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New crises dominate defence conference

he world is dangerous and money is short; finding the correct response to the threats is difficult, complicated, and the people tasked with managing the defence and security of Western nations are feeling the pressure.

The world is dangerous and money is short; finding the correct response to the threats is difficult, complicated, and the people tasked with managing the defence and security of Western nations are feeling the pressure.

Minister of Veterans Affairs Erin O’Toole addresses the conference.
That is the key message from this year’s annual gathering of the defence-and-security community’s leaders, thinkers and analysts organized in Ottawa on Feb. 19-20 by the Conference of Defence Associations (CDA).

As a part of the CDA’s advocacy on defence issues, the organization has been publishing an annual report on the strategic outlook for Canada. This year’s report, The Eclipse of Reason, is an excellent primer on the general Canadian defence and security situation. Its lead author, CDA vice-president and former diplomat Ferry de Kerckhove, began the conference proceedings by giving an overview of his report.

While it would have been difficult to predict as Canada ended its mission in Afghanistan, two new major crises have arisen in the global security arena that Canada can’t ignore. As de Kerckhove noted, we are now facing simultaneously a delusional leader of a new republic in Vladimir Putin and the insanity of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in the Middle East. In addition, there are giant messes in Libya, Afghanistan and Syria. At the same time, negotiations with Iran offer a field day to optimists and pessimists alike.

De Kerckhove noted how the Canadian government’s desire to balance the budget before the election has had a serious impact on the capability of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF), with capital spending at the lowest level since 1977-78.

Because of these political machinations, the CAF is being asked to do more, but with much less. As de Kerckhove asked: Is it right for Canada that financial constraint drives strategy and not the other way around?

The next speaker was newly appointed Minister of Defence Jason Kenney. He began by outlining his family’s military history: his father was a pilot and his great uncle died at Vimy Ridge. It is the “highest honour and greatest privilege of my life to work with the Canadian Forces,” he said.

There are many dark alleys in this world, and many present different kinds of threats, conventional and asymmetrical, said Kenney. “2014 may prove to have been a pivotal year,” he said, referring to Russia’s actions in Ukraine, the ascendance of ISIL, and the fatal attacks on two Canadian soldiers.

“Canadians have murdered Canadians in the name of a murderous ideology. These attacks struck at the heart of our democratic institutions and made it clear that we are not immune,” said Kenney.

Kenney’s grasp of the defence situation was solid, and his candour was notable. Concluding the section of his speech on ISIL, he argued that “Canadians have reason to think that we can avoid such threats, but we face a threat without reason. We shouldn’t overreact to this threat, nor should we underreact to this threat.”

There is no holiday from history, he told the audience, and there is a high probability of future jihadist attacks from within Canada.

Also speaking on the first day of the conference was Erin O’Toole, the relatively new Minister of Veterans Affairs.

O’Toole reported that one of his role models was former Veterans Affairs minister George Hees, whose mantra for his office was: courtesy, generosity and speed.

“All three of those are measures centred on the veteran in their interaction with the department,” said O’Toole, “So I’m going to approach my mission in the same way. We’re here to inspire our department to serve, and challenge them to work on the areas we need to work on.”

O’Toole then outlined three key objectives he wants to see as part of veterans’ care in Canada in the future. “One: It has to be veteran-centric; and not just the veteran, but the veteran’s family. Two: We need to close the seam between the CAF and VAC. Three: We have to strive for service excellence, and that will have the compassion, generosity and speed that Hees asked for, but it will also mean that we need to keep doing better, no matter what.”

On the second day of the conference, Darrell Bricker of Ipsos Reid presented the results of a poll measuring Canadian public opinion about security matters. “You’ve heard from experts but you haven’t heard from the public,” he said. “And they provide us with our licence to operate. Consider this your situational awareness.”

Here is a brief overview of the findings: 82 per cent of Canadians believe that the world has become more dangerous over the past year; 74 per cent of Canadians are proud of the men and women who serve in the armed forces; only 23 per cent think the military does a good job of looking after those who have served but have been injured and can no longer be part of the regular forces. Canadians rank NATO combat interventions more favourably than UN peacekeeping operations, and 64 per cent support the current mission against ISIL, which is a far more positive rating than the mission in Afghanistan ever received.

The highlight of the second day, and possibly of the conference, was the presentation by Lieutenant-General Gordon Messenger, deputy chief of defence staff in the United Kingdom. “We’ve got to the point in the conference that we’ve perfectly defined the problem, but we’re struggling to find the solutions,” he began, before detailing current U.K. commitments to the fight in Iraq and Syria.

“Our rationale for being involved in that is the domestic security of our shores. There are very real constant threats streaming back into our streets from Syria and Iraq,” he said. “We’re now contemplating the role of the military on the streets of the U.K. After Ottawa and Paris, we’re now trying to think of what to do if our police are overmatched. It’s a conversation we’re starting to have, and I wouldn’t have thought we would do that a year ago.”

While Messenger notes the defensive fight is difficult, it’s the offensive fight that causes even greater uncertainty. “We’re coming to terms with the concept that we’re actually in a fight against an idea, and that is quite uncomfortable, frankly. We need to devise a counter-narrative that defeats these powerful messages coming from ISIL.”


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