policy, all the while proclaiming itself to be a voice for international human rights.

While the public was focused on staying safe and on “caremongering,” and on the eve of a long weekend, foreign minister Francois-Philippe Champagne announced on April 9 that Canada would resume military exports to Saudi Arabia, ending a short suspension imposed by his predecessor, Chrystia Freeland.

Justin Trudeau’s government has found a way to toot its own horn about human rights while slipping the tools of death to the Saudi government.

Canadian rhetoric has been strong. Justin Trudeau said he was looking for a “way out” of Harper’s contract to sell light armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia. Stéphane Dion, his first foreign minister, vowed to be “more vigilant than ever about human rights.” Freeland echoed that and introduced a new “feminist” foreign policy.

Canada claims to be guided by a “rigorous” policy on arms sales. The two key conditions revolve around whether a country is at war or could use the weapons against its own civilian population. Saudi Arabia is engaged in a vicious, if little-known, war in Yemen. It routinely violates human rights within its borders, as well as exports the most negative forms of its misogynist religion to other countries in ways that have promoted terrorism in Southeast Asia and beyond.

Yet, excluding the U.S., it remains Canada’s top overseas market for military goods, with sales at $1.282 billion in 2018. Despite reports that Saudi Arabia has used Canadian-made light armoured vehicles, and despite the efforts of multiple human rights groups and the opinion of the majority of the Canadian public, an internal Global Affairs Canada document argued that Canada should resume arms exports to Saudi Arabia because “officials found no credible evidence linking Canadian exports of military equipment or other controlled items to any human rights or humanitarian law violations committed by the Saudi government.”

The burden of proof has shifted. Where Canadian rhetoric highlights the risk that Canadian arms might be used in conflict or to violate human rights, actual government policy now requires proof that weapons are being used in those ways.

It’s as if our court system changed from requiring the prosecution to prove the accused guilty beyond a reasonable doubt into forcing the accused to prove their innocence.

It wasn’t always like this. For many years, Canada was willing to slap arms embargoes on severe human rights violators. Today, Canadian policy is much more willing to wink at human rights violations than it was during the tenures of Mackenzie King, Pierre Trudeau, or Brian Mulroney.

Canadian policy was to stay out and arm neither side, in hopes of cooling the conflict.

In the wake of the Second World War, Canada debated whether it should sell arms at all. It finally decided to do so, but on highly restrictive terms. The policy required that “great care should be taken with respect to all sales of weapons and supplies of war to foreign governments.” More importantly, policy was backed up with action. King’s government refused to arm even close allies if there was the slightest risk that the arms “might be used in civil warfare.”

Not “will” be used, but “might be used.” Even a small risk meant no sale.

So as the Republic of China fought for survival against Chinese communists, King’s cabinet refused to approve a potentially lucrative sale of frigates to the Republic of China. The Republic lost its civil war, fled to the island of Taiwan, and gave way to Mao Zedong’s People’s Republic of China. Canadian policy was to stay out and arm neither side, in hopes of cooling the conflict.

The same policy applied when Canada’s close ally, the Netherlands, was fighting at war in its East Indies colonies. When the Dutch tried to buy machine guns, the Canadian Department of External Affairs (as it was then called) judged that they “would undoubtedly be employed in ‘pacification’ of the native population.” There was no requirement to show that Canadian-made arms were being used. No sale would happen even if they would be used. Dutch assurances that they would not be — today’s “end use” concept — made no difference.

Similarly, when South Africa came under growing criticism over its apartheid system of structural racism, Canada embargoed military exports. In 1960, soldiers of the apartheid regime opened fire on a crowd of protesters in Sharpeville, killing 69. After the massacre, more and more voices called for an arms embargo on human rights grounds. Pierre Trudeau’s cabinet finally heeded those voices, deciding that sales of military “vehicles and equipment and the supply of spare parts” to the South African armed forces was henceforth “prohibited.”

This same government actually loosened earlier limits on exporting weapons and started to export more arms globally, though the responsibility fell to ministers rather than the prime minister. Still, as it started to debate a new arms export policy, it was reluctant to sell arms too widely. Pierre Trudeau himself was “in favour of banning the sale of lethal arms to areas of potential and actual conflict.” Even potential conflict was enough to ban sales.

In 1991, soldiers of the Indonesian military dictatorship carried out their own massacre, firing on protesters in occupied East Timor, at the cost of some 250 lives. Brian Mulroney’s Conservative government almost immediately imposed an arms embargo, citing human rights concerns. No Canadian weapons were used, but foreign minister Barbara McDougall wanted to send a message: Canada would not arm the authors of this massacre.

The longer we talk about arms export controls, the weaker they get.

Arms sales to that regime resumed only under Jean Chrétien’s Liberals, who merrily issued arms export permits worth up to $373 million a year, all the while talking a great game about their concern for human rights. (To his credit, foreign minister Lloyd Axworthy finally did impose an arms embargo in 1999 and helped ensure East Timor regained its independence, a story I recount in a new book on Canada and East Timor.)

The arms embargoes imposed under Mackenzie King, Pierre Trudeau and Brian Mulroney focused on actions — no sales would be allowed if the customer might use them to violate human rights or in war.

In the past quarter-century, that story has shifted. Under Jean Chrétien, Stephen Harper and Justin Trudeau, Canadians and the world have been treated to vast volumes of rhetoric about how much Canada promotes human rights. But arms sales to human rights violators continue.

Canada’s arms export policy once rejected sales if the arms “might” be used. Then it shifted to no sales if there was a “reasonable risk” that arms might be used. Now the requirement is “substantial risk.” The longer we talk about arms export controls, the weaker they get.

By any reasonable yardstick, Canada is more willing than ever to arm human rights violators, even while our government talks more than ever about human rights. The gap between rhetoric and reality is big enough to drive a whole fleet of light armoured vehicles through.

In seeking a “way out” of arming Saudi Arabia, Justin Trudeau’s government has found a way to toot its own horn about human rights while slipping the tools of death to the Saudi government.

They’re rejoicing in Riyadh. Canada, meanwhile, looks like a liar on the global stage.

David Webster is a historian at Bishop’s University and author of Challenge the Strong Wind: Canada and East Timor, 1975–99.