NEW! Canadian Military History Trivia Challenge

Canadian Military History Trivia Challenge

Take the quiz and Win a Trivia Challenge prize pack!

Canadian Military History Trivia Challenge

Take the quiz and Win a Trivia Challenge prize pack!

Eye On Defence: Time To Ask The People

by David J. Bercuson

Defence Minister Art Eggleton

In late February Defence Minister Art Eggleton told the annual gathering of the Conference of Defence Associations in Ottawa that his department was about to launch a full and open review of Canadian defence policy, a review he pledged would be completed by the fall. Eggleton added that those aspects of Canadian foreign policy which bore directly on national security would also be reviewed.

Eggleton’s announcement was made amidst the Parliamentary hubbub over what he had learned about Canadian soldiers taking prisoners in Afghanistan, when he had learned it, and when he had told Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, so it received bare notice in most of the national press. But the announcement itself was startling for several reasons.

First, although the government acted fairly rapidly in sending substantial naval forces to the war on terror shortly after Sept. 11, and followed that with the dispatch of a small contingent of Joint Task Force 2 and eventually, in December, a light-infantry battalion, it had been stonily silent for some time on the larger matter of long-term defence policy.

Second, when the Council for Canadian Security in the 21st Century issued its report on the need for a sweeping defence policy review in early November, following on other reports issued by the Royal Canadian Military Institute and the Conference of Defence Associations, the minister’s response was tepid. Yes, he understood that the time for a review was approaching but no, it wouldn’t be done while Canada was still at “war” in Afghanistan.

Finally, it has been the worst kept secret in the world that high-level policy-makers at National Defence Headquarters were not at all eager to conduct a full and public policy review—nor apparently was the Prime Minister—and that an internal review of sorts had been underway for some time as an alternative.

It’s hard to know for certain what prompted the change of direction, but a good guess would focus directly on Finance Minister Paul Martin’s decision in the December budget to virtually exclude the Canadian Forces from the vast new sums Canada is to devote to security over the next several years. Rumours have circulated for months that not long before his budget was announced, Martin told some “friends of the Canadian Forces” that they would likely be disappointed by the defence allocation. The rumours have it that he implied the fault lay with Eggleton for not making a strong enough case in cabinet. If the rumours are true it reflects far more on Martin’s failure—and the implied failure of the Prime Minister—to grasp the truly appalling state the CF is in, especially in light of Sept. 11, as opposed to any lack of Eggleton’s persuasive powers.

In fact, though, Martin may have done the nation a major favour by shortchanging the CF. The allocation of a paltry additional $160 million or so directly to the Forces threw into sharp relief the growing commitment-capability gap that has been so well documented by authorities such as the House of Commons Standing Committee on National Defence and Veterans Affairs, the Auditor General and, most recently, by the Senate Committee on Security and Defence.

It is almost certain that Eggleton sold the Prime Minister on the need for a full and open defence review by stressing the need to tailor the forces—in other words shrink them—to fit the amount of money the government is willing to spend on defence.

When Eggleton first mused publicly about a defence review in January, he most certainly put the need for such a review in those terms. But even if the eventual terms of reference for the new review (which have not been formally announced as of this writing) are couched in such a way, it will not matter much.

That is because in a real open review process, no one, and certainly not the government, will be able to control the public input to the process. If large numbers of Canadians from across the country, working in different sectors of the economy, and representing key interest groups, demand that the defence review not be limited to options for change that are viable within the current funding envelope, the review will be hard put not to take their views into account.

The forthcoming defence review may turn out to be the most important of the last half century. During the long Cold War, and against Canada’s steady adherence to and reliance on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and North American Aerospace Defence Command, there was little latitude for the discussion of real defence and security policy options. The biggest part of Canada’s defence commitments were always virtually predetermined. Even though Pierre Trudeau and some of his ministers mused about possible Canadian withdrawal from NATO prior to the 1971 White Paper, that was never really possible, as events proved.

The 1994 White Paper was a transitory document, good for its day but it was neither sweeping in its scope nor daring in the pathways it chose. It was put together too soon after the end of the Cold War to be able to reflect the rapidly changing global security environment. If nothing else, its continued emphasis on the need for Canada to maintain itself as an important international peacekeeper is a sure reflection on how dated a document it became. After Bosnia, Rwanda, East Timor and a host of other United Nations failures—and the virtual death of traditional “blue helmet” peacekeeping—the 1994 White Paper’s unswerving faith in such operations now seems quaint.

The importance of the new white paper ought to stir those who believe in a strong Canadian security and defence posture to action, the sooner the better. Those Canadians—journalists, intellectuals, pacifist leaders, “third way” policy advocates and others—who have convinced themselves and many other Canadians that Canada is a “peaceable Kingdom” without need for a strong military have dominated the public defence policy discussion for decades now.

What is needed is for the friends of defence to come together in one concerted effort to frame the debate in terms that most Canadians have already instinctively grasped in recent months; that military power still matters in an imperfect world; it is better for the world when the good guys have the preponderance of military power; and that our self-respecting nation cannot stand aside from our obligation to help protect our way of life.


Sign up today for a FREE download of Canada’s War Stories

Free e-book

An informative primer on Canada’s crucial role in the Normandy landing, June 6, 1944.