EDMONTON, Canada — "The United States is the driving force behind the nuclear arms race," shouted the speaker, to the applause and cries of agreement from 5,000 listeners.
The noise was matched in intensity only by the booing and hooting aimed at a government official who rejected a comparison between supplying components for nuclear weapons to the United States and giving gas ovens to Nazi Germany.
More applause and shouts of "Yeah! Right!" greeted arm-waving pronouncements that "Canada should separate from the United States." More boos assailed a suggestion that the Soviet Union's political values and its international record might not be equal to America's.
The occasion was a two-day inquiry here in Edmonton earlier this month into Canada's defense and nuclear policies. More than 5,000 people--10 times the number that the organizers had expected--drove through the season's first blizzard to sit in a drafty athletic field house. They cheered attacks on U.S. defense policies and jeered anything smacking of sympathy for things American.
The conference's tone reflected the political views of its sponsors, the militantly pro-disarmament Physicians for Social Responsibility and the ultranationalistic Council of Canadians. But the attention accorded it in the Canadian media and its unexpectedly high attendance distinguished it from the self-congratulatory exercises that such meetings of true believers, peace groups and America-bashers usually turn out to be.
The conference's title, "Canada--The True North Strong and Free?," played off a line from the Canadian national anthem by replacing the original exclamation point with a question mark. It reflected the growing number of Canadians who are wondering just how strong and independent their nation is, given its strong ties to the United States.
So the 5,000 people who paid $22 each to sit in the discomfort of the field house passed resolutions condemning the Reagan Administration's Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI or "Star Wars"), demanding an end to U.S. testing of cruise missiles in Canada and endorsing the Soviet Union's unilateral moratorium on nuclear weapons testing.
Among those present were Cabinet members and senior members of Parliament from all three national political parties, as well as generals, government officials, Roman Catholic bishops, prominent academics, former diplomats and prestigious scientists. The federal External Affairs Ministry paid part of the conference's costs.
That there should be such an official and high-level involvement in something so challenging to the nation's history and current policy is not all that surprising.
Even though Canada's record in both world wars and the Korean war is unsurpassed, and even though Ottawa is an original and full-fledged member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and shares the defense of North America with the United States, its recent attitude has been one of caution and even ambivalence over its role in international affairs, particularly in the East-West conflict.
So although Canada was a significant participant in developing the atomic bomb during World War II, it has refused to build or possess nuclear arms and has forced the United States to remove all nuclear weapons from Canadian soil. Furthermore, it prohibits the sale of uranium and other nuclear components to the United States if they are to be used in weapons.
Canada's per-capita defense spending is the lowest of all NATO countries except for tiny Luxembourg. Canada commits 10,000 troops to the alliance, only half of whom are based in Europe.
Small Navy, Air Force
Canada is bound by treaty to sharing the defense of North America, a status it guards jealously in the abstract. But while the country has 180 modern jet warplanes, it has only three workable submarines, a tiny and aging surface fleet and half a dozen surveillance planes. This is a far cry from Canada's strength at the end of World War II, when it had both the world's fourth-largest air force and navy.
The nation believes that its best hope for defense and influence lies with it alliances in Europe and with the United States.
At the same time, Canadian officials and political leaders developed a parallel if not conflicting concept that Canada as a middle world power has a special moral and political role to play. It sees itself not as a tool of U.S. foreign and defense policy but as an independent force that can be trusted and used as a bridge between the superpowers by Third World and nonaligned countries.
This led Ottawa to criticize U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War and, in more recent times, to back away from Washington's policy in Central America, South Africa and, to a degree, in arms control matters.
'Benefit of Doubt'