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Views And Opinions

A Ministry Of Education For Defence 

The Canadian Defence Academy at Two Years Of Age

by Dr. A.J. Barrett

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Our first Commander’s barber thought our formation’s title made it sound like a ministry of education for Defence.1 It is not a bad working description of the Canadian Defence Academy (CDA).

The CDA is not the first attempt at a “ministry of education for Defence”. In 1970, hard on the heels of unification, the Canadian Defence Education Establishments (CDEE) was created with the mandate to centralize officer education and then to supervise it.2 Barely three years later, the CDEE was replaced by a command structure that persisted, more or less, and with varying acronyms, until the formation of the Canadian Forces Recruiting, Education and Training System (CFRETS) in 1995. Located at Canadian Forces Base Borden, the CFRETS never harnessed the currents of change in military education in Canada and throughout the world. After seven years, CFRETS Headquarters closed, and was replaced by the CDA on 1 April 2002.

The CDA is not a reincarnation of the CDEE, nor is it your average Canadian Forces (CF) headquarters. It was designed to be very different. Many of the founding principles were articulated in the 2001 Consulting and Audit Canada Study, commissioned by the Vice-Chief of the Defence Staff.3 This Study identified three strategic objectives, three layers of operation, nine primary functions, and made fourteen recommendations. The actualization of the CDA has, in the main, been remarkably faithful to these recommendations. The result is a boldly innovative, even revolutionary construct designed around a few core ideas:

  • A single CF agency must take active responsibility for Canadian defence education;

  • The intellectual capacity of CF members is a prime resource to be nurtured, honed and exploited;

  • Members of the CF can participate actively in their own professional development;

  • There can be multiple training pathways to achieve military qualifications;

  • The civilian educational community offers significant opportunities for the professional development of CF members; and

  • A coherent, flexible and well-structured professional development system offers substantial economies and efficiencies.

The Canadian Defence Academy is both a victory and vindication for the many who argued for so long that a sound professional education rests at the heart of defence reform. The burden of proof now falls upon the CDA to show that a professional development system based on these principles can be managed, and that it can be managed efficiently and economically.

This is a significant challenge without doubt, but one more readily achievable than a naive assessment would suggest. No massive overhaul of existing institutions is needed, nor is great investment required. The essential elements are in place or readily accessible. There are global currents of change stirring in defence education, and education itself, and they are largely aligned in the direction the CF needs to take in this area. There are revolutionary developments in learning technologies and learning techniques. Furthermore, there is a new generation that is enthusiastic and impatient to learn. To harness these currents of change, the CDA must weave the internal and external engines of learning into extensive and supple networks, and administer them with an open, flexible and dynamic governance structure. This military ‘Learning Architecture’ will supplant the closed training structures that once characterized CF professional development. It is closer to realization than most would imagine, and much of it is self-assembling without much encouragement or assistance.

The internal engines of the Learning Architecture are the Royal Military College (RMC), the Canadian Forces College (CFC) and other CF schools, and the new Defence Learning Network with its Learning Career Centres located on every CF base. The external engines are an emerging consortia of universities and community colleges, international partnerships such as the Advanced Distributed Learning (ADL) initiative of the Partnership for Peace Consortium of Defence Academies and Strategic Studies Institutes,4 and any other legitimate institutes of learning accessible to the individual CF member, whether by direct attendance or via the Internet.

All these learning engines are now available for use. The main work is building linkages and developing governance. The obstacles are neither institutional nor financial. The senior leadership of the Department and the CF has clearly articulated the vision through Officership 2020, NCM Corps 2020, and HR 2020.5 The most serious obstacle to rapid progress is perhaps the great training burden of the CF, which exerts a constant pressure for short-term solutions and quick fixes, inevitably sacrificing tomorrow for today. To reverse this negative spiral will demand a clear vision, trust and patience. What is required now is the creative collaboration of the CF’s managing authorities and a willingness to proceed step by step as windows of opportunity appear. In this collaborative effort, the CDA’s role is to provide imaginative and active leadership. Where the CDEE was established to execute a grand scheme, the CDA must instead be an agent for continuous change and reform.

Informed opinion and our own recent experiences both point to the importance of a CF whose members have “the intellectual and critical-thinking skills to understand the environment in which they now operate, and the capacity to respond to situations they have never encountered before.”6 The practice of defence and the maintenance of security calls for the training and education of literally armies of people, and, if there is ever to be a managed peace on this planet, then one must think deeply about the education of soldiers. Much will be asked of our military professional development systems. The Canadian Defence Academy, Canada’s response, is a world leader. It must be unique among military headquarters; it will certainly be unique among “ministries of education.” As the CDA wrestles to find a balance between the military and academic cultures, it must chart its own course, avoiding both the Scylla of blindly emulating university and college patterns, and the Charybdis of routine military function. The greatest enemy will perhaps be normal cyclical processes. Without a regimental tradition, military memory is short, while academic memory is much longer. It is not yet certain how an appropriate corporate memory may be embedded within the CDA. New military directors will naturally seek to align CDA activity with normal CF processes. The temptation on the part of the CDA’s constituent units – such as RMC and CFC – to press for restoration of the status quo ante CDA may be equally hard to resist. To succeed, the Canadian Defence Academy must find an accepted and valued place in both the military world and the educational world. Conversely, there must be a place for both soldiers and scholars within the CDA.

Paraphrasing the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, we may define a Canadian defence academy as a “society of distinguished soldiers and scholars, active and retired, which aims to promote and maintain standards in Canadian defence education.” In this sense, the CDA belongs to us all. As it strives to reflect in its vision, mission and objectives the distilled wisdom of the broader defence and security community, it will also reflect the institutional health of the CF.

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Dr. A.J. Barrett is Director of Learning Management at the Canadian Defence Academy.


  1. RAdm D.C. Morse, first Commander of the CDA, describing a visit to the barbershop.
  2. In 1969, the Officer Development Board (ODB) submitted the now-celebrated Rowley Report, the Report of the Officer Development Board (Ottawa: Department of National Defence, March 1969). The Report proposed a single Canadian Defence Education Centre functioning ‘year round’ in Ottawa-Hull that would develop into a University of the Canadian Forces, complete with a federal charter. In 1970, the ODB was reconstituted as the CDEE. A detailed discussion of the CDEE and other command and control structures is given by Richard A. Preston: To Serve Canada, A History of the Royal Military College Since the Second World War (Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 1991). See also the study prepared for the Vice-Chief of the Defence Staff: Governance Framework for a Canadian Defence Academy (Ottawa: Consulting and Audit Canada, 2001), and the memoirs of General J. V. Allard: Mémoires (Ottawa: les Éditions de Montagne, 1985), p 403.
  3. Governance Framework for a Canadian Defence Academy. The strategic objectives proposed for the CDA are worth summarizing here:
    • Add further rigour to professional military education;
    • Enable CF personnel to develop their intellectual potential;
    • Ensure coherent and integrated CF educational processes.
  4. For an example of a university consortium, consult the website of the Canadian Virtual University at <www.cvu-uvc.ca>. Excellent examples of college consortia may be found at <www.ontariolearn.com> and <www.cegepadistance.ca>. To learn more about the Partnership for Peace Consortium, consult <www.pfpconsortium.org>.
  5. Canadian Officership in the 21st Century (Officership 2020): Strategic Guidance for the Canadian Forces Officer Corps and the Officer Professional Development System (Ottawa: Department of National Defence, 2001); The Canadian Forces Non-Commissioned Member in the 21st Century (NCM 2020): Strategic Guidance for the Canadian Forces Non-Commissioned Member Corps and the NCM Professional Development System (Ottawa: Department of National Defence, 2003); Military HR Strategy 2020: Facing the People Challenges of the Future (Ottawa: Department of National Defence, 2002). There are other important studies that followed the Rowley Report and the CAC Report gives an excellent summary of them. Curiously, the Officer Development Review Board (1994) study is omitted.
  6. The CDA website is <www.cda-acd.forces.gc.ca>.