Canada’s defence in crisis? Who cares?

These questions, particularly the last one, keep surfacing lately, especially within the groups who are tasked with our safety; those who have chosen to serve and protect. In the last edition of FrontLineDon Macnamara was reminding politicians that safeguarding Canadian citizens and protecting their way of life is the prime directive of government. This great responsibility stands firm, no matter what the polls suggest or how the social winds blow. This is one requirement for which Government must act without necessarily asking for approval of the masses. Some things are just expected of a leader.

Do Canadians know about the huge number of international issues that can affect our future security? Maybe a few. Do they ask if we are really prepared to deal with them? Why would they, when they assume the authorities have prepared?

Do they know (or care) that our national interests – security, sovereignty, prosperity, and a stable world order – are pre-requisites to the enviable standard of living enjoyed by the average Canadian? Of course they do. Do they take it for granted? Of course they do, after all, this is Canada – one of the great nations of the world, right?

How many of your neighbours really understand the implications of living in the second-largest country on Earth, with the world’s longest coastline on three oceans? How aware are Canadians that 40% of our national territory is that “True North” that we sing about – and that we really cannot defend it?

As for the defence of our country and the pursuit of a stable world order, do average Canadians have any idea of the major equipment crises facing its military? Sure, the military has taken the brunt of many cartoons depicting the sad state of equipping the Canadian Armed Forces, but the real target of those jokes should be the government that wields the decision-making authority.

One might assume that every federal politician would understand the importance of being properly versed and advised on matters related to the military, and that it would be incumbent on them to learn as much as they could so they can make informed decisions in Parliament. You would be wrong. Last month, two Liberal MPs cancelled delivery of their free copy of FrontLine Defence. They apparently feel no more responsibility in this matter than my nephews do. Another two people at PCO also cancelled. How can we expect the general public to care about defence, when our very MPs and Privy Council office avoid anything about defence other than, possibly, what they are being spoon-fed?

MPs should not only be learning as much as they can about national defence, they should take great pains to explain it to their constituents.

How many politicians have any idea that the real crisis facing their Navy, in terms of available warships or the impact and limitations on multi-ship operations, is a result of the loss of its two support ships? Beyond that, having only xx warships for a maritime nation our size, and no real plan to replace them in a timely manner, nor any real idea how many we can afford (yes, those x’s were intentional), should be the stuff of a national scandal. Few know, but how many would care even if they knew?

Similar questions can be asked about the vehicles and modern weaponry needed by the Canadian Army. The fighter replacement of the RCAF is better known, but only due to controversy. Are Canadians aware that, in the not too distant future, replacement of air-to-air refuelling capabilities, as well as maritime patrol aircraft, are going to be required?

Major equipment should never be political issues; defence procurement should be done in the national interest. This is an essential question as the Government launches into its public consultations for a Defence Policy Review.

It is important that we avoid cynicism about the possible outcomes of the defence review  by assuming it will be “same old thing”. For generations, Canadians and their dedicated servicemen and women have suffered from financial starvation combined with irrational procurement processes.

How can real military defence needs be met when governments continue, essentially, to set a budget and then figure out what it can buy without first determining what its national interests are so it knows if these purchases are necessary or not?

Does Canada have to wait for a huge domestic terrorism event before the public wakes up to the risks this country faces with an impoverished military? Our allies admire the performance of the CAF – but wonder why they are so few from such a large and wealthy country of such strategic relevance. It should not be necessary to frighten the population to create demand for a larger and better-equipped military. The government should recognize this without the need for a public outcry, because that won’t come until it is too late.

Is DND – with the largest ‘discretionary’ budget in government – viewed simply as a money tree that can be cherry picked for surpluses to be transferred to other departments? Do senior bureaucrats consider themselves part of the national security nexus? If not, why not, if the first responsibility of government is the security of Canada.

Is the nature of our globalized world recognized and understood by ALL government departments? If not, how can we ever achieve a ‘whole of government’ response to threats to Canada’s world order, prosperity and security and sovereignty issues and threats. Why is there not a Government document that assesses the international security environment and provides ‘policy guidance’ for all departments? Is it because our Government lacks interest, capability or competence to achieve what most other nations have?

Politicians are not elected because they understand the intricacies of international security affairs. Yes, some former military members have served in Parliament – very few until the current Parliament that has at least a half-dozen veterans. But defence policy has been a partisan activity, leading to budget and procurement changes with every new Government. Is there any good reason why a national security assessment and strategy cannot be produced on a non-partisan basis?

How do Canadians learn anything about defence? Media coverage by military specialists is slim – but there are others who, with limited knowledge and understanding, write with assumed authority, often misrepresenting situations and creating political issues that are subsequently addressed by politicians who do not understand the issues either.

So, will our MPs communicate with Canadians to inform them not only of the rationale for the number of soldiers, sailors and aviators we need to defend Canada, but also the implications of failing to do so?

It has been said that the most important social service a government can provide is the means to keep its citizens alive and free.

If Canadians do not know or do not care about the nation’s defence, clearly the first problems are national ignorance and national apathy. Those problems are unacceptable for a Canada that must survive and prosper in a dangerous world.


Chris MacLean, the Editor-in-Chief at FrontLine Defence magazine, was recently presented with the Ross Munro Media Award by the Conference of Defence Associations during its annual defence conference in Ottawa.