Sustaining our armed forces after leaving Afghanistan COLIN ROBERTSON From Monday’s Calgary Herald January 11, 2010
Once more, the Canadian government faces financial challenges. As Prime Minister Stephen
Harper said in his Boxing Day interview with CTV news, the path to the black will involve a new
era of “fiscal discipline”. Get ready, he warned us, for five frugal years in terms of government
The squeeze on government budgets obliges prioritization. The lesson of “getting government
right” in the Chretien/Martin years meant that only the allocations for health care and First Nations
remained relatively unscathed.
Health care continues to be the elephant in the room, especially the retiring boomers put more
strain on the system that is already facing demands for pharmacare, electronic medical records
and a national child care initiative. Then there is education and teachers are a formidable lobby
group. Nor can we forget the environment — the green lobby, made more indignant by the failure
of Copenhagen. And the pressures of minority government further complicate the context for
In terms of positioning, the Canadian Armed Forces go into the budget battles better situated than
they were in the early 1990s when capacity was hollowed out. Canadians have connected to their
Armed Forces. The Forces are arguably our most popular public institution with a highly visible
presence through their work at home — ice storms, floods, Oka and overseas — most notably
Afghanistan. Perhaps the greatest asset of the Forces is their appeal to service and, as the DND
commercials put it — “to fight fear, to fight chaos, to fight distress.”
Yet the Forces have already become a target for budget cuts.
In a recent report, the left-leaning Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) argues that military
spending in Canada is disproportionately high — 10 per cent of government spending — and that it
sucks up money that could be used for other government programs, such as environmental
spending or foreign aid. They point to spending within NATO and argue that we now spend
slightly more than the average. They omit the fact that the U.S., with a population 10 times that of
Canada, spends 25 times as much as we do.
Nor do they acknowledge that we are obliged to provide security across five-and-a-half time
zones and that with the second largest land mass in the world, threats from space, the air and
sea will have a disproportionate impact on Canada. Would we rather have the Americans do it for
us? Serious countries invest in their defence and deterrent capacities. Collective security as well
as peacekeeping, also requires us to pull our weight.
The CPA proclaims that “the money that is spent on such missions could be used far more
effectively in development assistance and other humanitarian aid in other parts of the world.” The
authors are not alone in missing the obvious, as is illustrated in Tim Goddard’s poignant eulogy to
his daughter, the late Captain Nichola Goddard. Father and daughter were arguing over Michael
Ignatieff’s contention in his book, Empire Lite, that military force is required to permit the
reconstruction of civil society. When professor Goddard argued that education was the key to
development, Capt. Goddard replied: “You can’t do that when the bad guys run things, Dad, they
just shoot you. You have to have peace and good government in order for the rest to happen. I do
what I do so you can do what you do.”
Afghanistan has taught us many lessons including the reality that in failing states development
and diplomacy depend on security and hard power. Our Forces are remarkably versatile — we
earned a reputation as shock troops in the First World War and then peacekeepers in the Cold
War era. Today our Forces use their skills to create the conditions that allow diplomats to
negotiate a durable peace and our development program can build schools and hospitals and
train teachers and nurses. But we need to recognize that, notwithstanding our best efforts,
success ultimately depends on the people and their leaders to whom we lend a helping hand.
We’re back to the future in explaining what the Canadian Forces are about. The rediscovery of
our military heritage was overdue — we may not be a warlike nation but, when required, we are a
nation of warriors with a long and proud history that is finding a new appreciation in places like
the splendidly renovated Museums of the Military in Calgary.
Reaching out to Canadians is important. We need to understand how our Forces serve the
Canadian interest in defending Canada, as an effective partner in continental defence and as a
responsible ally with a capability to lead internationally, in part because of our interoperability with
our American neighbour.
The developments in the North are a parable for what is taking place around the world. The
maritime estate on which we claim jurisdiction is about 70 per cent of our land mass. The
changes in the ocean’s regulatory regime have changed more in the last 30 years as coastal
states extend their jurisdiction than in the last three centuries. The oceans carry 90 per cent of
global traffic including an estimated 40 per cent of Canadian trade. Our sovereignty and
prosperity depends on surveillance and security so that we know what is happening on our land
and seas and overhead in our skies.
Preserving the versatility necessary for our Armed Forces requires leadership and sustained
commitment. It will make demands on our financial resources. Are we prepared to make that
Colin Robertson is a senior research fellow with the Calgary-based Canadian Defence & Foreign
Affairs Institute and recently retired career Canadian diplomat. On Thursday, he will deliver the
2010 Ross Ellis memorial lecture on behalf of the U of C’s Centre for Military & Strategic Studies.