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Countering the Proliferation of Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Weapons, their Precursors, and Dual-Use Sensitive Technology and Knowledge

What is Counter-proliferation?

Counter-proliferation generally refers to the principle of preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) as well as the items and materials that can aid in their development. Our counter-proliferation community defines “counter-proliferation” as: The efforts undertaken by the Government of Canada to detect, investigate, prevent, deter and disrupt activities and transactions in or through Canada involving the illicit acquisition, export or diversion of goods, technology or knowledge relevant to the development of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons (“weapons of mass destruction”, or WMD), their delivery systems, dual-use items of concern, and sensitive defence technologies, including space technology, which could constitute a threat to Canada and its allies.

What does Canada do?

The Government of Canada uses a range of tools and policies to address the diversity of proliferation threats. Canada's Controlled Goods Program regulates goods within Canada, including technical data that have military or national security significance. Canada then has export and border controls to ensure that goods leaving the country do so lawfully and are not sent to countries or entities which would misuse them, thus preventing them from becoming a threat to our national security and the security of our allies. Law enforcement also plays an important role in countering proliferation through the investigation of proliferation-related criminal activity or when someone tries to get around these controls. In addition, Canada actively supports a number of allied partnership and international initiatives to improve global counter-proliferation cooperation and to build resilience to prevent the proliferation of WMD and the illicit acquisition of other items of proliferation concern.

What does Public Safety do?

Public Safety plays a lead role in coordinating the policy work of the federal counter-proliferation community in order to identify and address potential gaps in Canada's counter-proliferation regime. The Department also works closely with three Public Safety portfolio agencies: the CBSA, CSIS and the RCMP. In addition, Public Safety, in coordination with federal partners, engages in awareness and outreach activities such as Safeguarding Science.

The Proliferation Threat

Proliferation is evolving in ways we have never seen before. People, goods, and money flow quickly and easily around the globe thanks to modern transportation, trade, financial networks, and the Internet. Technology is rapidly advancing in areas such as encryption and cryptocurrency, which can be used to hide illicit activities from authorities. As well, many goods and technologies – including everyday items – have the potential to be used or modified to produce weapons and military items. These are called “dual-use items of proliferation concern,” and their illicit acquisition and potential misuse is an important concern to the Government of Canada.

Many states and non-state actors, including terrorist organizations, continue to actively seek the materials, means, and know-how to advance their aspirations for Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) and to otherwise improve their military capabilities. In response, Canada, along with our allies and partners, is involved in a number of international initiatives and activities to build global resilience to prevent WMD proliferation and the acquisition of items of proliferation concern that could threaten our security. This includes enhancing the security of chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) materials and the sites that house them around the globe, collectively reducing the threat posed by WMD terrorism, and building the capacity of at-risk states to carry out counter-proliferation activities.

Despite concerted international efforts aimed at restricting the spread of WMD, sensitive defence technologies, and items of proliferation concern, challenges remain.

Definitions of proliferation threats of concerns

Chemical Weapons
These weapons encompass any of the following: a toxic chemical or its precursors; a munition specifically designed to deliver a toxic chemical; or, any equipment specifically designed for use with toxic chemicals or munitions. Toxic chemical agents are gaseous, liquid, or solid chemical substances that use their toxic properties to cause death or severe harm. Chemical weapons include blister, nerve, choking, and blood agents, as well as non-lethal incapacitating agents and riot-control agents when deliberately used to harm people.
Biological Weapons
Weapons that derive their primary destructive effects from living organisms or materials that intentionally cause disease or harm in humans, animals, or plants, or cause deterioration of living material. Biological agents such as bacteria, viruses, parasites, fungi, prions, or toxins can be turned into weapons delivered as liquid droplets, aerosols, or dry powders.
Radiological Weapons
Commonly known as “dirty bombs”, these weapons use conventional explosives or other means to spread radioactive material which may lead to short- and long-term health problems for an affected population and severely radioactive-contaminated areas. Radiological weapons do not require nuclear weapon materials, only radioactive substance of sufficient potency to achieve their desired effect.
Nuclear Weapons
While there are different types of nuclear weapons, all employ a nuclear fission or fusion reaction for its explosive power. Most nuclear weapons today are two-stage thermonuclear weapons that derive their explosive energy from the combined power of nuclear fission and fusion. That is, an initial fission reaction generates high temperatures needed to trigger a secondary – and much more powerful – fusion reaction, hence the term “thermonuclear”.
Dual-Use Items of Proliferation Concern
Goods and technology that are capable of, or designed for use in, peaceful and legitimate civilian or commercial purposes, but which also have potential applicability in such activities as enhancing the capabilities of foreign adversaries, including their space capabilities, in relation to the development or enhancement of weapons programs, including weapons of mass destruction.

Canada’s Counter-Proliferation Regime

Canada's international commitments

In response to the global threat of proliferation, Canada is signatory to four key treaties and conventions, which aim to prevent and combat the proliferation of weapons. To implement these conventions and treaties, Canada is also member of the four multilateral export control regimes, all of which are outlined below.

Canada's domestic programs

The Controlled Goods Program

The Controlled Goods Program administers the Controlled Goods Regulations and the Controlled Goods List found in the Defence Production Act. It is responsible for the registration and, as applicable, exemption of any person who intends to possess, examine, or transfer controlled goods in Canada. The Program's scope covers a wide array of activities, ranging from security assessment of key individuals, and training and certification, to compliance inspection and enforcement.

Export Controls

The principle objective of export controls is to ensure that exports of certain goods and technology are consistent with Canada's foreign and defence policies. Canada participates in several international regimes that regularly review and publish updated lists of controlled items for export. Canada's Export Control List (ECL) is updated annually to reflect changes agreed by the regimes. In addition to the ECL, items and technologies that are especially designed or prepared for nuclear use or are considered nuclear related dual use require an export licence from the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission pursuant to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Import and Export Control Regulations.

Canada also maintains a list of countries called the Area Control List (ACL), to which any Canadian exports – regardless of whether they are on the ECL or not – require a permit.


Global Affairs Canada implements sanctions pursuant to the United Nations Act, or on a national (autonomous) basis under the Special Economic Measures Act (SEMA). Such sanctions are targeted on specific countries, organizations, or individuals. Sanctions are used to restrict or prohibit trade and other economic activity, as well as the possible seizure or freezing of assets and property on Canadian soil. Sanctions can vary and can encompass a variety of measures, including arms embargos and prohibitions on technical assistance (e.g. training) in specific sectors and financial transactions.

Border Controls

Canada has a responsibility to ensure that goods entering the global market from this country do not pose a threat to our national security and the security of our allies. The Customs Act establishes reporting requirements for the export of goods from Canada and gives Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) officers specific authorities to examine and detain goods for export, to ask questions about goods for export, and to take enforcement actions when non-compliance is identified.

The Human Pathogens and Toxins Act Licensing Program

The Human Pathogens and Toxins Act came into effect in 2015 to address health and safety concerns of an accidental or deliberate release of a human pathogen or toxin. Any stakeholder conducting controlled activities (possessing, handling, using, producing, storing, permitting access, transferring, importing, exporting, releasing, abandoning, disposing of a human pathogen or toxin) is required to apply for a license under the Act. All licensed facilities that intend to carry out scientific research on a regulated pathogen or toxin must also develop a plan regarding the administrative measures for managing dual-use concerns. The purpose of this plan is to warrant internal accountability on the identification, risk analysis, and mitigation of risks that come with the use of dual-use products that may be misused to pose a threat to public health and safety.

Foreign Investment Review

The Investment Canada Act provides for the review of significant acquisitions of control of Canadian businesses to ensure their likely net economic benefit. All foreign investments are subject to the multi-step national security review process set out in the Act, which takes into account factors such as the potential effects of the investment on the transfer of sensitive technology or know-how outside of Canada, as well as any involvement in the research, manufacture or sale of goods/technology identified in Section 35 of the Defence Production Act.

Investigations and Prosecutions

Law enforcement can investigate and bring charges for criminal offences related to proliferation, proliferation financing, and illicit procurement and trafficking. Both the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) have mandates to conduct investigations, while the Public Prosecution Service of Canada has the mandate to conduct prosecutions. There is a wide range of penalties that can be applied against proliferators and other individuals in Canada.

Outreach and Awareness

One of the Government's most effective tools to counter-proliferation is raising Canadians' knowledge and awareness of proliferation risks. Many departments and agencies across the Government already have established public outreach initiatives with stakeholders, including Canadian industry, the scientific community, and the broader public.

Safeguarding Science

The Government of Canada recognizes the immense short and long-term value of research conducted in Canada and wants to keep it as open as possible while ensuring security measures are in place. 

To raise awareness of research security issues, Public Safety’s Research Security Centre offers Safeguarding Science, a 90-minute workshop. The workshop focuses on:

The Research Security Centre recommends this workshop as a first step, which can be supplemented with additional modules offering a deeper dive into research security-related topics.

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