As Canadians across the country attended Remembrance Day ceremonies on Tuesday, and the Canadian Forces continue to be engaged in air-strikes in Iraq, a national discussion of our foreign policy goals and treatment of veterans is required.
On Saturday, October 25, I and many other Ottawa citizens participated in a candlelight vigil at the National War Memorial for Corporal Nathan Cirillo, the young Canadian soldier shot and killed at his post on October 22 at that same memorial. It was windy, and candles had to be relit several times, while people’s breath was visible in the chill October air. As people filed to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier to lay flowers, candles, letters, or simply to pay their respects, an impromptu chorus of “O Canada” grew from the crowd. This was the second death of a Canadian Forces member that week, following the death of Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec, on Monday, October 20. Both of these men were targeted and killed because of the uniform they wore.
More recently, Private Steven Allen died of injuries suffered after a training incident at CFB Wainright in Alberta this past Wednesday, November 5th.
These three are simply the latest Canadians to have died while serving our country, and as we move past this year’s Remembrance Day on Tuesday, where Canadians across the country remembered them and the countless others who have died in service to Canada and the very values we hold dear. Notably, this year’s Remembrance Day came at a time when Canada has just begun its involvement in the current Iraq engagement, with the Canadian government making the decision last month to send a contingent of CF-18s and support aircraft to aid in on-going airstrikes against the Islamic State, and following a summer of questions surrounding Canada’s NATO commitment.
The current government has certainly proven that it is willing to support the idea of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF), redoubling our national cultural awareness over the 100th anniversary of the First World War (a project which, despite criticism, I do believe is an admirable endeavor), returning to the historical titles of the various arms of the CAF, and celebrating the end of our participation in the Afghanistan mission with ample ceremony this past May. However, behind this facade of support, there would appear to be a disturbing lack of substance.
With regard to Canada’s NATO commitment, much was made over the NATO Summit meeting in Wales at the beginning of September, when NATO officials were hoping to push for greater military spending from member countries, up to the two percent of a country’s GDP target. This came at a time of deteriorating conditions in Ukraine, and a hardening of stances from alliance members toward Russia. However, of the 28 members, only four, the US, Estonia, the UK, and Greece have met that target thus far. Plans to discuss the two-percent target were allegedly derailed by both Canada and Germany. Perhaps correctly, government officials stated that “an arbitrary target” was not prudent, and that a preference for smarter, targeted spending was proposed. Admittedly, estimates put a price tag of at least $60 Billion of new spending over the next decade to meet the two percent goal, as Canada’s current military spending hovers around one percent of GDP. Other concerns raised by NATO officials around the time of the summit included Canada’s retreat in other areas, such as various surveillance programs, slated to save the government roughly $90 Million a year.
The question of military spending is of course a difficult one, as the money needs to come from somewhere. However, perhaps some eyebrows were raised when the government recently unveiled a number of proposed tax breaks, including the both much lauded and much criticized “Family Tax Cut”, permitting Canadian families with children under 18 to allow parents to “split” their income with a spouse for tax purposes, and which alone is due to remove roughly $26.8 Billion, by some estimates, in possible tax revenues over the next six years. However, I digress.
Certainly cutting back spending on the Canadian military is not inherently a bad thing. We had just finished our contribution to Afghanistan after all, and domestic concerns of reducing deficit spending were of particular salience to the party that also seeks to identify itself with fiscal conservatism. In a vacuum, these cuts would have been understandable, and can perhaps still be viewed as sensible governance, but several key factors offer a counter-point to this proposal. The immense amount of tough-talking rhetoric we have employed on the world stage in light of several ongoing conflicts, the usage of the budgetary resources saved by these cuts, and finally, and perhaps most importantly, the state of our veterans’ services.
Canada’s rhetoric over the past number of years has noticeably increased in intensity, over a range of ongoing conflicts, from the Middle-East to Ukraine. From our stances against the Islamic State in Iraq, and Russia in Ukraine, the current government has been very vocal in its criticism of those it views as acting contrary to the beliefs and values that we Canadians hold dear. I and many other Canadians are largely inclined to agree with these positions, and Canada does have much it can contribute to the promotion of international peace and security, and we should, but our actions do not seem to match up with our words. In September, Scott Feschuk wrote an article for Maclean’s highlighting his views of the failures of the Canadian government to back up its current rhetoric with commensurate action. While Feschuk’s piece is perhaps filled with similarly rhetorical invective, his analysis of recent statements from members of the government on a range of international issues, ranging from Israel/Palestine, the Islamic State, and the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, points to a number of issues. We are speaking loudly, while seemingly carrying a very small twig.
Carleton professor Elinor Sloan recently highlighted a number of outstanding issues regarding Canada’s military equipment (a seemingly perennial Canadian political problem, with a rich history dating back to the early 20th century government of Sir Wilfrid Laurier and the Naval Service Bill of 1910, but that is perhaps another topic best left for another time). Focusing on the CF-18s, and the CP-140 Aurora aircraft, Sloan points out that the original expiration date on these aircraft is fast approaching, while the question of new military procurement is perpetually punted down the road. This is of course part of a wider trend, seen in discussions of Canada’s naval procurement, the decades long search for a Sea-King Helicopter replacement, and the list goes on, and embarrassingly on. Difficulties in procurement are tied with the aforementioned cuts to military spending. While the government announced last week that it had approved some $652 Million in additional military spending, this is weighed against the roughly $3.1 Billion reduction in spending announced in the last budget. The government added the caveat that it would restore that funding in four years, mainly planned for the sort of procurement projects mentioned above, but four years is a long time, governments change, as do priorities, and the current international environment, with Canadians once again engaged abroad, would seem to suggest that we cannot afford to continue to kick the can down the road.
I have already touched on some of the spending priorities of the current government and the quest for a balanced budget so that leaves the final point, that of the current state of the Veterans Affairs portfolio.
There is a growing, vocal movement of veterans who have become highly critical of the current government`s handling of Veterans Affairs. Criticism of the new Veterans Charter has been prominent, largely regarding the institution of lump-sum payments, rather than pensions, that injured veterans receive, as well as the closure of numerous Veterans Affairs front-line offices across the country. Results from the Parliamentary Budget Office describe the monetary amounts of government spending cuts to Veterans Affairs, apparently $3.4 Billion this year. The government refers to this as cutting out unnecessary bureaucracy and dead-weight and will not affect the quality of services provided, but veterans groups remain largely unconvinced.
Former-Senator and retired Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire wrote in May, following the ceremony celebrating the end of the Canadian Armed Forces Mission in Afghanistan, that “beyond ceremonies – which are important – our country must honour its social covenant with veterans by making them and their families whole where their service has resulted in injury.” This social covenant, between Canada and those who have served on its behalf, must be met with more than just words and symbolic gestures. It requires programs and tangible, working services and support systems, all of which do cost tax-payer dollars. But as Canada ended the longest military commitment in our history as a nation, it is somewhat baffling that the repeated defence of current spending practices is that Veterans Affairs spending has grown in equal measure with other government departments. One would think that after over a decade at war, there would be a need for increased spending on veterans’ programs, not merely a maintenance of the status quo. For the roughly 2,000 Canadian soldiers wounded during Afghanistan, and all the others in various other engagements abroad or training at home, despite those who would argue otherwise, I believe that there is in fact, a “moral obligation” to honour this social covenant.
What is perhaps most astonishing about all this is not that the party that touted itself as the supporter of the Canadian Forces, of Canadian Northern Sovereignty, and, at the time, of the War in Afghanistan, has distanced themselves from this as evidenced by budgetary actions, but rather that yet again, we Canadians have allowed this to happen.
Perhaps it is time Canadians took a look at what we really envision for our forces, and for our role in the global system. If we are truly comfortable with continuing to annoy our erstwhile NATO allies, to leech off the United States for continental defence, and to keep punting the Arctic Sovereignty issue down the road, then well done, we’re on our way. But if we actually intend, and desire, to address these issues with a modern, fully capable military as many Canadians’ reactions to the Iraq mission and Arctic sovereignty issue seem to indicate, we’re going to have to pony up the cash. And if we’re going to continue to put our men and women of the CAF in harm’s way, then we had best be sure they are receiving the support and care they require when they return home.
We are all culpable, as Canadians, not simply the ruling government of the day, in maintaining this record of neglect for our veterans. We were all very pleased to go out and stand vigil, on that Saturday night, and over the past decade on the “Highway of Heroes,” while the war in Afghanistan was on (for goodness’ sake, the Canadian rock group The Trews even made a song about it, although to their credit, the proceeds from its sales go to the Canadian Hero Fund, with the goal of providing scholarships for the families of fallen soldiers, for more info, please click here). But our support must go beyond simply vocal affirmations, or showing up to events.
With the recent statistics from the defence department that show that 160 Canadian Forces personnel had committed suicide between 2004 and March 31, 2014, more than the number of Canadians killed in Afghanistan, it is apparent that something must be done. We must remember these 160 individuals as well. Michael Blais, CEO and director of Canadian Veterans Advocacy made the point too, in March of this year, that these figures do not cover those service members who have retired, as those statistics are not tracked by DND or Veterans Affairs, but that Veterans Affairs “has an obligation” to do so in order to address the issue.
This year’s Remembrance Day ceremony in Ottawa was by some estimates one of the best attended in recent memory. Ottawa police estimated roughly 50,000 people were drawn to the memorial where almost three weeks ago Cpl. Cirillo was shot and killed while standing guard. It was announced that the memorial would be rededicated to add the dates of the War in Afghanistan, and the South African War. These are fitting, and appropriate gestures, but we can and should be doing more.
As we move past Remembrance Day this year, it is apparent that it is no longer enough to simply put on a poppy, or stand at a vigil, wear a yellow ribbon, attend a ceremony, and subsequently pat oneself on the back and feel satisfied in one’s support of the veterans. Because, in case anyone was paying attention, this is surely not enough.
We as individuals can offer better support, through our actions past the first two weeks of November, and by holding our political representatives to account, and as Canadians we need to hold this discussion about what we truly want from, and for our Canadian Forces, and for our foreign policy. These questions and this discussion must go beyond November. As we prepare for an upcoming election year, and head to the polls in 2015, this subject should be borne in mind by Canadian voters of all stripes across the country. It is perhaps all too easy to criticize sitting government’s spending choices, but if we as Canadians do not wish to “break faith” with the living, and honour that social covenant with those who have served, and those who continue to serve and defend our country, we need to be demanding answers from all of our elected officials, as well as tangible proposals from all parties to address these issues.
George Stairs is a second year M.A. candidate in the Conflict Analysis and Conflict Resolution field at NPSIA.