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Two soldiers at sun set.

Photo by Second Lieutenant K. Barling

Last Light – Facing Uncertainty. Can our future defence policy transcend the past, or are we doomed to repeat it?


by Major Jeff Tasseron

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Realism – that should be the operative word in our definition of international aim; realism in how we read the world barometer; realism in how we see ourselves thriving in the climate it forecasts. For we must begin with a concrete appraisal of the prevailing atmosphere – conscious always that rapid change is likely to be its chief characteristic.

Pierre Elliot Trudeau, May 1968

Though speaking in a defence context and during a world geopolitical climate vastly different than that of the present, Mr. Trudeau’s statement1 displays a timeless quality that is enviable in its simplicity. While it might be argued that his administration faced a significantly less complex defence challenge in addressing the straightforward duality of Cold War superpower politics than confronts Canada today, one might also admit that this relative ease was counterbalanced by the omnipresent spectre of nuclear conflict. Nevertheless, speaking powerfully to themes of integrity and self-awareness in the face of uncertainty, Trudeau’s words are as apt today as they were 35 years ago, and suffer little for the fact that, for his own time and government, the goals of realism and honesty in determining foreign and defence policy proved as difficult to achieve as they are today.

In the context of the current defence policy debate facing our country, the need for honest, realistic self-appraisal has rarely been more evident. The tenor of the defence policy debate in Canada has changed unmistakably in the months following the terrorist attacks of 2001, with a commensurate effect on the visibility of Defence, both as an institution and a practice.2 In this regard, the sudden and terrifying transition of the new world disorder3 from theory to practice provides us with an unprecedented lens through which we can view not only the proximate effects of our past decisions, but the viability and advisability of staying the course into the uncertain waters that lay ahead. Successfully confronting these changes will require a frank and realistic discussion of the adversities and opportunities now confronting the Canadian Forces, the Department of National Defence, and Canada as a whole.

To frame some elements of the growing debate, this paper examines several of the so-called “invariants”4 confronting the Canadian defence policy-making process. As laid down by R.J. Sutherland, these include an untidy collection of factors which shape and limit defence policy, ranging from geography to economy, political structures, and even national beliefs and illusions. Dr. Douglas Bland’s seminal essay on Defence Policy-Making5 provides a counterpoint to this examination. By continually probing Bland’s “facts of national life” in the context of Sutherland’s “invariants”, this paper seeks to challenge their implications where a case exists, and reaffirm their applicability where circumstances warrant.

A cormorant.

Photo by Captain C. Bazarin

Transiting Cormorant – Defence Policy in the North. Even if the water warms, will Canada dip in more than a toe?


Whenever discussing the limiting factors of Canadian defence policy, the almost overwhelming effect of Canada’s geographical disposition inevitably emerges. To an unparalleled degree, Canada’s military is confronted by the implied requirement to defend the indefensible. Paradoxically, the vast size of the country works to favour defence, even as it renders it a virtually impossible job in traditional, physical terms.6 Though many commentators have seized upon this as evidence that there is no credible threat to our national existence,7 this oversimplifies the effect of geography. There are many threats short of those that directly endanger national existence and/or territory to which the government must be prepared to respond that still fall into the category of “geographic defence.”

In the distant past, the need to ‘defend’ our vast territory had been met by the British Empire in the traditional but ultimately unsustainable manner of garrisoning key points, settlements, and border areas. But even with fixed, well-known centres of gravity, the operational and tactical challenges confronting attacking forces were immense. Canadian domestic military history is replete with harrowing tales of how terrain and the elements combined to decimate armed contingents, both defender and aggressor, and how the various conflicts between our nascent nation and its southern neighbour came to be overshadowed by the sheer scale of our geography and the virtual impossibility of meaningful occupation.

Modern “annexation paranoia”8 notwithstanding, the non-existent threat of physical invasion has today been largely subsumed under the rubric of “sovereignty concerns.” As Admiral Timbrell has pointed out, however, there is still a dichotomy that requires careful thought if it is to be untangled:

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... Sovereignty is not the same as security. Without security, sovereignty cannot mean very much.... [I]t would be possible for Canada to lose a large measure of sovereignty without increased danger of invasion, destruction, or loss of territory. Moreover, some of the sources that threaten our sovereignty could be our strongest allies for the preservation of security. Whereas our security is bound up with that of our allies, our sovereignty is our own problem, to be defended by ourselves alone.9

To those of an anti-American bent, such a statement may be an anathema, but just as the world must begin to grapple cautiously and pragmatically with the reality of a uni-polar superpower dynamic, so too must Canada confront its ‘sovereignty demons’ with respect to how that same superpower might be expected to behave in its backyard.

In general, issues of geography as they pertain to defence have become much more diffuse: in coastal areas, ‘defence’ tasks of surveillance and control begin to impinge on immigration policy, border control, and criminal investigation and deterrence. In the North, the issue of global warming and the potential opening of a polar waterway to rival the Panama Canal are slowly forcing Canada into a more sophisticated consideration of its rights and responsibilities with respect to control of its territory. Though history might suggest that any change is doomed to be reactive rather than proactive – reflecting Douglas Bland’s contention that the military establishment cannot reasonably expect logic to drive politicians or domestic policy10 – this presupposes that the only significant determinants of defence policy will issue from defence-centric challenges. In the case of our northern waterway, the relative paucity of real defence capability may yet force significant reconsideration of our current force structure. This may in turn allow the Department to leverage a fluid and evolving domestic policy environment to preserve its hard-won capabilities as a hedge against future national needs in the international arena.


Even in 1984, the drawback of using territorial sovereignty to justify significant defence commitments (and budget allocations) was clear to both defence planners and the government. Apart from the relatively “un-military” nature of many of these roles, it was the understandable preference of the military that for purposes of force structure and procurement, collective defence tasks should figure predominantly.11 Thus, the somewhat controversial12 mantra of “multi-purpose combat-capable forces” can be seen as a simple codification of a longstanding status quo, wherein the military capabilities acquired are largely severed from domestic territorial defence requirements.

Nevertheless, geography continues to exert a variety of pressures on defence policy. For example, Canada’s experiences within NORAD have shown that even seemingly simple, cooperative territorial defence activities are fraught with complexity. Prior to 1986, NORAD was a relatively uncontroversial example of the substantial advantages inherent in living next to one of the world’s superpowers. In a time when ‘national interest’ was the overt focus of formal defence policy,13 the economic and military wisdom of drawing upon American largesse to attain a highly sophisticated degree of control over Canadian airspace was unquestioned. But when issues arose as to the exact nature and expected role of NORAD in 1986 (particularly in the context of American anti-ballistic missile systems), the fiction that Canada could participate in joint defence activities wholly on its own (low-budget) terms was revealed.

To repudiate Canada’s image as a “free-rider”14 the government introduced a ‘new’ defence policy in the form of Challenge and Commitment: A Defence Policy for Canada. The illfated 1987 White Paper attempted to delineate a greater separation between foreign policy and defence policy, with defence playing a complementary role to diplomatic, economic and cultural policies.15 But the content of this aggressive plan for beefing up Canada’s operational capabilities suggests that both the government and the defence establishment were seeking to minimize the possibility that domestic requirements would have adverse resource or force structure implications. To this end, elevating the profile of defence policy within the larger context of Canadian security policy (while maintaining the status quo on existing homeland security arrangements) represented a perfectly logical approach to justifying existing dollar allocations.

Of course, when the rhetoric of planned expenditures could in no way be matched by the actual capacity of the Federal budget, the drawbacks of a predominantly external defence policy orientation were soon exposed. Here, Bland’s contention that defence policy will always tend to be driven by funding availability rather than need is borne out very convincingly. Coupled with the cooling tensions between superpowers and an increasingly strident ‘guns versus butter’ domestic debate, the inadvisability of placing all of the defence eggs in an international basket was revealed when the government announced its intentions to save nearly $3 billion between 1989 and 1994 by cuts to planned spending. Though the budget papers stated that “the basic parameters of the White Paper remain the defence policy of the government...”16 it was clear that the bulk of the reductions would fall to the Department of National Defence to absorb and that the ever-present commitment-capability gap was to widen yet again.


It is now evident, after the 11 September attacks, that a ‘split-personality’ defence policy (one which makes empty gestures to domestic security while it is actually building externally-oriented military capabilities for collective defence) may face a serious challenge when confronted by a seeming breach of homeland security. Somewhat surprisingly, American public opinion17 appears to reflect a common belief that the domestic defence shortfall was due less to problems with defence policy than to an incomplete understanding of the effects of foreign policy direction. This implies that some of the most prominent threats to national security are in the process of being redefined from defence policy challenges to foreign policy challenges. Defence is by no means off the hook, however, as Dean Oliver points out:

Not only must Canadians ask whether existing resources and commitments are sufficient for a reasonable level of national protection at home, but they must also ask seriously, perhaps for the first time since the early 1950s, what capacity does or should exist to forestall, disrupt, or destroy the military potential of the nation’s new non-state enemies abroad.18

This in turn implies that the largely unremarked practice of founding defence policy19 on the premise that Canada should have as little defence structure as it can “get away with” may no longer be acceptable.

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White Paper

The 1970 White Paper.

For a country whose simultaneous invulnerability and indefensibility has sustained an unparalleled degree of detachment of defence policy from significant domestic considerations, the current situation presents a very unfamiliar sort of challenge. Actual domestic defence can no longer be considered a residual governmental function, encapsulated by platitudes to the comforting fiction of “Total Force”, the Supplementary Ready Reserve and the Militia. It matters little that this reconsideration process will likely expose the inability of conventional forces to counteract the new threat. What is important is that difficult questions surrounding the exact meaning of domestic defence (in the context of interlinked, trans-oceanic economic, trade, political and social structures) are increasingly being debated and acted upon.20

But if the fallacy of our invulnerability and indefensibility has been truly exposed, so too has the illusion that we enjoy a discretionary defence relationship with our southern neighbour. By virtue of our location, the United States is bound to provide some degree of protection of our territories, whether desired or not. As Mackenzie King noted in 1938, however:

We, too, as a good friendly neighbour, have our responsibilities. One of them is to see their country is made as immune from possible invasion as we can reasonably be expected to make it, and, that should the occasion ever arise, enemy forces should not be able to make their way, either by land, sea or air, to the United States across Canadian territory.21

These words presage the post-September 11th outcry over a possible “Canadian connection” with the terrorists involved. The implication is stark: if Canada were ever perceived, either through action or inaction, to present a threat to American security, the consequences would be incalculable. There is not a little irony in the idea that our greatest guarantor of sovereignty might also be considered, in some ways, its greatest single threat.

In any case, it should probably be an unsurprising revelation that in an age of increasing globalism, relative geographic invulnerability does not confer absolute immunity from threats to the state or the national psyche. Terrorism of the sort represented by Al Qaeda and its ilk poses little danger to the existence of Western civilization, but when backed up by the threat of weapons of mass destruction and asymmetric warfare, the very real peril to individuals and state populations becomes abundantly clear.

Regardless of whether we view state and political structures or individuals and populations as the primary targets of terrorism, it is probably safe to say that Senator Dandurand’s metaphor of Canada as a “fireproof house” has been overcome by the modern age. In the global, interconnected Western world, the house under threat is no longer geographic, but geopolitical – no longer physical, but perceptual and cultural. In this sense, one can argue that the importance of Canada’s geography as one of the primary “invariants” of defence policy is much diminished, and is being superseded by such elements as geopolitical alignment, historical alliances, and national political and public character.


The second primary “invariant” to be examined is Canada’s geopolitical alignment and alliances, predominantly relative to the United States. Canada’s formal geopolitical defence alignment with its southern neighbour began with the Permanent Joint Board on Defence, established in 1940. The creation of this body marked not only the beginning of a long and fruitful defence relationship between the two countries, but as Dr. Jack Granatstein argues, both symbolically and literally cemented the replacement of the United Kingdom by the United States as Canada’s central defence partner.22

In the immediate post-war period, Canada was a relatively inconsequential player in the formulation of collective security agreements between the North Atlantic allies. Though its position on defence issues tended to mirror its geographic location between the United States and Britain, Canada was unequivocal in its support for the liberalization of international trade and investment – and firmly in line with expressed American economic interests.23 In fact, as Canada pursued ever-closer economic ties with its southern neighbour, and particularly as it shifted the balance of its investments and debt from the sterling to the dollar bloc, it increasingly defined the practical (financial) bounds of many postwar policy agendas, including defence.

As the United States began to shift its attention to the emerging Soviet threat, the nature of the special relationship that existed between Canada and the United States became clearer. With American support, the Marshall Plan allowed Canada to correct a number of significant trade imbalances that had developed (to Canada’s detriment) between it and the Commonwealth. But American motives were not altruistic; Canada had already emerged as their largest trading partner, so they were simultaneously able to protect their interests, secure access to Canadian resources and centres of production, and demonstrate “the ability of democratic freedom loving nations to live, work, and progress together towards lasting peace and prosperity.”24

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With the formation of NATO in 1949, the precursor to the eventual alignment of Canadian political, economic and security policies with those of the United States was in place. No longer would Britain lead in the containment strategies against the Soviets: now the Americans would dominate the Alliance. As its closest neighbour and guardian of the all- important air approaches to the North American continent, Canada began to integrate its defence production capabilities with those to the south, first through the creation of the Joint Industrial Mobilization Committee, and then through the decision of the Canada–US Permanent Joint Board on Defence (PJBD) to begin a program of reciprocal military procurement.25

By 1950, PJBD decisions began to result in coordinated purchases, and the pattern of American domination of continental defence issues began to be established. Though these arrangements were largely to the economic benefit of Canada, the price of partnership was that domestic suppliers increasingly acted in niche production capacities. This made the defence establishment increasingly dependent on American technologies and products in areas where there was an insufficient domestic base for sustainment,26 but by the early 1960s defence production officials had ironed out a series of new agreements governing bilateral defence industrial cooperation in the areas of contracting, R&D funding, and procurement regulations. These arrangements were to extend “indefinitely” with Canadian defence competitors to be considered as equal in all respects to American companies.

White Paper

The 1987 White Paper.

Unfortunately, the imposition of tight spending constraints from the late 1960s onwards and the emergence of a ‘boom and bust’ cycle of defence procurement27 (due mainly to reactive policy-making and government indecision) meant that Canada has been unable to fully exploit the potential of this favourable trade relationship. The institution of mandated offset provisions upon defence purchases and the increasing demand for regional industrial benefits has further diminished Canada’s suitability as a market for either American or foreign defence goods. This has represented a severe opportunity cost for the Canadian Forces, since most indigenously produced equipment has proven more expensive, less capable, and harder to support over the inevitably long period between bursts of “obsolescence-avoidance” purchasing.28 Ultimately, Canada’s inability or unwillingness to leverage a very positive trade position with a natural and relatively undemanding defence-industrial partner has proved detrimental to both Defence and the country as a whole.


To achieve a more comprehensive understanding of the American-Canadian defence relationship, however, it is important to consider factors other than the above-described economic association. As Professor Danford Middlemiss has pointed out, the issue of alliance motivation reveals conspicuous differences between our two countries:

For Canada, the motivation was primarily economic: to maintain a credible defence effort on economically sound basis. For the US, the incentive was mainly military: to preserve Canada’s commitment and contribution to European and especially North American defence.29

Such a distinction seems innocuous, but exposes a key dissimilarity between the Canadian and American defence policy viewpoints. For Canada, defence policy is largely an adjunct to other elements of governmental concern. Except during wartime, it exists both legislatively and functionally on the same plane as any other government sector – an instrument of partisan politics when useful, and basically tolerated as a necessary evil when not being actively employed. In essence, Defence is no better and no worse off than any other resource-intensive government activity, except for the obvious fact that it represents a proportionally richer potential source of ‘capital savings’ in lean economic times.

This contrasts significantly with the American view, which holds the institution of Defence at an infinitely (and some would say artificially) higher level than the majority of other government endeavours. American defence policy is seen as a critical foundation underpinning economic and foreign policy, not as an element that adds “credibility” but simultaneously as a functional capability, an attitude, and a national philosophy that buttresses the state’s self image and (almost residually) happens to be useful as a means of preserving a favourable international climate.

The American logic of defence legitimacy thus places in context the reality that notwithstanding its enormous capability, the United States remains unwilling to shoulder the entire burden of North American defence on its own. American policy regards the ability of countries to meaningfully defend their sovereignty to be an essential attribute of statehood, and all current indications are that it intends to hold Canada to this point. Recognizing the essential impossibility of defending such a vast land mass given the current Canadian resource base, the United States has shown itself willing to share defence responsibilities on very favourable terms, but appearances must be kept up.

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Under such circumstances, Douglas Bland’s contention that “[public] perception [of actual Defence capability] is more important than the facts”30 is revealed as a double-edged sword. In the American court of political (and military) opinion, relatively minor bilateral defence participation of all types may pay disproportionately large dividends to Canada.31 But in those situations where Canadian capability shortfalls require the United States to pick up the slack (such as during the Gulf War and Kosovo when precision-guided munitions were needed, and currently whenever there is a significant strategic lift requirement and the Ukrainian AN-224 fleet is already booked), it is easy for our American ally and even for our own government to forget that as a country we are barely over one-tenth of their population, with a defence budget over an order of magnitude less. Nobody likes a beggar, especially when the beggar next door is a G-8 country that consistently and smugly points out its relative superiority whenever the UN releases a report on the best countries in the world in which to live.

The issue really boils down to the question of “...whether we will be a powerful and effective ally or a weak and reluctant one.”32 Canada has resigned itself to the fact that it will never be a powerful ally, and our potential military effectiveness remains open for debate. From the American standpoint, however, a militarily weak ally that nonetheless demonstrates a certain degree of utility in other areas (if only for moral suasion and UN credibility) is probably tolerable. This has been the informal Canadian approach for many years, to the over-all detriment of the military as an establishment, but probably to the financial benefit of the country. As American disapproval over such things as the Prime Minister’s comments on American foreign policy33 and Canadian vacillation over extra-UN military engagement has reaffirmed, however, is that the real problem for American officials is the idea that Canada might be a reluctant ally.

This indirectly highlights how dangerously misleading it can be to look at defence alliances primarily in terms of root economic advantage. Alliances, even in the modern era, are still about fighting and winning wars. Given the likelihood that Canada will continue to participate with the United States in peacekeeping and peacemaking activities which are not necessarily conducted under the auspices of NATO or the UN, the current paucity of either clear goals or an existing policy base that reflects the realities of non-NATO, non-UN force employment should probably be of significant concern to defence planners and policymakers. As demonstrated by the strife within NATO over the push for international political unity of purpose prior to embarking on a “pre-emptive defensive activity” in Iraq, Canadian policy-makers must challenge the comfortable hypothesis that Western war is primarily defensive, to be waged solely within alliance structures of like-minded countries.

White Paper

The 1994 White Paper.

In the current global political and economic environment, it is by no means certain that shared interest against a common goal (or enemy) will continue to be one of the ‘natural’ drivers of a host of international arrangements. In this regard, if two of the most economically and culturally co-joined countries of the world cannot come to a mutually acceptable understanding on such a major issue, it does not bode well for the junior partner, subject as it is to the predilections of its increasingly unilateral southern neighbour.


While our military relationship with the United States tends to dominate any discussion of modern defence policy, the historical antecedent of Canadian involvement in European affairs still looms large. In policy terms, the high- water mark of this engagement came in 1964 with then- Defence Minister Paul Hellyer’s White Paper, which expanded upon the role Canada had assumed within NATO during the 1950s by reaffirming the need for Canada to be able to field autonomous, strategically significant forces with sufficient structural and capability balance to permit independent employment.34

By 1969 however, Trudeau stated (in relation to the newly-released Foreign Policy for Canadians), “...I am afraid...NATO had in reality determined all of our defence policy.... And our defence policy had determined all of our foreign policy.... [T]his is a false perspective for any country.”35 Though the 1971 release of Defence in the 70s relegated Canada’s NATO role to third place in the priority of defence activity, after sovereignty and the defence of North America, the emphasis in capability remained on meeting the operational commitments for a land war in Europe.

Late in 1974 inflationary pressures again raised the spectre of financial cuts to equipment, personnel and commitments. Under a three-phase process, Defence in the 70s was reviewed in terms of stated tasks, concomitant manning levels and equipment demands, and financial and personnel pressures related to the types of fielded systems. In Larry Stewart’s words, “The review created intense debate marked by strong lobbying with the armed forces as each special branch of the military worked to protect its interests.”36 The unintended consequence of this approach was entrenchment of political opinion around the idea that since the defence institution was incapable of transcending the service view of the organization, it could not be relied upon for unbiased advice on issues of national significance.37 By adhering to the ‘strong service’ model, the military had traded upon its public credibility to procure equipment, not appreciating the corrosive effect this would have in years to come.

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In any case, the outcome of the review was to return NATO to the pre- eminent position within the priority roles of Canadian defence policy it had occupied prior to 1969. Though done ostensibly to counter the growing Soviet threat, official statements such as the Ottawa Declaration (June 1974) and Trudeau’s remarks to the May 1975 NATO Summit Meeting in Brussels38 strongly imply that the government was under a great deal of political pressure to demonstrate a concrete commitment to collective defence. Notwithstanding Mr. Pearson’s and later Mr. Trudeau’s bold words regarding the inadvisability of NATO-dominated defence policy, the ability of the Alliance to compel policy behaviour among its members had been unambiguously demonstrated.

This contrasts with the current situation, which finds NATO confronting perhaps its greatest policy challenge ever (over Iraq) after weathering nearly a decade under continuous pressure as a collective security construct. Though collective defence requirements once dominated the procurement and spending decisions of even the United States, the rapid, budget-driven decline of Western militaries coupled with the increasingly challenging operational milieu has raised the bar for alliance activity in terms of demonstrating value for money. Alliances only work if they demonstrate credible advantages for their membership – and a military alliance such as NATO becomes much less compelling an option as it edges ever closer to being a forum for economic cooperation rather than as an active defence organization.39 With the rise of a credible alternative for Canada in the form of a more American-centric defence policy framework, the costs of NATO membership become less palatable, and the advantages less discernible.

This also seemed the case in 1978, when warming relations with the US and national concerns over the economy and spending seemed again to limit the desirability of maintaining NATO as a “European counterweight.”40 Once again, the only issues that seemed to be driving defence policy were funding availability (rather than need) and domestic policy writ large. The rearmament that had been going on until the mid-1970s had to some extent closed the commitment- capability gap41 but by the end of the decade Canada’s expenditures had again declined relative to the GDP to almost the lowest level in NATO. This indirectly supports the contention that such defence policy had no explicit purpose,42 and validates Dr. Bland’s view that Canadian participation in Alliance activities was largely determined by an informal but long- lasting prime ministerial-policy of minimum engagement.

Though pursuing a policy of minimum engagement implies reduced resource demand, it is Bland’s opinion that such an approach has more to do with a desire to avoid specific commitments than it does with any particular funding concern. If defence policy has no particular purpose or inherently desirable outcome beyond that of simply demonstrating a rudimentary ability and willingness to participate (as Bland contends is reflective of general political and public service belief), actual capability is largely immaterial. As long as the troops can deploy to the desired location and function there in reasonable safety without embarrassing the Minister, the strategic objective may be considered met.

In any case, the desire to avoid defence entanglement was to persist until the defeat of the Liberal government in 1984 by Brian Mulroney’s Conservatives. With Challenge and Commitment: A Defence Policy for Canada the government focused on expanding the commitment to Alliance activities, both as a guarantor of security and to preserve Canada’s international military credibility. But when the nature of the growing budget shortfall became apparent in 1989, and with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the implosion of world communism, the abandonment of planned programs began in earnest. All that remained was for the government to retrench around the core role of peacekeeping – largely ignored in the White Paper, but a seemingly safe harbour of public opinion, demanding only modest resource inputs, and still able to leverage the effect of Canadian presence on the world stage into a continued invitation to the “table”.

Divers off HMCS Iroquois.

DND Photo HS03400d13 by Corporal Shawn M. Kent

Disembarkation. A policy of minimum engagement implies that getting there is not half the battle – it’s the whole battle.


The third primary “invariant” of defence policy, that of political and public character, has been most often expressed in terms of adherence to myth and/or appearance in defence policy-setting activities. One of the most enduring public myths regarding Canadian defence policy revolves around the concept of peacekeeping – “Pearsonian diplomacy” made corporeal as a determinant of a larger policy of international engagement.43 Notwithstanding Robert Bothwell’s view of Pearsonianism as “apparent activity and engagement based on a sense of common peril,”44 it is difficult to gainsay the very real long-term effects that this idealistic policy driver had upon the evolution of defence, both as an organizational entity and as a publicly supported activity.

In the interregnum between the Second World War and the Cold War, Canadian foreign policy had already cemented the move away from geographic and political isolationism that had previously characterized much of Canada’s dealings with the non-Commonwealth countries (excluding the United States). The most significant initial forays into the realm of post-war international politics were exemplified by alliance-building efforts, military and otherwise: membership in NATO and the IMF, participation in GATT talks, and limited partnership in various American endeavours. The image of Canada as a “helpful fixer” was solidified on the strength of its open and enthusiastic commitment to the ideas of the United Nations, and by its willingness to provide material support in the form of troops for every sort of peacekeeping mission.45

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This engagement established the image of the peacekeeper as the closest thing to a pervasive military myth in the Canadian psyche – the disinterested yet moral emissary from the land of tolerance and fair play, resolute and compassionate, yet never too threatening in actual military capability. The irony of Pearsonianism (and of peacekeeping as a prime driver of military posture) was that in swaying the public perception of Canada’s military away from the traditional combat-oriented view of national defence and towards an image of ethically sound yet pragmatic expeditionary engagement, Pearson and his various political successors (of all party affiliations) sowed the seeds of military contraction. This, of course, ultimately undermined their own desires for enlightened participation in international defence activity.

In the economic boom of the 1960s, a relatively large military establishment could be sustained. But as Canadian expectations for domestic programs such as medical insurance and old age security increased, the ability of Defence to justify its expenditures on participation in a foreign military alliance diminished precipitously. Defence and foreign affairs funding shrank as a proportion of the annual budget, while other demands on the tax base grew to the point that significant reallocation would probably have been impossible, had it even been contemplated.46 As compensation, what Bothwell calls the “cargo cult” of the peacekeeper allowed Canadians to preserve the gentle fiction of an enlightened and mutually supportive defence and foreign policy, even as Canada withdrew all of her standing commitments to European defence and embarked upon successive cycles of rust out and partial capability rejuvenation.

The situation was worsened by the unwillingness of Canada’s political leadership to draw upon analysis expertise available within the military itself. In Bland’s words, “(because) the officer corps resides outside the Canadian establishment...they are not sound advisers in the national context, and can bring great harm to the government of the day...” The idea that the officer corps represents a political liability is not a product of idle political hypothesizing. After all, the military contains a core of uniformed public servants who reside largely outside of the establishment, and whose ultimate loyalties cannot necessarily be assured by means of governmental pressure. Thus, when a situation arises where there is potential for conflict between military and government interests (outside of the bounds of the National Defence Act, of course), there is a danger that the officer corps will act independently to thwart or obstruct political will.

The most obvious example of this independence arose in the months following the Cuban missile crisis, during which Canadian and American defence officials colluded in a carefully constructed media campaign to openly oppose stated government domestic policy, ending with government defeat in Parliament. Given Dr. Granatstein’s assertion that this approach represented an impropriety of conduct that served to significantly undermine civil-military relations,47 it is unsurprising that Dr. Bland should identify this mistrust, even today, as one of the “national facts” shaping the defence policy debate.

It has been suggested that the root reason for the lack of trust (and by extension, coordination) between the uniformed services and the political leadership was that there had never been formalized arrangements for directing the operations of the Canadian Forces, at least until the mid-1960s. Political control over the military was an offshoot of administrative and financial controls exercised through other branches of government, and presupposed that employment of the military would be in an international context, following open political debate.48 Since domestic defence affairs between Canada and the United States were largely arranged between military staffs, however, the weakness implied by general political disengagement in domestic military management was exposed when a non-routine event such as the missile crisis arose.

Eventually, as recommended first by the Glassco Commission and later upheld by Hellyer’s efforts to unify the services, the injection of a civilian staff into the headquarters served to re-establish a political presence at the highest levels of command. Undertaken in the expectation that this would be sufficient to reclaim whatever degree of control had been lost, it now seems evident that this approach has failed to address the mistrust at the root of the problem.49 Even now, as the Department fights to convince both the public and parliamentarians that it has transitioned to a more open and transparent management environment, initiatives such as the ongoing Defence Review lurch along largely underground. Though kept concealed on the basis of operational security, they have become much more sensitive for the resource implications surrounding regional industrial and political impacts of the options discussed – and exemplify how this particular approach to “tightening the fist” on defence control has instead resulted in more slipping through the fingers.


Of the four major “invariants” discussed in this paper, it might be expected that Canada’s approach to dealing with resource availability issues would most closely parallel that taken by other countries. Though every nation is unique with respect to its geographic character, the varying nature of its alliances, and its political and public disposition, logic suggests that when developing force structures, countries would first seek to assess the nature of the defence requirement and then work to set funding levels accordingly.

In the case of Canada, however, this approach has never seriously been entertained. The 1970 and 1987 White Papers might be regarded as possible exceptions, but neither survived to see any significant elements of their stated policy implemented.50 This further buttresses Dr. Bland’s suggestion that our limited funding base means that defence policy will always be driven by availability rather than need, and supports the contention that since Canadians are an “unmilitary people”, perception will always trump reality when it comes to acquiring actual combat capability. In short, as long as the public feels comfortable with its contribution, it must by definition be sufficient. But, where the realities of international peacekeeping to some extent rendered this a necessary self-deception, the very real and obvious implications of a weak and declining defence resource base (equipment rust-out, operational peril, and loss of international credibility) represent a serious challenge to the viability of the military endeavour.

The roots of the proportional decline in defence spending can probably be traced back to the 1960s. Following the Korean War, pressure on the government to rationalize military salaries resulted in an informal indexing arrangement against rates of pay for the civil service.51 This increased the pressure on the defence budget and indirectly contributed to the first protracted downsizing of the Canadian Forces, which commenced in 1965 and saw a force of 120,000 whittled down to just over 80,000 in ten years. At the same time, the adoption of the formula-funding approach (wherein defence allocations are based on a percentage change from the previous year) served to insulate politicians from having to consider actual need when allocating resources.

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Figure 1 – Percentage of DSP in Capital

Percentage graph of DSP in Capital.

The tautology of rust-out – buying sustainment with capital funds.

This approach was codified in the 1970 Defence White Paper, wherein Defence Minister Donald Macdonald asserted that “defence requirements” could in no way be considered an input into the defence budget. In his view, “There (was) no obvious level for defence expenditures in Canada.”52 This thinking carried forward into the 1994 White Paper, which in laying out the truism that “...fiscal considerations are a key factor in formulating an appropriate and realistic defence policy...”53 failed to note that deciding what to spend on defence should logically follow on from the explicit description of what the country expects to achieve from the application of defence capability within the context of a larger foreign policy.

Unfortunately, logically setting defence policy as part of an overall foreign policy approach, and then determining what might be achieved given the available resource envelope, would also require politicians, bureaucrats and military officials to elaborate, justify and make hard choices about what they could and could not do – an action that would threaten entrenched interests both within and outside of the Forces. Even (some might say especially) in the relatively rich 1980s there was little appetite for rejuvenating the policy rationale. The result was an increasingly bloated structure, inefficient or badly managed internal processes, and the uncoordinated adoption of roles and capabilities not essential to the core of the Defence effort.

Though the subsequent budget cuts applied to the Department were cataclysmic blows to the stability of Defence, there seems to be little disagreement that by 1993 the resource management situation was out of control and in need of substantial reform.54 In an atmosphere of fiscal gloom, facing a budget deficit in the vicinity of $500 billion (1995), and with national debt servicing charges topping 20 percent of total spending, Defence was an obvious target for reduction. Under a variety of business renewal and re-engineering efforts and various program budgeting and strategic planning initiatives, significant force structure and organizational reforms were enacted. By 1999 the budget had been reduced by 23 percent in real dollars, Regular Force personnel numbers were cut from 88,000 to less than 60,000, and civilian jobs reduced from nearly 37,000 to just over 20,000. The number of headquarters was reduced by one-third, and 25 bases, stations and detachments were closed.

Predictably, with personnel costs rising, the approach taken by the Department to stabilize its structure came at a direct cost to the capital program. In Strategy 2020, published in June of 1999, the Department committed itself to achieving a 23 percent investment of its total Defence Service Program (DSP) in capital. Over the successive three years, this target has been progressively reduced from 23 to 21 percent and below, before being dismissed altogether. At present, capital spending hovers somewhere between 15.5 and 17 percent, depending on the formula used to calculate it (See Figure 1). The minutes of the March 1979 meeting of the Standing Committee on External Affairs and National Defence thus provide an ironic counterpoint to today’s ongoing debate over how to best modernize the Forces:

I am pleased to inform the Committee that despite the $150 million cut, we have been able to maintain the integrity of the major equipment program. You will notice... capital is in the order of 19 percent of the total budget, as compared to the current year figures of 16 percent...To maintain a viable equipment program for the Armed Forces, it is generally agreed that government must invest between 20 and 25 percent of its defence budget in the capital portion....55

Though the recent baseline budget increases announced in February 2003 will have the effect of stabilizing the ongoing sustainment crisis, it remains far from clear that the Department has come to the Rubicon on the need to transform what and how it delivers defence services to Canada. Nor is it certain that an $800 million annual cash infusion will assist it in making the hard but necessary recapitalization choices required in the near future.


To return to the opening theme of this paper, Canada now finds itself confronted by an emerging defence policy challenge too immediate to ignore, and not at all amenable to past approaches. Can we learn from our historic experiences with the various policy “invariants” and make better choices? In Bland’s view, the over-whelming historical response of officers and defence officials to the idea that ad hoc, crisis-based management was the natural state of affairs for defence was to deny it outright. By fiddling on the margins with endless plans and procedures, process re-engineering and organizational adjustments, defence officials were (and are) in fact demonstrating a continuing tendency to “live and work without regard for the facts of national life.”56 Now, faced with difficult choices as a country, Canada must move to engage in a frank and realistic discussion of the most critical elements of the current defence and foreign policy environment. None of the options are particularly palatable.

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If Canada unreservedly supports the American hegemony, it risks its national soul and limited resource base (part of which would represent increased funding to the military) with little or no possible economic gain, though perhaps to advantage in terms of national stability. If we again turn to our trans-Atlantic relationships to counterbalance the growing American political influence, it is unlikely that our current marginal NATO contribution will be regarded as satisfactory, and we risk alienating to some extent the neighbour upon whom nearly 90 percent of our external trade depends. The time-honoured Canadian compromise position of doing nothing seems in this instance to embody the worst of all possible outcomes – lukewarm support looks worse than none at all to an American administration intent on dividing the world into camps of black and white. And any vacillation in our support for the power of the UN poisons Canada’s tenuous but probably still viable role as a moderate middle power, and generally plays poorly in the European Union (excepting Britain).

Though it remains too early to be sure of its outcome, what is certain is that the ongoing Defence Update/Review and accompanying search for administrative efficiencies will test the willingness of defence officials to incorporate the “facts of national life” into their political recommendations. If what emerges is yet another “shaving of the ice cube,” with recent budget increases used to buffer the recursive retreat to an ever-lower energy state (in terms of total military capability), and without a substantive redefinition of which capabilities should survive and which should be eliminated outright, it would be difficult to conclude anything other than that the political and military leadership has not been able to wean itself from its propensity for fiddling at the margins.

Nevertheless, if Defence officials are realistic about what is and will be required, and remain resolute about what can be preserved and even enhanced, there is still plenty of room for manoeuvre within a $12 billion-plus resource envelope. Professor Joel Sokolsky has suggested that within the realm of Canadian defence policy, an over-concentration on external factors has “lent an overly deterministic cast”57 to our analysis, and I share his belief that the Canadian defence decision makers actually do have significant latitude of choice in setting defence policy and force structure. As this essay has attempted to demonstrate, the guideposts for action lie within the “facts of national life,” to the extent that the success or failure of Canada’s future defence policy will likely hinge on our ability to separate true “invariants” from self-imposed and deceptive force structure and political limitations.

Reorienting the strategic conception of the Department of National Defence to account for these factors will be a difficult process, but there are encouraging signs that it is already under way. The formal adoption of results-oriented capability programs, and the increasing interest in strategic performance measurement, are indicative of an organization that is actively grappling with the intractable problems of its internal environment instead of carping about the unreasonable and inconvenient demands imposed by external reality.

Unfortunately, success in the realm of Defence policy setting cannot be guaranteed, nor is there even agreement as to what form success might take. Douglas Bland rightly contends that the Canadian Forces must be prepared to do whatever the Prime Minister might ask of it, but to set defence policy and structure against such a temporal (even cynical) benchmark would surely do a grave disservice to both the institution of the Canadian Forces and the Canadian people alike. Perhaps the definitive (and most unpalatable) realization will be that Defence, beholden to government but ultimately accountable to the people of Canada, can do nothing less than continually strive for the ideal, in blatant disregard of “national facts” and “invariants” – even to the point that the demands placed upon the institution exceed those which can be reasonably expected to be borne by its personnel, and have a small but finite chance of bringing the entire organization to its knees.


Major Jeff Tasseron is the lead analyst for strategic performance in the Directorate of Strategic Planning Coordination.


  1. Address, Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau, to the Alberta Liberal Association, Calgary, April 12, 1969, Statements and Speeches No. 69/8 (extracts) in Stewart, p. 18.
  2. Canada’s positive involvement in Afghanistan (where our troops overcame American reticence to participate as full partners in major combat actions) heightened the visibility of Defence, but was publicly over-shadowed by the fratricide incident at Tarnak Farm and by our inability to sustain the commitment.
  3. Observers argue that the current instability is novel only for the Western world; there is nothing “new” in the new world disorder for non-first world countries, except that the flow of communist largesse has dried up and capitalism has started to make inroads on deconstructing their fragile economies.
  4. R. J. Sutherland, “Canada’s Long-term Strategic Situation” in International Journal XVII, 3 (Summer 1962) p. 201.
  5. Douglas Bland, “Everything Military Officers Need to Know About Defence Policy-Making In Canada” in Advance or Retreat? Canadian Defence in the 21st Century, eds. David Rudd, Jim Hanson, Jessica Blitt, The Canadian Institute of Strategic Studies, 2000.
  6. Eric Harrison describes the extent of the North as “discouraging.” Canada as a whole is nearly 10 million square kilometers. Eric Harrison, “Strategy and Policy in the Defence of Canada,” in International Journal 4, Vol 3, (1949) p. 219. and “The Atlas of Canada,” GeoAccess Division, Canada Centre for Remote Sensing, Natural Resources Canada, 2001.
  7. Sen. Raoul Dandurand’s description of Canada as a “fireproof house” is perhaps the most poetic but not the first allusion to the indefensible quality of the country; successive generations of British Chiefs of Defence Staff commented similarly in seeking to increase their allotted resources.
  8. Worrying about American annexation of Canada (at least in physical, military terms) seems akin to fretting over the possibility of being struck by an asteroid. The probability of the danger is so remote as to be completely irrational as a policy driver – and yet the consequence is so enormous that it continues to exert a morbid fascination for even the non-paranoid.
  9. Address, Admiral Timbrell to the Royal United Services Institute, Victoria, B.C., March 21 1979, Stewart, p. 125.
  10. Bland, “Everything Military Officers Need to Know...” p. 20.
  11. Canada, Senate, Special Committee on National Defence, Proceedings, Issue No.8, 17 April 1984, pp. 33-34.
  12. The “multi-purpose combat-capable” issue sparked heated debate, particularly within the Army, which until 1999 had been forced to compromise on the latter to achieve the former, in the process seriously damaging the overall health of the organization.
  13. Danford W. Middlemiss, et al. “From White Paper to White Paper: The 1971 White Paper and the Trudeau Years” in Canadian Defence: Decisions and Determinants. Toronto, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1989, p. 35.
  14. D.L. Bland and John D. Young, “Trends in Canadian Security Policy and Commitments” in Armed Forces and Society, Vol 15 No. 1, Fall 1988, p. 124.
  15. Rod B. Byers, “The 1987 Defence White Paper: An Analysis”, Canadian Defence Quarterly, Vol 17 No. 2 (Autumn 1987). p. 12.
  16. Danford W. Middlemiss, “Canadian Defence Policy: An Uncertain Transition” in Canada Among Nations 1989, 1989 Budget Papers, p.123.
  17. The US military faced only limited criticism for whatever failings might have occurred with respect to the attacks. Intelligence gathering and analysis organizations seemed to bear the brunt, probably to the detriment of a more considered examination of the role played by four decades of American foreign policy.
  18. Dean F. Oliver, “How Much Was Never Enough? Canadian Defence and 11 September” in A Fading Power, Ottawa: Carleton University, 2002, p. 12.
  19. That which is acted upon, at least – the 1994 White Paper contains a number of useful fictions regarding what can and cannot be accomplished by the current defence establishment.
  20. Witness the formation of new, internally oriented defence structures as OCIPEP (Office of Critical Infrastructure Protection and Emergency Preparedness).
  21. R.J. Sutherland, “Canada’s Long Term Strategic Situation”, p. 202.
  22. J.L. Granatstein, “The American Influence on the Canadian Military, 1939-1963” in Canada’s Defence: Perspectives on Policy in the Twentieth Century, ed. B.D. Hunt and R.G. Haycock, Toronto: Copp Clark Pittman Ltd, 1993, p. 131.
  23. Lawrence Aronsen, “From World War to Cold War: Cooperation and Competition in the North Atlantic Triangle, 1945-1949” in The North Atlantic Triangle in a Changing World: Anglo-Canadian Relations, 1902-1956, ed. Brian J.C. McKercher and Lawrence Aronsen. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996, p. 188.
  24. Mosser to Truman, 4 March 1949, OF, box 238, file OF 48-B, 1948-50, Harry S. Truman Library, in Aronsen, p. 206.
  25. Danford W. Middlemiss, “Economic Defence Cooperation with the US 1940-1963” in An Acceptance of Paradox: Essays on Canadian Diplomacy in Honour of John W. Holmes, ed. Kim Richard Nossal. Toronto: Canadian Institute of International Affairs, 1982, pp. 87-90.
  26. Middlemiss, p. 97. The CF-105 Arrow project was probably the most famous casualty of the shifting nature of indigenous defence production – likely less a victim to backroom, transnational politics than to insufficient cost-benefit return.
  27. Alastair D. Edgar, and David G. Haglund, The Canadian Defence Industry in the New Global Environment. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1995, p. 66.
  28. It would be worth comparing the “sail away” cost of the Canadian Patrol Frigate against the American Arleigh Burke-class destroyer; a vastly more capable platform. The closed-cycle, one-time buy approach used to manufacture and equip these ships has provided only transient benefit to Canada’s indigenous ship-building industry – both major yards involved in the CPF contract are essentially non-viable in either an economic or technological/ functional sense. In effect, the Department of National Defence is both victim of and complicit in the highly politicized process of assigning regional benefits as a normal part of the procurement cycle.
  29. Middlemiss, p. 107
  30. Bland, “Everything Military Officers Need to Know...”, p. 21.
  31. Examples include the deployment of Canadian ships in US Carrier Battle Groups, joint Canada–US air combat exchanges (Red Flag/Maple Flag), and our early and credible participation in ground operations in Afghanistan.
  32. R.J. Sutherland, “Canada’s Long Term Strategic Situation”, p. 222.
  33. In an interview conducted on the one-year anniversary of the September 11 attacks, Mr. Chretien made the unfortunate error of pointing out the possible connection between American foreign policy and terrorism. The enraged outcry indicated that mainstream America remains very sensitive on this topic.
  34. Larry R. Stewart, Canadian Defence Policy: Selected Documents 1964-1981. Kingston: Queen’s University, 1982. p. 1.
  35. Address, Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau, to the Alberta Liberal Association, Calgary, April 12, 1969, Statements and Speeches No. 69/8 (extracts) in Stewart, p. 18.
  36. Stewart, p. 39.
  37. Even now, with the growing emphasis on joint forces and platform-independent capability generation, there is some justification for this view. I would conjecture that the only way the CF will ever be able to materially address this perception will be to advance and defend, in a very non-partisan, collectively-oriented way, the removal of a significant element of force capability in the face of public and political pressure.
  38. Stewart, p. 48.
  39. Many of the countries supported by the Canadian Military Assistance Training Plan have articulated NATO membership as a prerequisite of EU participation. What does it mean if NATO’s function as a military alliance is subsumed by its status as a gateway to economic opportunity?
  40. Stewart, p. 53.
  41. It has been argued that the commitment-capability gap concept is flawed because there was no significant actual commitment of forces to operations during this period. This seems expedient – since it was expected that Soviet forces would stream through the Iron Curtain, forces deployed were, in effect, forces committed.
  42. Joel J. Sokolsky, “A Seat at the Table: Canada and its Alliances” in Armed Forces and Society 16, 1 (Fall 1989), p. 156.
  43. “Soft power” might be regarded as the modern successor to this tradition.
  44. Robert Bothwell, “The Canadian Isolationist Tradition”, in International Journal, Winter 1998-9, p. 77.
  45. The creation of the UN Emergency Force in the Sinai was the earliest example.
  46. Bothwell highlights the vexing Canadian proclivity for expressing strong support for foreign engagement and membership in NATO, without in any way indicating that such support should be accompanied by the commitment of actual resources.
  47. Granatstein, “The American Influence...” p. 137.
  48. Peter Haydon, The 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis: Canadian Involvement Reconsidered. Toronto: General Publishing Co. Ltd, 1993, p. 91.
  49. The current situation with the maritime helicopter replacement program is only the most recent example where government mistrust (engendered by the SAR helicopter procurement process) has resulted in the very costly delay of a major acquisition project, to the detriment of everyone involved, including the government itself.
  50. The repudiation of the 1987 White Paper was particularly brutal; given Dr. Bland’s view (expressed in the pre-1989 time frame) that “It is hard to conceive of the defence establishment readily abandoning the 1987 White Paper”, it is sobering to see how completely the prevailing worldview among defence academics at the time could be so utterly deconstructed in such a short span.
  51. Rod Byers, “The Economics of Defence” in Canada’s Defence..., p. 259.
  52. Canada, Department of National Defence, Defence in the 70s (Ottawa: Information Canada, 1971).
  53. Canada, Minister of National Defence, 1994 Defence White Paper. (Minister of Supply and Services Canada, 1994).
  54. David Detomasi, “Re-engineering the Canadian Department of National Defence: Management and Command in the 1990s”, in Defense Analysis, Vol 12, No 3,1996, p. 330.
  55. Stewart, p. 67.
  56. As quoted in Bland, “Everything Military Officers Need to Know...”, p. 17.
  57. Danford W. Middlemiss and Joel J. Sokolsky, “Introduction: Approaches to the Study of Canadian Defence Policy” in Canadian Defence: Decisions and Determinants. Toronto: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1989, p.2.

Canadian Forces Combat Camera photo IS2003-2408a by Sergeant Frank Hudec

Members of the 2nd Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regiment, part of the Theatre Activation Team in Kabul, Afghanistan which is making arrangements for the arrival of the main body of the Canadian contribution to the International Security Assistance Force later in the summer of 2003.