Thursday’s budget will almost certainly include increased funding for defence. Do not expect that increase to signal a new and sustained commitment to restoring Canada’s rundown military.
Canadians feel safe. As long as they feel safe, they will not sacrifice. They will vow to stand with Ukraine, condemn alleged Russian war crimes, offer shelter to refugees.
But as Adam Chapnick, a professor of defence studies at the Royal Military College, observes, “we aren’t in the mental headspace to have a serious conversation,” about defence spending, “and our elected representatives aren’t in the headspace to have it either.”
After years of delays, Canada is finally committed to acquiring the F-35 fighter jet. Leah Sarson, a professor of international relations at Dalhousie University, expects to see a commitment to upgrade NORAD aerospace defences as well.
But she doesn’t expect any sustained effort to bring Canadian defence spending up to the NATO target of 2 per cent of GDP.
“Canadians typically like to see an emphasis on humanitarian aid and diplomacy,” she told me, “rather than an emphasis on defence and military spending.”
Canada is content to shelter beneath the American umbrella. Oceans separate us from conflict in Eurasia, and the Western hemisphere is mostly at peace.
Russia and China covet resources in Canada’s Arctic, but there have been no overt threats, and for most Canadians, the Arctic is very far away.
In a conversation with territorial premiers on Monday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau affirmed his government’s commitment to defend Arctic sovereignty. But that’s just talk. To take but one example: As my colleagues Steven Chase and Patrick Brethour report, the Nanisivik Naval Facility on Baffin Island, promised 15 years ago by the Stephen Harper government, is still not up and running.
Defence spending doesn’t even register in polls of Canadian priorities, says Darrell Bricker, CEO of the polling firm Ipsos Public Affairs. (Mr. Bricker and I have collaborated on two books.) “It’s not that people don’t care,” Mr. Bricker said. “It’s that they don’t know how to care.”
The military in Canada has such a small footprint that its well-being doesn’t register with Canadians. Politicians don’t prioritize it because no one raises the issue at the door.
As Andrew Burtch, post-1945 historian at the Canadian War Museum, points out, “In Canada, when it comes down to a choice between guns or butter, butter tends to win.”
External events can, however, influence the debate. The end of the Cold War reduced the will and need to keep Canada’s military properly equipped. But when Canadian troops started dying in Afghanistan because their equipment was inadequate, the federal government procured helicopters and armoured vehicles to protect them.
The question, then, is whether the events in Ukraine will galvanize public opinion in favour of sustained increases. The answer is almost certainly no. As Prof. Sarson points out, “elections have never been won based on defence spending.”
In one sense, we should hope the federal government does not spend on defence. Since budget increases for the military are entirely driven by public opinion, which is itself shaped by external events, only a serious global crisis could prompt taxpayers to authorize a sustained upgrade of defence capabilities.
But in a larger sense, a credible military – one capable of seriously contributing to the defence of Canada’s interests in the Arctic and of contributing meaningfully to NATO in Europe – is long overdue. Our frigates are ancient, our submarines out of date and our forces seriously understaffed.
NATO partners are entitled to something better than a Canadian military that is equipped on the fly, with procurement either infinitely delayed or rushed through in response to the latest crisis. Our forces rely far too heavily on the kindness of allies.
But that would entail sacrifice. And a Liberal government that has signed a pact with the NDP to introduce publicly funded dental care and pharmacare is unlikely to ask Canadians to support increased spending on the military as well, along with the higher taxes needed to pay for it.
So don’t be fooled if you see headlines Thursday about increased defence spending in the budget. It likely won’t mean much of anything.
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