The DEW line is about to make a comeback. Canada and the United States are going to polish up the Distant Early Warning system, built across Alaska and northern Canada in the 1950s to warn of Soviet bombers approaching North American airspace. The two countries are said to be near agreement on a $1.35 billion plan to spruce up the network of radar stations.
It is an innocent enough job on the surface, but one Canadian member of Parliament sees a link between rebuilding arctic radar stations and President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative (sometimes dubbed the ``star wars'' defense plan).
The DEW line is out of date. According to a January report by Canada's Senate, ``hostile bombers could fly undetected into the heart of North America.''
Canada's Minister of Defense, Robert Coates, told the House of Commons in Ottawa that Canada and the US are negotiating on arctic air defense plans but building only a new radar warning system. Mr. Coates said the talks were part of Canada's membership in the North American Air Defense Command (Norad). But the opposition parties in the House of Commons were suspicious.
The foreign affairs critic of the opposition New Democratic Party, Pauline Jewett, says the rebuilding of the DEW line is not so much a defense as a Trojan horse. She thinks it involves Canada in the Strategic Defense Initiative.
``I think the inclination of the Conservative government, and of the defense minister and the prime minister in particular, is to integrate Canada more and more into US defense and economic matters,'' says Miss Jewett. ``And this integration embraces Canada's participation in the militarization of space, even including star wars.''
``Generally the NDP is opposed to the Norad agreement,'' Jewett says. The New Democratic Party is also against Canada's membership in NATO, but the party is rethinking that position in an effort to appeal to a broader range of Canadian voters.
Defense Minister Coates denies that Canada was getting involved in anything more than a defense system. ``It is a warning system, not a weapons system,'' he told the House of Commons. And to put minds at rest on any secret Canadian involvement, he read from a prepared text in the House of Commons: ``There is no current or projected Canadian plan regarding replacement of the DEW line or any other matter involving Canada in any aspect of US strategic defense initiatives.''
This week in Ottawa both Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and Minister for External Affairs Joe Clark said Canada would not participate in any way in the Strategic Defense Initiative.
The Liberal Party critic, Lloyd Axworthy, suggested that the current talks on the DEW line could lead eventually to fighter aircraft and ground-to-air missiles' being stationed in the Canadian north.
Coates would not discuss the matter in the Commons while talks were going on with the US.