Defence Minister Bill Blair is pushing the Prime Minister’s Office and the Department of Finance to boost defence spending ahead of the fall mini-budget.
In an interview at the Halifax International Security Forum, Blair told reporters that he’s been “very clear” the Canadian Armed Forces needs more funding for Canada to meet its “aspirations.”
The push comes at a time when the Liberal government is attempting to reduce spending across the board, including cutting hundreds of millions from the defence budget. Blair made the comments just days before Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland is scheduled to table a fall economic statement, a mini-budget updating the government’s spending plans.
Blair said he would not characterize the discussions as a battle between his office and the CAF on one side and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s office on the other.
“I think there are, you know, very important considerations and discussions that are taking place within government about, you know, the priorities of Canadians … There are issues around affordability and health, which Canadians are very concerned (about),” Blair told reporters on the margins of the conference. At the same time, my job is to make it very clear that we need to continue to make significant new investments in defence in order to meet our obligations and to keep our country safe.”
It was a message Blair delivered repeatedly at the Halifax forum, an annual gathering of military members, academics and civil society groups to discuss security and defence issues. Held over three days at the Westin Hotel in downtown Halifax, security types mingled over hors d’oeuvres and drinks between panel discussions on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, China and the Israel-Hamas war.
Those discussions were broader than Canada’s contributions to peace and stability. A report recently released by the Department of National Defence raised questions about just how much the country can do.
CAF on an “unstable foundation”
DND’s Departmental Performance Report – an annual self-assessment on how well the department met its own goals – noted two major factors straining the CAF’s ability to operate.
The first is Canada’s support for Ukraine, now well into its second year of attempting to beat back Russia’s invasion. Those contributions include equipment and supplies from the CAF, which has “decreased our existing inventory,” the report notes.
The second factor is an increase in the “frequency and intensity” of natural disasters that the military is called on to assist with domestically. The report noted that last year there were 11 emergency requests for military assistance within Canada, on top of six permanent requests for assistance.
“Maintaining this tempo was not easy – the growing demands for CAF responses challenged the already unstable foundation of operational readiness given personnel shortfalls, equipment deficiencies, and insufficient sustainment including critical stores of ammunition,” the report reads.
“Resolving this situation will require strengthening the institutional foundations of readiness that are critical to meeting Canada’s domestic and global defence and security objectives.”
It means that the CAF can’t perform multiple major operations at the same time, which is a requirement under the Liberals’ own 2017 defence policy.
“Readiness of CAF force elements has continued to decrease over the course of the last year, aggravated by decreasing number of personnel and issues with equipment and vehicles,” the report noted.
Gen. Wayne Eyre, Canada’s chief of defence staff, said that “given the current trajectory” the Forces are going to be facing challenges just maintaining the equipment, ships and vehicles it currently has.
In an interview with Global News, Eyre also noted that the CAF is “dangerously low” in what he described as “vital, decisive munitions,” partially due to donations to the Ukrainian military. If Canada were to be embroiled in a major conflict, Eyre said, the Forces would run out of ammunition within a matter of days.
“And so every time that we look at donating ammunition, it’s calculus. How much risk can we take, which is a lot to be able to supply ammunition to Ukraine,” Eyre said. “The industrial capacity in this country is not where it needs to be. It needs to ramp up rapidly.”
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“Chronically underinvested … for years”
John MacKay, the Scarborough Liberal MP who chairs the House of Commons national defence committee, said Canada has “chronically underinvested in defence, diplomacy (and) development for years.”
MacKay views the world as going through a great “re-ordering” – with democratic governments on one side and “anti-democratic” governments banding together.
“We are not as well prepared as we should be,” MacKay told Global News in an interview. “I think that Canada’s priorities, as expressed through budgets and governments, are going to have to be changed because we’ve got no choice.”
But MacKay noted that spending on national defence and putting a real push on foreign affairs are not exactly vote getters. The Liberal government is currently plummeting in the polls, with most national-level polls predicting a convincing majority government for Pierre Poilievre’s Conservatives if an election were held today.
While deep conversations and insight into global conflict were shared within the Halifax forum, MacKay acknowledged those aren’t the conversations being held around kitchen tables across Canada.
“There’s no constituency for defence and security. I can knock on doors all day every day in Scarborough-Guildwood and no one will say ‘reinvest in defence or development or diplomacy.’ They just won’t,” MacKay said. “They have domestic concerns and pretty legitimate domestic concerns. And it’s a brave politician who fails to respond to their constituents’ concerns.”
James Bezan, the Conservative ‘shadow minister’ for national defence, lambasted the Liberals for planning to cut from the defence budget. Asked if a Conservative government would reverse those cuts, Bezan said that a Conservative government would “honour” their commitments to NATO.
Asked if that meant boosting defence spending to at least two per cent of GDP – the longstanding NATO target that Canada has consistently fallen short of – Bezan said “we will always honour what we commit to do as a country.”
“We will always invest in our Canadian Armed Forces to make sure those Canadians who step up to serve, that we’re giving them the tools to do the job that we ask (them to do).”
DND’s latest projections put overall defence spending at $26.93 billion in 2023-24, falling to $25.73 billion in planned spending for 2024-25 – a difference of roughly $1.2 billion.
Freeland – who also serves as finance minister – is expected to table the government’s Fall Economic Statement on Tuesday. It’s not clear how much detail on future defence spending plans that document will include.