On going concerns about Syria’s use of chemical weapons against its own civilians and Canada’s role in detecting and destroying the vast arsenal have renewed public interest in the issue of chemical warfare.However, some people might not realise that Canada itself was a major producer of chemical weapons and defoliants in the 20th century. During the First World War, chlorine and mustard gases were widely used by both opposing sides.

Later, in 1939, Canadian Nobelist Sir Frederick Banting sounded the alarm about German efforts in manufacturing chemical and biological weapons. Allied forces countered and, in 1941, British and Canadian forces began testing chemical warheads on the vast weapons range in southeastern Alberta that now constitutes Canadian Forces Base Suffield. Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States also began collaborating on weaponizing anthrax, ricin, plague and other biological agents, as well as developing defences against them. This effort took place at Suffield and at Grosse Île in the St. Lawrence river.

During the 1964–1973 Vietnam war, Canadians helped American forces test the herbicide Agent Orange, which was spread over the villages and jungles of Vietnam. Photo Credit: United Press International.

Canada renounced offensive uses of biological and chemical agents in the 1970s and set about destroying its remaining stocks, ratifying the Convention on Biological Weapons in Canada’s chemical weapons history 1972 and the Convention on Chemical Weapons (CWC) in 1995. Yet the legacy of Canada’s past chemical and biological warfare efforts is still with us today: Canada continues defensive research in these areas and therefore holds small amounts of such agents. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons regularly audits Canada’s declared holdings of chemical warfare agents to ensure compliance with the 1995 Convention. In contrast, Syria is one of a handful of nations that never ratified the CWC but was long suspected of possessing stocks of chemical weapons.

Until the mid-1970s, human experimentation involving some 3,500 volunteers had been carried out at the Experimental Station Suffield as well as at the wartime Chemical Weapons Laboratory in Ottawa to assess the effects of chemical agents as well as to develop protective measures. In a mass settlement, Canada has had to compensate every veteran volunteer who may have been exposed during the experimentation.

Meanwhile, defoliants like Agent Orange and Agent Purple were tested on the lands adjoining CFB Gagetown in New Brunswick in the late 1950s through to the mid-1980s. The military admitted to only two small test sprayings sponsored by the US military, but documents show that it sprayed millions of kilograms of defoliants, leaving tetrachlorodioxin, hexachlorobenzene and nitrosamines as nasty and persistent residues. The fight for fair compensation for the ill effects of defoliant testing continues to this day. Human experimentation and accidental exposure to biological agents did not occur although many test animals were infected and sacrificed.

No chemical agents were used during the Second World War, leaving Canada with a large stockpile at the end of the conflict. Untold quantities were simply dumped in the ocean off the Nova Scotia and British Columbia coasts. The containers and their contents may take decades or centuries to break down and their toll on the local ecosystems is unknown. Four other dumpsites are known and none has been cleaned up. Unexploded shells filled with chemical agents are still being discovered sporadically at CFB Suffield and elsewhere. The detritus of the syntheses of chemical agents and experimentation with them — mostly containers and lab waste — were simply buried in unmarked trenches that served as undocumented dumpsites. Due to a lack of funds, current efforts at safe disposal and soil remediation are stalled and the known sites are simply fenced off and left alone, although monitoring through regular soil sampling continues.

Canadian troops wearing gas masks carry a wounded soldier at the Battle of Amiens on the Western Front in 1918. Photo Credit: United Press International.

Canada’s past secretive activities have naturally elicited public suspicion over more recent activities. Concerned citizens and groups like Canadian Voice of Women for Peace and Science for Peace demanded to know Canada’s position in the realm of chemical and biological warfare. The former minister of defence Perrin Beattie commissioned an in-depth examination by Canadian diplomat William Barton, resulting in the Barton Report of 1988. One of its recommendations was the creation of a group of civilian scientists to provide oversight of military activities in the area of biological and chemical weapons. In 1990, the succeeding minister, Bill McKnight, took action and the Biological and Chemical Defence Review Committee (BCDRC) was born. Comprising a toxicologist, a microbiologist and a chemist nominated by their respective professional societies, plus an executive officer, the BCDRC annually inspects Department of National Defence Canada research laboratories, training facilities and other sites, meets with personnel overseeing such activities and issues public reports and recommendations that it posts on its website.

Aside from fulfilling its primary mandate of ensuring that Canada is maintaining a strictly defensive posture, the BCDRC’s recommendations also deal with human and environmental safety in the testing and disposal of chemical agents, as well as in the training of soldiers and first-responders to detect and deal with attacks involving these agents.