Andrew Leslie clearly remembers the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. The 43-year-old brigadier-general charged with ensuring the army’s ability to talk in battle and disrupt enemy communications was in a meeting in Ottawa when he received a call to turn on the television.
“We turned the TV on and all of us literally watched the second aircraft plow into…” His voice drops as his mind goes back 20 years. “Into the tower. Within two to three minutes of turning it on.”
The 9/11 attacks transformed Leslie’s life, leading him to command Canadian troops in Afghanistan. They also propelled Canada’s military into the 21st century by sparking a professional, physical and cultural upheaval that is still felt today – for better and for worse.
“9/11 changed the world,” Leslie says. “And 9/11 changed the Canadian Armed Forces to the same impact and intensity that it changed the rest of the world.”
The 1990s had been a tough decade for Canada’s military.
Questions were being raised about the need to invest in the Forces following the end of the Cold War and several peacekeeping debacles, while public and political support had plummeted over the Somalia scandal and allegations of sexual misconduct in the ranks.
It was in this context that Jean Chretien’s Liberal government took an axe to military spending in 1995, slashing thousands of troops while cutting back on training, new equipment and maintenance.
“There was a lot of skepticism about the department institutionally within the government of Canada in those days,” says Eugene Lang, chief of staff to two Liberal defence ministers in the early 2000s. “National Defense was not a top priority for the Chretien government.”
Chief of the defence staff Rick Hillier would describe it in 2007 as the “decade of darkness” – a description Leslie, who served for a time in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s cabinet, says is apt.
“You weren’t entirely sure how much money you had to train your troops,” Leslie recalls. “Could you build a new building to replace one that was already 50 years old? Did you buy new ships, new planes, new tanks, and the list goes on. So it was a tough time.”
On 9/11, Leslie says: “It changed on a dime.”
The shock of the 9/11 attacks contributed to unprecedented Canadian public support for the U.S. at a time when Washington was solely focused on the War on Terror, which included hunting al-Qaeda and bolstering North America’s defences.
Then-Foreign Affairs Minister John Manley says the need to support Canada’s closest trading partner and ally was self-evident.
“What (9/11) did was it focused our minds on the necessity of being fully engaged with the U.S. in order to keep our economy going,” Manley says. “It was: ‘We’ve got to do our part here … in order to continue to have the kind of prosperity that we relied upon.’”
Public support for the U.S. and foreign interventions has since cratered, but decision makers in Ottawa remain focused on the need to support – or at least be seen to support – the U.S. in defending North America from external threats.
The first Canadian troops arrived in Afghanistan less than three weeks after 9/11. Early photos of soldiers wearing green uniforms in the desert hinted at the need for new equipment. As troops started to die, Ottawa shovelled out money faster and faster.
“The mission in Kabul as well as the mission in Kandahar drove home the idea that we couldn’t send people into harm’s way with stuff that was totally ill suited,” says defence analyst David Perry of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.
By the time the last Canadian troops left in March 2014, the military had received new fleets of tanks, armoured vehicles and artillery, as well as helicopters, transport aircraft, sniper rifles, night-vision goggles, drones and other modern kit – much still in use today.
The Forces also added thousands more troops, stepped up its training – and actively used its new skills and capabilities to fight al-Qaeda and the Taliban. A generation of men and, for the first time, women – many of them still in uniform – received real war experience.
“You’ve got a variety of generals now who are women, who are combat veterans,” Leslie says. “And you’ve got innumerable senior NCOs who are women who operated in the theatre.”
Yet the military’s free hand in procurement would later get it in trouble, with allegations of misleading the government and Parliament in the purchase of search-and-rescue planes, warships and fighter jets. Its credibility was hit and checks were instated, slowing the procurement system.
Leading the armed forces through much of the early period was Rick Hillier. The chief of defence staff had been appointed by Prime Minister Paul Martin in 2005 and arrived with a plan to transform the military into a modern fighting force. That included changing what it meant to be a Canadian soldier.
Hillier was a hard-charging, straight-talking general who became a celebrity, attaining a level of public exposure never before seen by a military officer in Canada. He was seen as a hero to the troops and much of the public, particularly after decades of poor leadership at the top.
Many credit Hillier with helping revive a sense of pride in the Canadian military, even as he sought to break Canada’s peacekeeping mythology, saying Canadian soldiers were warriors whose “job is to be able to kill people” including terrorist “scumbags.”
Yet some worried Hillier was politicizing the senior ranks of the military. One was career diplomat David Mulroney, who for a time co-ordinated the civilian and military aspects of Canada’s mission as head of the Afghanistan Task Force in Ottawa.
“The politicization has remained,” Mulroney says. “Generals are more visible and senior brass and former senior brass are visible, too.”
For a period during the mission in Afghanistan, telecasts showed Canadian troops fighting the Taliban while ramp ceremonies were a reminder of the cost. Those images and events such as Red Friday rallies – many pushed by the Forces – led to greater public support for the military.
University of Calgary professor Jean-Christophe Boucher says an annual public opinion poll conducted last year – before the recent allegations of sexual misconduct involving senior commanders – showed a high-level of support for the military among Canadians.
Manley says he has seen it too, as recently as last week at a Canadian Football League game.
“There’s still an introduction of a Canadian Forces member who has served and everybody stands up and applauds,” he says.
Yet public and political support for the war in Afghanistan was mixed, with opposition growing as it dragged on longer and more Canadian soldiers died.
“Al-Qaeda winds up having the guts ripped out of it,” says Royal Military College professor Sean Maloney, one of the pre-eminent experts on Canada’s war in Afghanistan. “But once you’ve got this country that’s been at war for 10 years, what do you do with it?”
Canada at its peak had about 2,300 soldiers in Afghanistan alone. Today, it has less than that spread across 20 different missions, a reflection of the lack of public and political will and enthusiasm for military interventions abroad.
“Some of the (military’s) lustre came off after Afghanistan, but it didn’t revert to kind of where it was before,” says Perry. “That’s a big thing. And the post-9/11 military operational experience left an indelible mark on the organization, culture and psyche of forces in many different ways.”