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Published December 15, 2023

Canada will send helicopters to Latvia next year, defence minister says

By Sarah Ritchie in Ottawa

Four Canadian Griffon helicopters will be sent to Latvia next year as part of a NATO deterrence mission, Defence Minister Bill Blair announced during a visit to the Baltic country Friday. 

Blair and defence chief Gen. Wayne Eyre are meeting with Latvian leaders and visiting Canadian troops at Camp Ādaži, just outside Riga, where Canada leads a NATO battle group. 

NATO — which also has battle groups in Lithuania, Poland, Estonia, Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia — has plans to scale up to brigades all along its eastern flank in response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine. 

Canada has already said it will double its troops in Latvia to around 2,200 by 2026, and will contribute a squadron of 15 Leopard 2 tanks plus associated personnel. 

The tanks have already arrived in Latvia and the 130 troops are expected to be there next spring.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visited Latvia before the NATO summit in Lithuania last July, announcing $2.6 billion has been set aside to help Canada grow its presence in the country, including a $1.4-billion commitment made in the 2022 federal budget. 

Blair's announcement Friday details how some of that will be spent. 

The Armed Forces is buying portable anti-armour missile systems from Rafael Advanced Defence Systems. The contract is worth US$32.2 million and the systems are set to be delivered next summer. 

That procurement was expedited because it was deemed an urgent operational requirement. Canada is also working on an urgent procurement of a short-range air defence system for the Latvia brigade and counter-drone systems.

Blair said Friday that he expects contracts for those will be signed in the new year, and that medium-range radar capabilities have been deployed as part of the contribution to air defence for the brigade. 

The four Griffon helicopters are set to arrive next summer, representing the first time Canada has had a consistent tactical aviation presence in Europe since the missions in Kosovo and Bosnia in the 1990s and early 2000s.

The Royal Canadian Air Force has a fleet of 85 Griffons, which have been in service since the 1990s.

In 2022, the federal government announced an $800-million contract for upgrades that will extend their life into the 2030s. The first of those upgraded helicopters is set to be ready next year, with the final upgrades done by 2028.

Canada also plans to send Chinook helicopters periodically to the country starting in the fall of 2025. 

Meanwhile, $15 million will go toward infrastructure improvements in Latvia. Camp Ādaži is home to around 1,700 troops, including 800 Canadians, and its facilities are visibly strained.

The base is a mix of permanent buildings, temporary shelters, tents and shipping containers. Portable toilets are scattered throughout the property.

Blair announced Canada will spend 3.1 million euros to "improve living conditions" and another four million euros to build accommodations at Ceri, the nearby location that will be headquarters for the brigade.

Latvian Defence Minister Andris Sprūds and Blair held a joint press conference Friday morning in which they reaffirmed the commitment of both countries to support Ukraine.

Local journalists asked Blair whether Canada's free trade deal with Ukraine is at risk of being blocked by the opposition. 

Conservative members of Parliament have voted against a government bill that would implement a negotiated update to the existing Canada-Ukraine trade agreement. 

Tories said they voted against it because the updated deal, which Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy signed during a visit to Ottawa in September, includes language around both countries promoting carbon pricing. 

Ukraine has had a carbon price in place for years, and its ambassador to Canada has been urging the Conservatives to change their position. 

"The support of my government for Ukraine, and for working closely with all of our allies together in support of Ukraine, remains absolutely resolute and ironclad," Blair said Friday. 

He assured reporters that the bill will ultimately pass. 

It is awaiting a final vote in the House of Commons before proceeding to the Senate. 

Banner image: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Lars Hagberg

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 15, 2023.

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