Stephen Saideman is the Paterson Chair in International Affairs at Carleton University, director of the Canadian Defence and Security Network, and co-host of the Battle Rhythm podcast.
While much of the focus around the meeting between U.S. President Joe Biden and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has centred on the deal to close Roxham Road to asylum seekers, the President’s trip to Ottawa was also an opportunity to discuss another major issue: the humanitarian crisis in Haiti. But despite pressure from Washington for Canada to lead an intervention force there, it is clear – based on comments from Mr. Trudeau and from General Wayne Eyre, Canada’s Chief of the Defence Staff – that Ottawa is not going to do as the U.S. requests. Instead, the federal government announced a $100-million investment into the Haitian National Police this weekend.
Some might argue that this is because Canada lacks the readiness to engage in such efforts, because the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) is instead distracted by efforts to enact organizational culture change. Some have even imported from the U.S. the charge that the military is becoming too “woke” – that its focus on diversity, equity and inclusion is getting in the way of training for war. “It’s hard to see why any of this would be relevant to the Armed Forces, which should be focused on defending all Canadians equally,” National Post columnist Jamie Sarkonak wrote earlier this month.
But this argument is exactly backward. Failing to change the CAF’s culture will endanger the ability of the military to sustain itself in peacetime and in war.
It is true that the CAF is constrained. But that is because of a significant personnel shortage and an increase in obligations elsewhere, including in domestic missions. Indeed, in that context, reforming the CAF – particularly after many members of its senior leadership thoroughly discredited themselves with roughly a dozen accusations of sexual misconduct and abuse of power – is absolutely necessary for attracting the best recruits to form a ready, resilient, retained and effective military. The culture of entitlement exposed by those stories of misconduct and abuse cannot simply be forgotten while one prepares to fight. Instead, those dynamics made the CAF less ready, less resilient and less effective by driving out or away many talented people who wanted to serve their country, but who were told that they don’t belong, or who failed to make it into the old-boys networks that have long defined the CAF’s internal power and promotion structures.
Indeed, the CAF’s morale problem is not because men have been punished for abusing their power and their subordinates – it’s because those men had been allowed to thrive, alienating others. An effective military is impossible if one distrusts one’s commanders
Changing the CAF’s culture is aimed at resolving this problem. It means promoting people who treat their subordinates decently, and on merit. It means holding everyone to higher standards. It means refusing to tolerate hate within the forces – getting rid of misogynists, homophobes, white supremacists and other haters – because war is a team sport, and one simply cannot have a good team if some members have contempt for the rest.
Within military circles, there has been much debate about the concept of unit cohesion – the way that a military team works on the battlefield – and how various issues can shape or harm it. But that concept can also be an obstacle of its own. Unit cohesion, after all, was cited as a reason to keep Black soldiers, sailors and aviators segregated in the U.S.; it was used to justify keeping Canadian women out of combat positions and LGBTQ2+ Canadians out of the military entirely. The real threat to building unit cohesion was not the inclusion of these people, but the reactions of those who could not tolerate having different people among them. What the CAF needs is greater inclusion.
Amid this recruitment and retention crisis, setting hard limits around the pool of potential recruits means greatly reducing the talent available to the CAF and to Canada. It is certainly true that culture change might alienate white supremacists and misogynists in the force, leading to a smaller military in the short term, but if that is the case, so be it – the CAF will just have to get smaller before it gets bigger. It is better to recruit widely, from all over the country, than to focus narrowly because the organization prefers to protect the feelings of those who cannot live with – and fight alongside – those who are different.
Anyone who says that one has to choose either culture change or military effectiveness understands neither concept. We need the former to make the latter possible.