Toronto — There is a fiery debate about the cruise missile in Canada, and the United States ambassador to Ottawa is fanning the flames. At issue is whether the US cruise missile should be tested at a range near Cold Lake, Alberta, over territory which resembles the Siberian tundra. Canadian politicians are divided over the issue, but the Liberal government of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau appears to be determined to test the missiles and uphold Canada's commitment to NATO.
''We'd be pretty poor partners of an alliance if we didn't do that,'' said Mr. Trudeau during a visit to Ottawa by Vice-President George Bush last week.
(Canada has been at the low end of defense spending. Of all the NATO countries, only Luxembourg spends less per capita on defense than does Canada, according to military analysts.)
A recent opinion poll showed that 52 percent of Canadians oppose the testing of the cruise missile on Canadian soil.
Perhaps because of that, Canadian politicians are nervous about the cruise issue, and in a recent newspaper poll many of them refused to answer whether they were for or against testing the cruise missile in Alberta. Out of 281 sitting members of the federal Parliament, 56 were in favor of the cruise missile testing, 42 were against it, and 183 were in the don't-know or won't-say department.
The only party totally against the cruise testing was the New Democratic Party (NDP), a mildly socialist party whose 32 MPs are all anticruise.
''Under no circumstances do I or the New Democratic Party favor warmongers who could threaten the disarmament issue,'' said Ian Wadell, an NDP member from Vancouver, British Columbia.
Last week Minister of National Defense Gilles Lamontagne reassured NDP members the cruise missiles were unarmed.
''It's not a weapon that can harm anybody, it's not dangerous,'' he told a House of Commons defense committee. The defense minister said public opposition to the tests has been based on ignorance or lack of information.
A retired Canadian Army officer, Maj. John Hasek, agreed, saying the peace movement is critical of an unarmed drone while Canadian CF-101 Voodoo aircraft carry nuclear-tipped missiles. Major Hasek says the protests only help the USSR. ''The cruise is very unpleasant for the Russians because it is such an accurate weapon,'' he notes.
The US Ambassador to Canada, Paul Robinson, has not been shy in voicing his opinion of the anticruise movement, which he characterized as well meaning but misguided.
''The protesters are totally naive, but they are not a majority,'' Mr. Robinson said. He added that any decision by Canada not to test the cruise ''would be contrary to Canada's NATO commitments.''
A Progressive-Conservative MP in favor of the tests was critical of Mr. Robinson's remarks. Former Defense Minister Allan MacKinnon noted, ''The protesters have a right to their opinion without such harsh criticism.''
The leader of the New Democratic Party, John Edward Broadbent, said it is Mr. Robinson who is misguided and naive.
In spite of the political furor, it is unlikely that the Liberal government will change its mind on the cruise testing issue. In a recent visit to Lethbridge, Alberta, Prime Minister Trudeau calmly rejected suggestions by anticruise demonstrators that Canada not go ahead with the testing. Such demonstrations are more likely to strengthen his resolve to continue with the tests.