Is it Last Post for the Canadian Armed Forces?


The Canadian Armed Forces are entering a new “decade of darkness” characterized by wilting defence capabilities, in the process disarming Canadian diplomacy and leaving Canada not only defenceless but without influence in the world. Canadians ought to be mad as hell, but most do not realize they are being managed like mushrooms: kept in the dark and fed manure.

The problem isn’t a political or economic one. It is something far more serious, the deterioration in the civic culture over generations. Beginning in the 1960s, Canadians have become disconnected from their great national institutions such as Parliament and government. The cultural chasm is particularly deep between citizens and the Canadian Armed Forces. Since this condition developed over decades, it will take years to change it — and those who wish to do so need to raise their planning horizons accordingly. In the final analysis, only the education of a new generation of leaders can reverse the decline. And in this — fortuitously — the Canadian Armed Forces can be a main catalyst. It’s a role long performed by the military in Britain and the United States, and once was in Canada.

The Canadian syndrome

The future of the Canadian Armed Forces is looking bleak. The political priorities of recent governments have not favoured them. Both Liberal and Conservative governments have pledged support for the military and showcased defence plans to restore Canada’s military capabilities, but defence spending has been on a steady downward trajectory for 30 years – from 2% of GDP in 1988 to around 1% today. Important capital acquisitions have routinely been announced, delayed, and then cancelled altogether.

The result has been catastrophic. Despite citizens being consistently supportive of the Forces, national defence has atrophied and military capabilities in support of international peace operations and humanitarian relief are minimal. Even in the face of clear and present new dangers.

  • The Army’s Regular Force is half the size it used to be, down to three brigades only one of which is maintained ready for deployment.  The Army has been waiting for years to replace its trucks, to acquire the heavy equipment it needs to build camps and roads when deployed abroad, and to secure defence systems to protect troops in war zones against artillery, aircraft and missiles. The Reserve Force, which Canadians rely on to help with calamities at home and to backstop operations abroad, would be hard-pressed to handle more than one major national emergency at a time and is losing the skilled personnel needed for foreign expeditions.
  • The Canadian navy has lost its ability to control events at sea. At present, it is heavily reliant on others to participate in task group operations and dependent on them for at-sea refuelling and logistics support. It will be many years before new warships are built; by some estimates, there will not be enough of them to ensure adequate defence capability for both the Atlantic and Pacific. None are planned to have Aegis missile defence systems. When new offshore patrol vessels become available, they will be slow, poorly armed, and capable of Arctic operations only in summer. And there are no plans for the RCN to acquire ships of the kind that can transport troops and equipment on peace operations or large volumes of humanitarian supplies and helicopters to disaster areas.
  • For air defence, Canada’s original fleet of 138 CF-18s is down to 77 with only half operational at any one time because of maintenance and upgrades. This translates into the RCAF having only 35 to 40 planes for the simultaneous defence of the continent and for NATO or UN operations. At one time, Canada had 36 aircraft earmarked just for North American defence — and that was before the RCAF was tasked with additional surveillance and intercept obligations post 9/11. For the First Gulf War, Canada sent 24 planes, for the Balkans 18, for Libya 7, for Iraq/ISIS 6, and to “reassure” NATO ally Slovenia in October 2017 just two planes. Only in Canada does a “low dishonest” debate continue over whether the F-35 is the right replacement for the CF-18. Allied countries are buying hundreds of the planes, 674 at last count: UK 138, Australia 72, Netherlands 37 etc.
  • Canada has no defence for ballistic missiles. Were North Korea to launch nuclear-armed ICBMs against North America, the Deputy Commander of NORAD has told Parliament “the extant US policy is not to defend Canada”. This is not out of resentment for Canada having refused to participate in BMD but because of the “ugly math”. The United States only has 36 ground-based interceptors (GBIs); tests have only been 50% successful; so the US has to count on just 18 GBIs being sufficient. There aren’t any to spare for Canada.

It is a Canadian syndrome to neglect the armed forces until they’re needed, to send under-trained and under-equipped forces into war zones on the spurious grounds Canada is contributing to peacekeeping, to take casualties while hurriedly rebuilding the country’s military capabilities, to prevail in conflict, and then to repeat the cycle.

The cycle is being repeated. Before the current government issued its new defence plan in the summer of 2017, the Minister of National Defence said the Canadian Armed Forces were in the troubling position “where status quo spending on defence will not even maintain a status quo of capabilities”. The new defence plan undertook to fix the situation — just not right away. As a Globe and Mail editorial concluded: “The aim of the current defence policy review is to allow the Canadian Forces, a decade from now, to be able to do roughly what the Canadian Forces were doing, a decade ago.”

Disarming Canadian diplomacy

This is not the defence effort expected of a G7 country, and it is not going to keep Canada in the G7. Already, meetings of the G4 (US, UK, France, and Germany) and G5 (plus Japan) are directing decision-making on the great international security issues of our times. These are groupings of serious countries driven by the hunt for solutions that will “make the world safe for democracy”, typically not settling for pieties when action is necessary. Their attitude towards allies is: what can you do to help? Everyone has ideas, ideas are cheap. But unless you can make a significant material contribution, there’s no reason having you around while we’re trying to sort things out. You’re just a bureaucratic encumbrance.

Canada used to be valued; now it’s mostly an encumbrance. It does a very poor job of defending itself, it has minimal expeditionary capabilities even for low-risk peacekeeping operations, and it can play only a minor role in disaster relief. But it can talk — though not many are listening anymore.

It wasn’t always this way, of course. So why has this happened?

The civil-military divide

The explanation isn’t political or economic. It is cultural. The public culture today is very different from what it used to be, in particular how citizens looked on their military.

For generations, the citizen-soldier was a staple of Canadian society. Citizens and soldiers were often the same people. In every walk of life – business, education, government, the media, politics — it was the norm to find large numbers of civilians who had served in the military. If a citizen wasn’t actually a service member, he or she knew about military service from family and friends.

This conditioned how Canadians viewed their military. Most valued the profession of arms, understood the contribution the military made to their security, and did not begrudge spending on the military. The population at large didn’t have a chip on its shoulder about seeing people in uniform or paying for defence.

In the 1960s, things changed. In the social ferment of the time – anti-establishment, anti-Vietnam War, anti-military — a disconnect developed between citizens and their military. Both citizens and soldiers were responsible for it. Government and opinion leaders succumbed to the mood of the times.  The universities developed a special animus towards the armed forces, inculcated it in their students, and severed their institutional ties to the military formations in their districts. In turn, the Forces disappeared from campuses and terminated the officer-training programs they had been conducting at 27 universities for 50 years. They then compounded the problem by physically removing themselves from major urban centres and consolidating operations in mostly isolated military bases. Finally, they stopped being able to explain themselves in language the public could understand. By the 1990s, citizens and soldiers were living lives apart – with a cultural chasm separating them.

The result has been two generations of Canadians, including the leaders of those generations, who have little or no connection with the military, limited appreciation for the Canadian Armed Forces as a national institution, almost no strategic sense about the world beyond Canada, and scant interest in defence policy. In Parliament, where once a third of the members had military backgrounds, only a handful of MPs now have any first-hand experience of life in the services. In the current 42nd Parliament, just 17 of 338 members have served in uniform: 12 Liberal, 3 Conservative, 1 NDP, 1 Bloc.

With citizens no longer connected to their military, Canadian defence policy no longer has to pay attention to either. Governments may swear repeatedly that their first priority is the safety of citizens and a military capable of defending them, but the fact is that defence policy today is driven by the interests of almost everyone but citizens and their military: the political interests of governments, the bureaucratic interests of departments including National Defence, the tribal interests of the army, navy and air force, the special interests of advocacy groups, the commercial interests of Canadian industry, even the fiscal interests of Canada’s European allies who want Canada to spend more on defence – the defence of Europe.

Return of the citizen soldier

The Canadian Armed Forces have a powerful reason for doing something about this. Their survival as a consequential national institution depends on it. They cannot, of course, fix the problem themselves; but they have allies in the citizenry if they have the wit to connect with those who can help.

There’s obviously no quick fix. It took years for the current culture to become firmly rooted, so it will take many more years to replace it. This means the CAF leadership needs to think and plan for a longer-term than the next election or the next budget.

Job#1 is to rebuild the CAF’s relations with the civilian world – something that is entirely within the CAF’s own ability. In particular, it needs to rebuild its relations with those elements of society with the greatest influence on the evolution of the Canadian culture.

If you’re building for the future, the logical place to start is with young people and with those whose task it is to educate them and prepare them for responsible and engaged citizenship – the universities and community colleges of Canada. The influence the universities and colleges have on the public culture, and therefore can have on changing it, is enormous. Canada has 98 universities and 130 community colleges on 900 campuses, with a total of 1.7 million full-time undergraduate students.

For the CAF, this means finding a way of accessing the university and college students from whom the leaders of tomorrow will emerge and offering them something of real value to enhance their leadership competencies. In Britain and in the United States, this is accomplished through the University Officer Training Corps (UOTC) and the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) – the most effective leadership development programs ever devised. Canada needs something comparable.

The Canadian National Leadership Program

The Canadian National Leadership Program would fulfil the same purpose. The CNLP is a joint venture between the Canadian Armed Forces and institutions of higher learning, expressly designed to develop the leadership abilities of full-time university and college undergraduates. In Britain, the UOTC has some 4500 students enrolled at over 100 universities including internationally renowned institutions such as Oxford, Cambridge and the University of London. In the United States, the ROTC operates at more than 1700 institutions including some which banned “boots on campus” during the Vietnam era such as Harvard, Yale and Columbia. Canada has no such program, but it once had university-based officer training at 27 universities with over 5000 enrolled — until the CAF itself killed it in 1968 after 50 years of operation, for short-sighted economy reasons having nothing to do with its merits.

The CNLP is a citizens’ initiative, launched at a symposium on Parliament Hill in 2009, into which foundations and philanthropists have invested over $8.5 million to date. The idea was conceived by the Breakout Educational Network, a charitable educational institution in Toronto which has been the driving force behind it. As with so many noble ventures in Canada, it has had to fight bureaucratic inertia all the way — in government, in the military, and in the universities. But the foundation work has been completed. The federal government is on board, the CAF has committed to providing trainers and facilities, dozens of universities and colleges have expressed interest in participating, and two — one in Alberta and one in Quebec — have signed on. The challenge now is to accelerate the growth of the program and stay ahead of the obstructionism which continues to dog its heels.

So what would happen? Well, imagine the impact on young people of participating in a leadership development program which brought them into regular contact with men and women in uniform – whether regulars, reservists, or veterans – who were helping them to acquire practical leadership skills that built their self-confidence and gave them a strong start in their working lives. Would the graduates of such a program have a chip on their shoulder about people in uniform or begrudge spending on the military? Or could they be counted on to have an appreciation for military life as earlier generations did? If most didn’t choose the military life for themselves, wouldn’t some significant portion of them join the Reserves and virtually all of them support adequate funding of the Canadian Armed Forces?

Now imagine the impact on the civic culture if even a small percentage of Canada’s 1.7 million undergraduates were enrolled in such program. With an annual adrenaline shot exceptionally competent young men and women joining the workforce (and the electorate), Canadians would soon be thinking very differently about their military. In ten years, Canada wouldn’t be the same place.

That’s the concept behind the Canadian National Leadership Program. If the political class is playing Last Post for the Canadian Armed Forces, citizens and soldiers need to get working on tomorrow.

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Paul H. Chapin

Paul Chapin is Executive Editor of The Vimy Report. During a 30-year career in the Canadian foreign service, he served in Tel Aviv, Moscow, at NATO, and in Washington where he was head of the political section. He can be reached at

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