‘Defence Against Help’ Revisiting a Primary Justification for Canadian Participation in Continental Defence with the United States


  • Whitney Lackenbauer Trent University


Any conceptual framework for Canadian policy had to recognize the interdependent nature of North American security, whereby the United States’ safety was dependent on Canadian territory and airspace. In its classic incarnation, the concept of defence against help thus represents a trilateral equation, consisting of an external threat (or threatening context), a smaller state (the security of which is inextricably linked to the perceived security of a larger neighbour), and the neighbouring larger power itself. The equation incorporates how the threat relates to the larger state, and how the smaller state plays (or does not play) an intermediary role in the threat relationship between the threatening context and the larger state. Canada’s alignment to the United States did not detract from the value of the concept to its decision-making; it bolstered it. A smaller state can invoke the strategy of defence against help in two ways: unilaterally (with or without coordination with the larger state), or conjointly with the larger state.

Does defence against help continue to represent a workable, basic decision-making strategy for Canada to ensure continental defence in the 21st century? Building upon observations that I initially drew in a 2000 working paper, I maintain that the concept no longer represents an attractive or viable justification for core Canadian strategic decision-making. Rather than conceptualizing United States continental defence priorities as a threat to Canada’s sovereignty (as it is conventionally defined in military and diplomatic circles) owing to potential territorial encroachment to protect the American heartland, cost-benefit analysis of Canadian options should focus on the benefits that Canada derives from its bilateral and binational defence partnership. Instead (and in contrast to some recent commentators), I suggest that the driving strategic consideration since the late 1980s has been less about defence against help than about the need for Canada to contribute meaningfully to bilateral defence in order to stay in the game and secure a piece of the action.

Author Biography

Whitney Lackenbauer, Trent University

P. (Paul) Whitney Lackenbauer (pronouns he/him) is Canada Research Chair (Tier 1) in the Study of the Canadian North and Professor in the School for the Study of Canada at Trent University. He is Honorary Lieutenant-Colonel of 1st Canadian Ranger Patrol Group based in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories. He is also a Fellow with the Bill Graham Centre for Contemporary History at the University of Toronto; the Arctic Institute of North America; the Centre for Military, Security and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary; and an adjunct professor with the Brian Mulroney Institute for Government at St. Francis Xavier University. Whitney specializes in Arctic security, sovereignty and governance issues, modern Canadian military and diplomatic history, and Indigenous-state relations.