(Disponible en français : Le Canada et l’OTAN – 70 ans de participation)
On 30 April 1949, the Government of Canada ratified the North Atlantic Treaty, becoming one of the 12 founding members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). A political, military and economic alliance, NATO has been a central pillar of Canada’s international security policy for the past 70 years.
Over time, NATO has expanded its membership to include 29 countries, and has taken on new missions and priorities. However, its raison d’être – collective defence to safeguard the core shared values of “individual liberty, democracy, human rights and the rule of law” – remains.
Canada continues to be committed to these founding values and has participated in nearly every NATO mission, deploying thousands of Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) personnel in support of NATO’s operations around the world.
The 70th anniversary of the North Atlantic Treaty’s ratification provides an occasion to review Canada’s involvement in NATO since its founding.
NATO’s Origins and Canada’s Early Role
Following the end of the Second World War, governments in Western Europe, Canada and the United States recognized the need for a common front against expansion of the Soviet Union’s influence in Europe. This realization prompted negotiations that resulted in the North Atlantic Treaty.
Led by Prime Minister Louis Saint Laurent, the Government of Canada was committed to the principle of collective defence: like-minded states should commit to defending each other against outside aggression in order to deter an attack.
“We in Canada also recognize that there is neither peace nor security for Canada if Western Europe, quite as much as any part of this hemisphere, is in danger.”
The Right Honourable Louis St. Laurent, Prime Minister of Canada, 28 March 1949
During debates in the House of Commons about Canada’s ratification of the treaty, the leaders of the two largest opposition parties – George Drew, Leader of the Official Opposition, and M.J. Coldwell, Leader of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation – indicated their parties’ support for the North Atlantic Treaty.
“The purpose of this pact is to adopt practical measures which will hold high that torch which has been passed on to us by those who have paid the full and final price of freedom. By our vote here today let us tell the world that the people of Canada will follow that bright torch through the years ahead with faith, with courage and the hope of peace and freedom for all mankind.”
George A. Drew, Leader of the Official Opposition, 28 March 1949
“By agreeing to a satisfactory regional security pact we have at least a chance of influencing the course of events and maintaining our national independence. Isolation would deny the one and jeopardize the other.”
M. J. Coldwell, Leader of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, 28 March 1949
Notably, Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty requires each NATO country to treat an attack against another NATO country as if it were an attack against the alliance as a whole.
During treaty negotiations, Lester B. Pearson – Canada’s then-Secretary of State for External Affairs – successfully advocated for the inclusion of Article 2, the so-called “Canada Article,” which encourages economic cooperation among NATO countries. In speaking in the House of Commons, Secretary of State Pearson explained that both common defence and economic cooperation are essential in order to “remove the economic and political causes of war.”
Canada, NATO and the Cold War
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, NATO countries faced a series of crises that led to increased tensions between NATO and the Soviet Union. These events included the Korean War, the Suez Canal crisis, the Soviet Union’s invasion of Hungary, the Soviet Union’s successful launch of the Sputnik satellite, and the Cuban missile crisis. With both NATO countries and the Soviet Union increasing their stockpiles of nuclear weapons, these and later crises could have escalated into global conflict.
As part of its contribution to NATO during the Cold War, Canada maintained a strong military presence in Europe. As the House of Commons Standing Committee on National Defence noted in its June 2018 report, more than 100,000 Canadian military personnel served in Europe between 1951 and 1993.
Throughout the Cold War period, and in addition to regular participation in military exercises, Canada made significant contributions to NATO’s naval efforts. At the peak of its contribution in the late 1950s, the Royal Canadian Navy had designated more than 40 warships for NATO duties in the North Atlantic, with more ships on standby in the event of a crisis.
Canada and NATO’s Crisis Management and Counterterrorism Focus
The collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s forced NATO to re-evaluate its core mission and objectives in an effort to respond to a changing global security environment. For example, new and complex security challenges emerged in 1992, when violent conflicts broke out along NATO’s southeastern border in the former Yugoslavia, propelling NATO into its new crisis management role.
Canada’s commitments adapted as NATO evolved. While Canada eliminated its permanent military deployment to Europe in 1993, it contributed to United Nations (UN) and NATO-led peacekeeping operations. Between 1992 and 2004, about 40,000 Canadian military personnel served on peace support operations in the Balkan region, with 23 individuals losing their life during these missions.
The 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States resulted in a major change in the international security environment. For the first time in its history, NATO invoked Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty and launched an operation outside the Euro-Atlantic area in the fight against terrorism.
In particular, NATO led the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2014. During this mission, more than 40,000 CAF personnel were deployed to the country, and 158 of them lost their life. Additionally, in 2011, Canadian Lieutenant General Charles Bouchard led NATO’s air campaign to enforce the no-fly zone in Libya in an effort to help prevent attacks against civilians.
Source: House of Commons, Standing Committee on National Defence, Canada and NATO: An Alliance Forged in Strength and Reliability, Tenth Report, 1st Session, 42nd Parliament, June 2018, p. 113.
Canada and NATO in the Modern Security Environment
Today, NATO continues to focus on three core tasks: countering terrorism; managing crises; and working through cooperative security.
However, Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its continued support for separatist militants in eastern Ukraine have brought renewed attention to NATO’s eastern flank.
Canada has supported NATO’s assurance and deterrence measures, deploying more than 1,000 CAF personnel to Eastern and Central Europe under Operation REASSURANCE. As well, since 2017, Canada has led a battlegroup in Latvia as part of NATO’s enhanced Forward Presence, helping to reinforce collective defence in the region.
Canada is also actively involved in advancing the UN’s Women, Peace and Security agenda at NATO. In addition to encouraging gender equality throughout doctrines, programs and operations, Canada is the top financial contributor to NATO’s Women, Peace and Security office. Clare Hutchinson, a Canadian, is the first Special Representative of the NATO Secretary General on Women, Peace and Security.
While NATO’s operations and membership have changed substantially since 1949, Canada has continually played a key role in NATO’s missions and programs. As recently stated by the Government of Canada, the country encourages NATO to remain “modern, flexible, agile and able to face current and future threats.” In an increasingly uncertain global context, NATO is likely to remain an important pillar of Canada’s approach to international security.
1949: North Atlantic Treaty Organization, “Canada and NATO”
1963: North Atlantic Treaty Organization, “Canada and NATO”
1974: North Atlantic Treaty Organization, “Canada and NATO”
1993: North Atlantic Treaty Organization, “Canada and NATO”
2014–2019: National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces, “Operation REASSURANCE: enhanced Forward Presence (eFP)”
House of Commons, Standing Committee on National Defence, Canada and NATO: An Alliance Forged in Strength and Reliability, Tenth Report, 1stSession, 42nd Parliament, June 2018,
Sivan Ghasem, “What has Canada Contributed to NATO?” NATO Association of Canada, 27 November 2018.
Joseph T. Jockel and Joel J. Sokolsky, “Canada and NATO: Keeping Ottawa in, expenses down, criticism out…and the country secure,” International Journal, vol. 64, no. 2, Spring 2009.
Dean F. Oliver, “Canada and NATO – Dispatches: Backgrounders in Canadian Military History,” Canadian War Museum.
Katherine Simonds, “NATO in a New Era: Selected Outcomes from the 2018 NATO Brussels Summit,” Library of Parliament, HillNote, 14 November 2018.
Erika Simpson, “Canada’s NATO Commitments during the Cold War,” Political Science Publications, University of Western Ontario, 2000.
Melissa Radford, “Canada and NATO: Key Outcomes from the Warsaw Summit,” Library of Parliament, HillNote, 26 September 2016.
Author: Ariel Shapiro, Library of Parliament