In late 2017, the government of Canada added Ukraine to the Automatic Firearm Country Control List (AFCCL) – a motley collection of 40 states to whom Canadian weapons producers can legally export automatic firearms. This decision was made in the fourth year of an increasingly entrenched conflict in Ukraine’s Donbass region between separatist forces, Russian forces posing as irregulars, and Ukrainian government forces, which, so far, has resulted in more than 25,000 casualties and 10,000 dead.[1]Many Canadians stand behind their government’s decision to potentially arm Ukraine against Russian aggression, but others question the wisdom of infusing new firearms into a region already saturated with Soviet-era weapons.

What motivated the Canadian decision to add Ukraine to the AFCCL? In the words of an official Canadian government statement, the opportunity to support this conflict through the transfer of automatic weapons “builds on the bilateral relationship between Canada and the Ukraine,” while creating “potential new market opportunities for Canadian manufacturers and exporters.”[2]

The first goal is commendable. Canada should stand firm against aggressive Russian action in the region, the annexation of the Crimea, and the continual violations of the 2015 Minsk II agreement. Yet it is difficult to understand how the goal of Ukrainian autonomy can be achieved through the transfer of Canadian automatic weapons to the area, or how the addition of Ukraine to the AFCCL is consistent with Canadian military export policy. The Canadian government has been tight-lipped since the AFCCL amendment – Global Affairs Canada has refused to discuss whether any export permit applications for the transfer of automatic firearms to the Ukraine have been received or approved – yet the implication is that such transfers are in the works.[3]After all, Canada has 200 Armed Forces personnel currently deployed on Operation UNIFIER in Ukraine, has donated nearly $700 million in non-lethal assistance since 2014, and the Department of Defence (DND) is allegedly considering building a joint Canadian-Ukrainian ammunition plant in country.[4]

The second goal is less noble. While Ukraine has not been a significant recipient of military goods in recent years (under $200,000 per year since 2014), the Canadian government seems to consider the conflict-wracked state a ripe market for penetration. Although Canada’s military export guidelines argue that Canada closely controls military exports to countries that are involved in hostilities or whose government have a persistent record of human rights violations, the combination of these two factors has not deterred a Canadian push towards military transfers.

Additionally, hand-held automatic firearms, or Small Arms and Light Weapons (SALWs) are globally acknowledged as extremely difficult to track and control, especially given the ease with which they can be diverted onto the black market. Since 2014, Ukraine has become a “hotbed of illicit weapons proliferation,” as evidenced by the routine discovery of caches of SALWs around the country.[5]Rampant corruption within the Ukrainian government and military (Transparency International rates the Ukraine as 130thout of 180 countries on its Corruption Perceptions Index)[6]also increases the probability that Canadian weapons, or the guns they are replacing, will be diverted to non-state actors.

Exposing the Automatic Firearm Country Control List

The AFCCL has been a problematic instrument of Canadian policy since its creation in 1991 under Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. Prior to the passage of Conservative-sponsored Bill C-6, which created the AFCCL, the Canadian Criminal Code prohibited the possession of automatic firearms by all groups or individuals other than Canadian military and police forces, effectively eliminating the possibility of private export of Canadian-made weapons.  Bill C-6 amended the Criminal Code and the Export and Import Permits Act, to allow for the direct export of automatic weapons to countries on a specific list, ostensibly only NATO members and close allies.

The timing of this amendment was infamously poor. In August 1990 Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had invaded Kuwait, setting in motion a chain of events culminating in a US-led coalition invading Iraq in January 1991. Although the Iraqi Army was easily defeated by coalition forces, many western contingents were placed in the novel position of being fired upon by the very weapons they had sold to Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988). Following the end of hostilities, Mulroney had lectured American President George Bush Sr. on US contributions to the arms trade, and propose an arms transfer control initiative which specifically targeted sales to the Middle East.

Bill C-6 was introduced only months later, and it quickly became clear in Parliamentary debate that the immediate point of the AFCCL, far from improving Canadian export controls, was to facilitate exactly the sort of arms shipment that Mulroney had just spent months condemning. Multi-year efforts by Foreign Minister Joe Clark to arrange the sale of more than a thousand Light Armoured Vehicles (LAVs) from a GM Diesel factory in London, Ontario to Saudi Arabia had finally born fruit, and the government was desperate to close the deal.[7]Since some of the LAVs were to be shipped with attached automatic weapons, an amendment to Canadian export policy was a necessary prerequisite. In the words of Trade Minister Michael Wilson to the 1991 Legislative Committee on Bill C-6:

“Both Diemaco and General Motors Diesel Division need to export to survive. However, they are excluded from exporting their key products, which are automatic firearms and light armoured vehicles equipped with automatic firearms, by an anomaly of the 1977 amendment to the Criminal Code of Canada…With removal of the anomaly and with provision for tight controls of exports of automatic weapons, Diemaco and GM Production facilities will have a better chance of remaining economically viable. At stake are 150 jobs in Kitchener and 700 jobs in London, plus further benefits, including jobs of subcontractors and suppliers across Canada.”[8]

Obviously, Saudi Arabia’s presence on the AFCCL, even in 1991, was an economic rather than a security consideration. Of the 13 countries on the list, only three (Saudi Arabia, Sweden, and Australia) were non-NATO, and only one (Saudi Arabia) was a non-OECD nation. This was possible because the only criteria for inclusion on the AFCCL was (and still is)“an intergovernmental defence, research, development and production arrangement”[9]with Canada. Often these arrangements are established only shortly before the addition of the country to the AFCCL, often to facilitate a large contract, as was shown by the addition of Ukraine last year.

The AFCCL was originally envisioned as a convenient solution to an immediate dilemma: the need to create a loophole in Canadian law to allow the export of weapons into the aftermath of a war in the Middle East. Since 1991, it has continued to expand, still largely in response to economic interests, to include Colombia, Israel, and Peru, among others. While the governments likes to include NATO and AFCCL countries in the same breadth in its annual Military Export Reports, and while all current NATO countries (except Montenegro) are AFCCL countries, the two are not synonymous. While Wilson may have claimed in 1991 that the AFCCL would be populated by close allies and strategic partners, it has become a convenient list of current and potential customers for Canadian automatic weapons. The government has been steadily widening its loophole ever since as new sales opportunities become apparent.

Expanding the Club

In 1991 the AFCCL included 13 countries. Today, it includes 40, with several more (Japan and Mexico) under consideration.[10]The expansion of the list has progressed in an ad hoc manner as export opportunities have become available, and political opportunities developed. Between 1991 and 2008 only seven countries were added to the list, yet in 2008 Stephen Harper’s Conservatives added the then-eleven remaining NATO countries at once. Colombia was added in 2013, Chile and Peru in 2014, and Israel and Kuwait in 2015, among others. Since no procedure exists for removing countries from the list, it is likely the AFCCL will only continue to grow, further diluting whatever restrictive purpose it once served in limited the Canadian export of automatic weapons.

That is not to say that all proposed additions make it onto the AFCCL, even though there are no obvious criteria beyond the presence of a defence agreement. In 2012 the Canadian government began the practice of eliciting submissions on AFCCL candidates while considering the addition of Austria, India, Ireland, Kuwait, and Switzerland, a practice that has continued ever since. Only Kuwait was eventually added.

In recent years, the addition of countries to the AFCCL has been generally followed by a substantial transfer of arms. In 2013, Colombia joined the AFCCL club in early January, and a deal to export 24 LAVs worth $65.3 million from General Dynamics Land Systems (the new iteration of GM Diesel’s former London division) was announced a day later, despite a continuing armed conflict in the country.[11]Later in 2013, the government considered pushing for Chile, Peru, Brazil, and South Korea to be added to the AFCCL, although only the first two were eventually added in 2014. The Peruvian armed forces promptly ordered 32 LAVs from General Dynamics, to be delivered starting the following year.[12]

As the AFCCL expands, its main benefit, its exclusivity, becomes increasingly diluted. Additionally, because no mechanism exists for removing AFCCL countries, deteriorating human rights or conflict situations have had little impact upon AFCCL membership. Any number of countries on the list were added despite the presence of serious regional or civil conflict, and despite egregious human rights violations in the recent past or present.

In the case of Ukraine’s addition to the AFCCL, the Canadian government countered these concerns by arguing that AFCCL membership does not eliminate the necessity of export permit applications being evaluated on a case-by-case basis in accordance with Canada’s military export restrictions. Yet, since this case-by-case evaluation has been notoriously unsuccessful at preventing the 2014 deal to sell LAVs to Saudi Arabia,[13]among other transfers, the government’s logic remains uncompelling. As well, since the addition of a country to the AFCCL often seems tied to the pursuit of a specific military export contract, it seems unlikely that the permit application would be denied after the country has been added to the list.

AFCCL Countries

AFCCL Countries by Year


Over the years, concerns over the nature of the AFCCL have led to the proposal of a number of potential improvements to the current export control regime:

  1. First and most important, the AFCCL should be expanded to include all complete weapons systems, not just automatic ones. This change would provide clear and categorical information about which countries Canada can and cannot sell weapons to, clarity that has long been missing from Canadian military export guidelines.
  2. Candidacy for the AFCCL should require more than an intergovernmental defence arrangement. Criteria such as the risk of weapon diversion, a state’s human rights record and cooperation with UN Security Council embargoes, as well as Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) membership, should all be considered. The current system, in which the potential for sales tends to outweigh the potential risks, needs to change.
  3. The AFCCL should be subject to ongoing review, and a mechanism created to allow the removal of states from the list. It does not make sense that all states added to the list in the last 30 years are kept unquestioningly, with no attention given to changing security or stability environments within those states.
  4. The AFCCL does not prevent transfers of automatic weapons from DND to states not on the list. For example, in 2008, DND gifted 2,500 Canadian-built surplus C7 automatic rifles to the Afghanistan National Army.[14]In 2016, the government initiated a plan to arm Kurdish forces against ISIL with weapons including .50-calibre sniper rifles equipped with silencers, 60mm mortars, anti-tank systems, grenade launchers, and automatic weapons.[15]Although that transfer has since been frozen by Iraqi hesitancy to allow weapons transfers to the Kurds, the weapons (currently languishing in warehouses in Montreal and Jordan) might instead end up in the Ukraine.[16]Technically, the Canadian government doesn’t need to consider the AFCCL for any of these transactions, a loophole that should be closed.
  5. The root incentive for Canadian exports of automatic weapons is economic. The DND’s procurement alone cannot keep Canadian weapons producers in business, and therefore weapons exports are a way of subsidizing the cost of keeping those companies in Canada. The AFCCL began as an act of economic extortion – predicated on threats from GM Diesel and Diemaco to potentially slash production or relocate if sufficient markets were not found for their weapons systems. In the words of disarmament export John Lamb to the Bill C-6 Subcommittee in 1991: “You could come back to me in three years, once the Saudi sale has been completed, and say that Diemaco is now saying it will close down if it doesn’t clear a sale to Indonesia. This situation becomes endless unless the government and the company take concrete steps at some point to get into diversification.”

Lamb is still right. In the long-term, increasing the general transparency and responsibility of the AFCCL will require that major Canadian military producers no longer depend for survival upon finding export contracts for their specific weapons system, wherever those contracts may be.

The Numbers Don’t Add Up

ECL 21 Exports by year

Canadian exports of semi-automatic and fully automatic firearms are categorized under section 2-1 and 2-2 of the Export Control List (ECL), which is a compilation of all controlled Canadian exports from grenades to softwood lumber. Category 2 (Munitions) of the ECL covers most conventional weapons, military systems, and related equipment, while section 2-1 specifically relates to semi-automatic and automatic weapons with calibres less than 12.7mm and specifically designed components. Section 2-2 concerns weapons with larger calibres, while ammunition for SALWs as well as larger weapons is covered under section 2-3.

Canadian exports of SALWS has generally risen in the last 10 years, with an alleged boom in 2013. This statistical outlier was caused by significant transfers categorized under section 2-1 to Austria ($81,258,318), Germany ($15,977,469), and the UK ($14,069,222) in 2013.[17]Yet what 2013 transfers really show is one of the most frustrating aspects of Canada’s current military export reporting by ECL category – namely, the numbers in recent years don’t correspond to reality.

For example, the $81 million 2-1 transfer to Austria in 2013 is remarkable not only for its size, but because of its opacity. According to the 2012-2013 Report on the Export of Military Goods from Canada, military goods transferred to Austria equalled $84,644,172 total in 2013. Yet, the same report maintains that Canada transferred between $81 and $84 million to each of four different ECL sections (2-1, 2-2, 2-5, 2-6) during the year. This is an example of double counting, when the same transfer is reported across multiple ECL sections. Even worse, since 2-1 and 2-2 correspond to classifications of weapons that are mutually exclusive, it is likely that the Canadian government was not itself sure what specific value within the $84 million total could be attributed to each category, instead splitting the difference by attributing it to both. Since this ambiguity is repeated in the 2013 transfers to Germany and the UK, almost the entirety of the value of Canada’s section 2-1 transfers in 2013 is up for debate.

This kind of variability makes a graph tracking Canadian military exports by ECL section, such as the one above, almost worthless, perhaps worse than worthless, since it creates a misleading impression of Canadian exports. This has been a common complaint since the government began the practice of double-counting on military export reports in the mid-2000s.


  1. Values form ECL section 2-1 transfers were taken from the Project Ploughshares Canadian Military Industrial Producers Database for the four year period up to and including 1993, then from the annual export reports for every year thereafter.
  2. All values for 2013 transfers are in 2017 Canadian dollars
  3. A more accurate total for Canadian SALW transfers would include some ammunition categorized under ECL section 2-3, but since only certain annual reports break down ammunition transfers by type, this information cannot be reliably tracked since the beginning of the AFCCL in 1991.
  4. ECL section 2-1 covers all SALWs, not just the automatic weapons controlled by Canada’s AFCCL. While all automatic SALWs are covered by section 2-1, not all weapons categorized under section 2-1 are automatic.







[7]Of secondary consideration was a potential deal to sell automatic rifles made by Diemaco Inc. (also in Kitchener) to the Netherlands.

[8]”Minutes of Proceedings and Evidence of Legislative Committee E on Bill C-6: An

Act Respecting the Exporting, Importing, Manufacturing, Buying or Selling of or Other

Dealing with Certain Weapons.”









[17]All values given are in 2017 Canadian dollars.

I'm a graduate student at Laurier University in Ontario. I used to be a journalist, and I moonlight as a writer / tennis player / LOTR nerd.

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