Civil-Military Relations

The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, left to right, Minister of National Defence Harjit S. Sajjaan, Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) General Jonathan Vance, and Deputy Minister of National Defence Jody Thomas hold a press conference at the National Press Theatre in Ottawa, Wednesday, 8 January 2020.

Listening to the Chief of the Defence Staff: The ‘Blurred’ Boundaries of Military and Defence Advice1

by Daniel Gosselin

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Major-General (Ret’d) Daniel Gosselin, CMM, CD, holds graduate degrees in engineering, public administration, and war studies. He served with General Hillier’s Transformation Team, as Director General International Security Policy in the ADM (Policy) Group at NDHQ, as senior strategic advisor to two Chiefs of the Defence Staff, and as the Team Leader of the CDS Initiatives Group between 2015 and 2017. He was a senior mentor on the National Security Programme for several years, and he teaches strategic command and civil-military relations at the Canadian Forces College.


A few weeks after taking over as Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS) in July 2015, General Jonathan Vance was asked during his first public roundtable in Ottawa what kind of advice he would give the government on Canada’s defence policy. A federal election had just been called, and rumours of a change of government were already in the air. In his characteristic style, the answer was direct and crystal clear: “When I will give military advice to the government, it will be in confidence, and not in a public forum like today.” The simplicity of this statement reflected in many ways the importance he was placing on his responsibilities as the senior military advisor to the Canadian government. Moreover, Vance would not be an activist CDS, and his military advice would be offered in confidence to ministers, Cabinet and the prime minister.3

In statutory law, customs and traditions, the CDS occupies a unique position of expertise and authority in the structure of the Canadian government, and as a result, he is an important national actor shaping and influencing the making of defence and security policies through this professional military advice. The role of military advice is of crucial importance in Canada, both for the long-term institutional repercussions for the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) and for the use of the military, either as one of the dimensions of Canada’s foreign policy, or as a force of last resort in Canada. Military advice is unique, not only because of the weight that is attached to the expert judgement of the CDS, but chiefly because of the potential consequences of any government decision that the military is ordered to implement, particularly military operations. Today’s uncertain and volatile post-9/11 environment and the complex nature of military operations make the government more reliant than ever upon the professional military expertise of the CDS for defence and security policy making. What constitutes military advice, how this advice is formulated by the CDS, and how it is handled inside the machinery of government and listened to by politicians is at the core of civil-military relations in Canada.

The National Defence Act (NDA) is silent on the role of the CDS in providing military advice to the government. There is also no mention of this responsibility in the Queen’s Regulations & Orders, the regulations governing the CAF issued by the Minister of National Defence (MND). The NDA stipulates that the CDS has direct responsibility for the command, control and administration of the CAF.4 The responsibility to provide military advice to the government falls to the CDS as a result of being a commissioned officer appointed by the Governor-in-Council (on the advice of the prime minister) to the senior military position in Canada. This responsibility is granted under the authority of the Crown.5 In keeping with those responsibilities, the CDS advises the MND and Cabinet, and the Prime Minister directly when matters warrant it.

Remarkably, there is no current academic or professional literature in Canada explaining the role of the CDS in providing military advice to government. Even the CAF doctrine is silent on this topic.6 Unlike in the United States, where the literature is abundant and rich, the gap on this subject reflects the scarcity of studies and analyses on uniquely Canadian civil-military relations. The few studies of Canadian national defence and military affairs have overlooked this important dimension. Presented in two consecutive parts, this article therefore offers a discussion and analysis of the provision of professional military advice by the CDS in Canada. It aims to explain what constitutes military advice and to outline how this advice is formulated, processed and tested to reach the MND, Cabinet and the Prime Minister.

APFootage/Alamy Stock Photo M6D26G

US Marine Corps General Joe Dunford, centre right, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, poses for a photo with Ms. Jody Thomas, Canadian Deputy Minister of National Defence, Harjit S. Sajjan, Minister of National Defence, and General Jonathan Vance, Chief of Defence Staff, prior to discussions in the Canadian Parliament buildings, Ottawa, 28 February 2018.

This first part examines the evolution of the spheres of responsibilities for the CDS and the Deputy Minister (DM) of National Defence, starting from the creation of the position of CDS in 1964. It is only through an understanding of the responsibilities and accountabilities of the CDS and the DM that one can fully grasp their respective spheres of advice to government. As this first part demonstrates, the spheres of advice of the CDS and DM have been shaped over the years by significant events, by evolving ideas about how Canadian defence should be organized, governed and managed, and by changing priorities of the government. Because the advisory roles of the CDS and the DM in the National Defence diarchy have never been delineated in statutes, what constitutes military advice (provided by the CDS) and defence advice (provided by the DM) has varied over the years, contributing to institutional ambiguity, frustration and friction, particularly at the highest levels of National Defence Headquarters (NDHQ). This first part concludes with a clarification of what is military, defence and policy advice to government.

The second part of the article examines the politics of military advice in Canada. It describes the manner by which the CDS and his senior officers formulate and provide military advice and explores, as senior military officers learn to navigate the complex world of government politics, the many challenges that can arise in the dialogue and interactions between the military professional experts and the political echelon.7 The concluding segment of the article offers suggestions for senior military officers to adopt when engaging at the political-bureaucratic-military nexus to ensure that the military advice of the CDS is indeed considered.

This study draws from a combination of experience, scholarship and interviews. Because the professional and academic scholarship regarding the role of the CDS and on military advice in Canada is very limited, it would have been difficult if not irresponsible to attempt this analysis without interviewing officials who have and are involved in providing military and defence advice to government. To strengthen the research for this article, I have conducted a series of interviews with past and current ministers and deputy ministers of National Defence, Chiefs of Defence, and other senior officers and officials in government. For many of those officials, confidentiality was the price for their frankness, and I have therefore agreed not to acknowledge a military or civilian official without their consent.

A review of the evolution of the responsibilities, authorities and accountabilities of the CDS and DM can inevitably lead to a discussion with respect to the organization, structure and governance of NDHQ, including the role of the position of the Vice-Chief of the Defence Staff (VCDS).8 A comprehensive analysis of the evolution of NDHQ is clearly beyond the scope of this article. That being said, because CDSs and DMs have continually sought to adapt NDHQ to make it more responsive to their responsibilities and accountabilities, some key aspects of NDHQ governance are necessarily discussed.

The CDS and Military Advice: A Roller Coaster Ride

The two domains of military advice and defence advice, provided respectively by the CDS and the DM, are tied to their responsibilities, accountabilities and professional expertise. This first section reviews this untidy evolution since the early-1960s, mainly through key inflection points that have been decisive in shaping it.

A brief note on personalities is necessary before embarking on this review. In a CDS-DM diarchy saddled with much ambiguity, the occasional confusion and even conflict, but mainly cooperation and compromise, it is obvious that how each CDS and DM understood their role and mandate in this diarchy, and how each delineated their own respective sphere of military and defence advice influenced considerably their interests, priorities, actions and decisions. Personalities do matter. However, in analyzing the evolution of the responsibilities of the CDS and the DM over the years, I have identified the major turning points based on the documentary evidence available, leaving aside, for the most part, the unique personalities of the individuals who were in those positions at the time.

To fully understand the role of the CDS in providing military advice to government, it is necessary to go back to 1964 when the Liberal government of Lester B. Pearson replaced the positions of the Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC), and chiefs of the naval staff, general staff, and air staff by a single new position designated as the Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS). As the government’s professional military advisors, the Committee was collectively responsible for advising “…on matters of defence policy, strategic appreciations, estimates of the risks of war, and other inter-service plans and proposals.”9

DND photo CFC66-11-3

The Honourable Paul Hellyer, Canada’s Minister of National Defence, 1963-1967.

With the creation of the position of CDS in 1964 – and later unification of the three services into the CAF in 1968, MND Paul Hellyer did not seek to limit the scope of military advice provided by his senior officers, but he wanted to have a military establishment that would cease to continually resolve problems, provide advice and develop policies from a single service perspective. The COSC provided a collective forum of experts to discuss issues, before the Chairman would provide the Committee’s advice to the Minister and Cabinet. Hellyer knew well that expert military advice “...tied to individuals, such as service chiefs who have independent institutional interests,” would always be posing a threat to the unified national strategy and structure that he wanted to create.10 Outlining the new defence organization in the House of Commons, he stated that by adopting “...the complete integration of the forces at the top of the command structure,” the advice coming to the minister would now be “streamlined.”11 Hellyer reasoned that a single unified command structure, supported by a more robust integrated joint staff in a Canadian Forces Headquarters (CFHQ) to control all aspects of planning and operations, would look at issues from a national perspective and formulate unified national solutions to Canadian defence problems.12

During the parliamentary investigations of Bill C-90 to amend the NDA and create the position of CDS, three main concerns were raised by those who objected to the idea. First was the question that the MND would now have to rely upon the expertise of a single military advisor. A CDS could simply not acquire sufficient skills, knowledge and expertise to advise with competence on operational and military technical matters outside of his own service expertise, argued some witnesses to the Defence Committee. This aspect also raised the concern of potential favouritism of incumbent CDSs towards their own services when providing advice to the government. Finally, one influential defence critic feared that the Chief would become a “Supremo,” more powerful than any previous military officer in Canada, even to the point of overpowering the Minister.13 Hellyer summarily dismissed all those fears. His solution to the concerns raised was to create a reconstructed Defence Council to provide a forum for “military, bureaucratic and scientific advice” to the minister.14

Through the establishment of the position of the position of CDS, and the creation of CFHQ, which was replacing three separate service headquarters, Hellyer also wanted a strong civil staff group in the department to assist him with the control and management of the military.15 A year earlier, the Royal Commission on Government Organization had recommended that the Deputy Minister be given greater responsibilities, including “…assisting and advising the Minister in the discharge of his responsibilities for the control and management of the Armed Forces.” The Commission had downplayed military experience and expertise, arguing that civilians should be employed “...even in such fundamentally military staff functions as those dealing with plans and operations.”16 Echoing the recommendations of the Commission, Hellyer considered this civilian group, outside the military chain of command and led by the DM, as essential “...for analyzing and reviewing military requirements and the use of resources made available for defence … and capable of reviewing and advising on defence estimates and programs.”17 A strong Deputy Minister group was central to enable the Minister to challenge the military, particularly in broader defence areas outside of unique professional military expertise.

DND photo RE66-1426

Canada’s first Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) after unification, Air Chief Marshal Frank Miller, who served as CDS from 1964 to 1966.

On 15 August 1964, the changes to the NDA took effect, with the new CDS, Air Chief Marshal Frank Miller, charged with the “control and administration” of the CAF. The NDA did not define those two terms, and there was no specific mention made of the advisory responsibilities of the CDS or the DM, a situation that remains to this day.

By December 1967, when Hellyer left the defence portfolio, little had changed in the role of the DM to provide advice to the Minister. Confronted with a crisis of civil-military relations with his generals and admirals over much of his tenure because of his initiative to unify the three services, Hellyer had quickly backed away from his commitment to give the DM greater responsibility on defence issues, thus limiting the senior civilian in the Department of National Defence (DND) to provide advice on resources, manpower, material, financial and audit matters arising from his legal responsibilities.18 The military sphere of advice that was within the purview of the CDS therefore remained quite broad, and included advice with respect to defence and military policies, intelligence and strategic assessments, operations and plans, procurement, and military organization and personnel.

DND photo IH71-152

MND Donald Macdonald meets the troops during Exercise Mobile Warrior ’71.

The situation changed dramatically in 1972 when the independent Management Review Group (MRG), mandated by Minister Donald Macdonald, identified serious defence management problems that demanded action, including greater civil servant involvement in the administration and management of DND.19 The government’s solution was to create NDHQ, merging CFHQ with the Department headquarters, and to change the alignment of responsibilities between civilian and military officials. This radical step to strengthen the role of the DM and to shift important responsibilities away from the military was also driven by a need for the government and the Minister to exercise a more effective oversight, monitoring, and control of the military.

It is clear that in accepting many of the recommendations of the MRG, the government wanted the DM to become the senior defence advisor to the Minister on all Departmental affairs, including to “ explicitly responsible for directing the development of Departmental policies and their recommendation to the Minister, to ensure that departmental policies reflected the intent of the Government.”20 To meet these new responsibilities, two new Assistant Deputy Ministers (ADM) were created, ADM (Policy) and ADM (Materiel).

The new ADM (Policy) was intended to be a senior civilian public servant with “extensive experience in planning and coordination in the context of the activities of the Federal Government as a whole” and who would also be responsible to undertake strategic plans necessary for the formulation of defence policy. In its report, the MRG stressed that the nature of the threats to national security – the prime concern of defence policy, is changing rapidly, and therefore “ the strategic level there is no such thing as a ‘purely military’ requirement.”21

DND photo ISC77-1192

Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau inspects officer cadets at the 25th anniversary of the Collège militaire royal (CMR) de Saint-Jean in 1977.

In essence, the CDS and the military were being criticized for presenting strategic analyses to the government that failed to provide alternative perspectives, policies and objectives beyond the traditional military factors. The Cold War and the threat of nuclear war were rapidly eroding the influence of the military in strategic planning and the national policy process. In 1969, when the government decided to re-order defence priorities and to withdraw forces from Europe, the military and the Department were barely consulted, and mainly regarding how to best implement the withdrawal.22 Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau was not interested in the military and he did not really care for the Department’s point of view or its line of reasoning. The government did not trust its military advisors, finding them either incompetent or merely outdated.23 Minister Macdonald found military advice “...unhelpful, if not antagonistic,” and directed the preparation of the 1971 White Paper without military advice.24

The decision to create NDHQ was clearly aimed at wrestling the development of defence policy away from the CDS, and at providing a focal point with the DM for liaising with other departments and the central management agencies of government. The creation of the Policy and Materiel groups, in addition to the strengthening of the Finance and Personnel groups, immediately realigned the responsibilities and accountabilities of civilian officials and military officers in Defence. In implementing many of the key recommendations of the MRG, the government wanted to make a distinction between pure military advice – mainly operational matters of the CAF – and other types of defence advice dealing with defence policy and management, including all its strategic planning, financial, materiel and procurement dimensions.

The impact of these changes upon the spheres of responsibilities of the CDS and the DM for the provision of advice to the Minister and the government would be quite significant for the CAF and DND. Dr. Douglas Bland, one of the few Canadian academics who contributed significantly over the years to an understanding of the public administration of Canadian defence policy, reasoned that instead of taking the opportunity to make the senior military officers more politically informed by intellectually broadening the military culture to develop the skills to engage and partner on national security and defence policy making, MND Macdonald opted to sideline the generals and admirals to improve defence management.25 It would take an event such the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 in the United States three decades later, and the arrival of General Rick Hillier as CDS in 2005, to trigger a more fulsome re-examination of those domains of military, defence and policy advice.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, detractors of NDHQ complained that the changing role of civilians and military officers had led to a blurring of the responsibilities of civilian officials and military officers, as well as to increased civilianization and bureaucratization at defence.26 They blamed not only senior public servants but also senior officers who acquiesced with the gradual process of civilianization of the armed forces.27 The Task Force on Review of Unification of the Canadian Forces in 1979-1980, and its subsequent review by the next government, concluded as well that “...there had been insufficient sea, land and air environment expertise available to senior decision makers” in Ottawa.28 In short, as the Task Force reported, the headquarters was not responsive to operational matters and the Minister was thus deprived of environmental expert advice. The concerns that had been expressed in 1964 that the office of the CDS would not be able to represent fully the views of the entire armed forces seemed to be prescient.29 To address the issue, MND Gilles Lamontagne directed in September 1980 that the three environmental commanders would become members of the Defence Council and the Defence Management Committee.30

DND photo IH80-57

Minister of National Defence Gilles Lamontagne inspects the Canadian Forces Stadacona Band at the CP-140 Aurora acceptance ceremony in 1980.

The institutional ambiguity that arose with the integration of the civilian and military staff had heightened the conflict and friction between the two elements of the headquarters.31 Admiral Robert Falls, CDS between 1977 and 1980, complained that this new NDHQ arrangement provided public servants with “…a degree of authority over military affairs without responsibility for military accountability or performance.”32 No doubt that the “…clouding of the lines of responsibilities and accountability” inside the defence headquarters, as another CDS characterized the dysfunctional dynamic at play, was affecting how the CDS and the DM viewed their respective roles as military and defence advisor to the government.33

It was not only senior military officers that were unsatisfied with how NDHQ was functioning.34 In 1981, C.R. (Buzz) Nixon, who had been DM at DND for six years by then, expressed his frustration during a presentation to the CF Staff College aimed at explaining his role in the administration of defence policy. Having heard so much criticism of NDHQ during the unification studies of 1979-1980, Nixon presented a slide showing the division of responsibilities between the CDS and the DM, highlighting areas that he considered exclusive to the CDS (courts martial, promotions and discipline), and exclusive to the DM (alter ego of minister, financial, and government interface). But it is “…in those areas that are shown as mixed that the ultimate responsibility is not well understood,” admitted Nixon. He concluded that “…the distinction between the Department and the Canadian Forces and between the Deputy Minister and the Chief of the Defence Staff was blurred” in 1972 with the creation of NDHQ. Nixon also acknowledged the uniqueness of the diarchal advisory positions of the CDS and the DM, stating that on questions of operations, the DM acts as the advisor to the CDS, and vice versa on Departmental matters.35

The end of the Cold War and the events of the 1990s, especially the investigations, inquiries and studies triggered by the Somalia Affair, reawakened the debate about the integrated NDHQ, and in particular, the respective roles of the CDS and DM in providing advice to the MND, Cabinet and the prime minister. As early as September 1994, while testifying to a Special Joint Committee of the Senate and House of Commons which was looking into a new defence policy, DM Robert Fowler had tabled a document titled “The Organization of Canadian Defence,” which outlined in significant detail the responsibilities of the DM and the CDS and the role of NDHQ.36 Approved for release by the Minister, the document certainly represented at the time the most comprehensive description of the scope of military and defence advisory responsibilities of the CDS and DM.

The Canadian Press/Tom Hanson

Chief of Defence Staff General John de Chastelain addresses the Canadian Airborne Regiment during their disbandment parade at CFB Petawawa, 5 March 1995.

The Somalia Commission of Inquiry of 1995-1997, which had been primarily focused upon examining matters related to the deployment and employment of the Canadian military in Somalia, also expressed a strong interest in the “actions, decisions, responsibilities and accountabilities” of the CDS and the DM.37 Both General John de Chastelain and Robert Fowler, respectively the CDS and the DM at the time of decision to deploy the Canadian Airborne Regiment to Somalia, were questioned extensively on their role in providing advice to government. In their final report, the commissioners implied that senior civilian public servants (i.e., DM Fowler) had intruded in military affairs and operational issues, undermining the role of the CDS.38 The Somalia Commission, finding the NDA “…arcane in some respects,” recommended that the authorities and responsibilities of the CDS and DM be clarified in law.39

DND photo ISC93-10208

Robert Fowler (far left), Deputy Minister of National Defence, prepares to depart Canadian Joint Force Headquarters for Mogadishu Airport, Somalia, in 1993.

Anticipating a highly critical Somalia Commission report, three months before the inquiry report was even tabled in the House of Commons, MND Douglas Young released in March 1997 his own Report to the Prime Minister on the Leadership and Management of the Canadian Forces to address issues of leadership, discipline, command and management that were plaguing the Canadian military (Young Report). Because many “...Canadian defence commentators [had] cast doubt on the utility of integrated civilian-military structure [NDHQ] and called for its dismantlement,” even suggesting that the existing structure had contributed in a “...dilution of military advice to government,” Young addressed this critical issue head-on. Writing his report to the Prime Minister, he stated:40

The claim that the current system prevents the Chief of the Defence Staff from presenting unfiltered military advice to the Government is not accurate. The Chief of the Defence Staff enjoys unfettered access to me and, when matters warrant, to you, Prime Minister. Moreover, he attends Cabinet at your invitation whenever important military issues are discussed. Indeed, the Government makes decisions affecting military operations with the benefit of the military advice provided by the Chief of the Defence Staff.41

To make it perfectly clear, Young directed that military advice conveyed to the Minister and the Cabinet be clearly identified as such in all appropriate documents, such as Memorandums to Cabinet, a practice that continues to this day.

Acknowledging some validity to the concerns raised with regard to the “...blurring of the military and civilian accountabilities” at NDHQ,42 Young provided, with one of the documents accompanying his report, the most lucid clarifications ever produced with respect to the authorities, responsibilities and accountabilities of the CDS and DM.43 In explaining one of the roles of NDHQ, the Minister basically divided advice to the minister and the government in three distinct categories: advice on “Canadian Forces matters,” advice on “defence issues,” and advice “related to government priorities, policies and programs.”44

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Minister of National Defence Douglas Young (far left) at a NATO announcement in 1997. 

Although the document stated that it was intended as “Guidance for Members of the Canadian Forces and Employees of the Department of National Defence,” by issuing it under his authority as Minister, and as an accompanying document to his report to the Prime Minister, Young had clearly delineated the responsibilities and advisory roles of the CDS and the DM. Still, despite all the debates between 1994 and 1997 regarding the roles of the CDS and DM, the government did not consider it necessary to amend the NDA.

dpa picture alliance/Alamy Stock Photo D3B6RH

Clouds of smoke rise over Manhattan as the twin towers of the World Trade Center (WTC) in New York City collapse, 11 September 2001. All told, 2,823 people were killed when Islamic terrorists crashed into the WTC aboard two hijacked aircraft, together with 189 dead in a collateral Pentagon attack, and the 44 souls on board a further airliner that crashed during yet another terrorist attack on the same day.

General Ray Henault had been in the position of CDS for just over two months when the 9/11 events occurred. The CAF officer corps of 2001, particularly senior officers like Henault, was a confident group. They were the product of the many stabilization missions of the post-Cold War environment of the 1990s, having been involved in high-tempo operations around the world, and they were rapidly regaining the confidence lost with the Somalia Affair. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, the Liberal government of Jean Chrétien committed to support the U.S. in the war against terrorism, and the rapid deployment in 2001-2002 of special operations forces (SOF), air, sea and land military capabilities to conflict zones in Afghanistan and in the Middle East. The 9/11 attacks in the U.S. heightened awareness and concerns regarding the threat of international terrorism and immediately increased the government priority given to CAF operations and to many departmental activities. Not surprisingly, the status and power of senior military advisors with expertise in modern conflicts and with present-day experience was enhanced.

DND photo KA2003-A306D by Master Corporal Brian Walsh

Prime Minister Jean Chrétien reviews an Honour Guard from the Canadian Contingent to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Kabul, Afghanistan, 18 October 2003.

Assessing the situation in 2004, Bland and military historian Dr. Sean Maloney characterized the change that was taking place in NDHQ and in Ottawa as follows: “Today, the CDS and his senior officers often, but not always, trump the deputy minister and senior public-service policy managers, turning the tables a little on those who had set it in 1972.”45 The arrival of General Rick Hillier as the new CDS in 2005 would turn the tables even more, bringing a new era of civil-military relations in Canada.46

DND photo IS2005-2040a by Sergeant Frank Hudec

The Canadian Ambassador to Afghanistan, Christopher Alexander (right), welcomes Canada’s Chief of the Defence Staff, General Rick Hillier, to Kabul International Airport, 4 February 2005.

Prime Minister Paul Martin committed in 2004 to pursue a more vigorous defence stance for Canada to differentiate himself from the foreign and defence policies of his predecessor. To achieve this objective, he selected Hillier as the CDS to transform the Canadian military.47 When asked in the fall 2004 by the Prime Minister to develop the defence section of the new International Policy Statement, MND Bill Graham acknowledged that he could write the foreign policy dimension since he was just coming out of the Minister of Foreign Affairs portfolio. But he quickly admitted to the Prime Minister that “…for a military review to be meaningful, it had to be written by somebody that really understands the organizational structure, the personnel requirements, and the equipment that will be necessary to do the job.…I would be foolish to go in there and just dicker around as an amateur.”48

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Chief of the Defence Staff General Ray Henault (centre left), and Minister of National Defence Bill Graham (centre right), pictured attending a change of command parade for Brigadier-General Stuart Beare, (right), Commander Multi-National Task Force North West in Bosnia, 1 September 2004.

The government provided Hillier the opportunity to be the architect of a new defence policy, giving him unprecedented influence and control in the writing of the policy statement, one that favoured the CDS’s perspectives, force structure objectives, and procurement goals. In doing so, they dramatically changed the role and influence of the CDS in government.49 The contrast with 1971 could not be more striking. MND Macdonald, distrusting the military, had picked one of his political staff members, a recently minted PhD graduate, to produce a new defence policy, while Graham was relying upon a senior military army officer who had served with the U.S. Army and had just commanded NATO’s International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. The environment and context between 1971 and 2005 were clearly different, demanding radically different strategies. Military expertise was now at a premium.

In addition to transforming the Canadian military and changing the CAF command structure, Hillier wanted to reform military governance at NDHQ to make the headquarters more agile and responsive to the new operational needs of the CAF.50 The most significant change in military reorganization at NDHQ was the establishment of a strong unified Strategic Joint Staff (SJS) reporting directly to the CDS. With Canada’s engagement ramping up in early-2006 in high-intensity, high-risk military operations in Kandahar, Afghanistan, Hillier wanted a more robust unified staff to assist him to strategically command the CAF and to provide military advice to the government. The CDS intended for the new SJS to develop to the point of being able to initiate and conduct strategic military analyses and studies to influence national decision making.51 Such thinking had largely disappeared with the creation of NDHQ in 1972.

Hillier even attempted, without success, to move the operations policy directorate from the ADM (Policy) group to the SJS. Under the Vice-Chief of the Defence Staff (VCDS) group, which reports to both the CDS and the DM, he also re-created the Chief of Force Development (CFD) organization, responsible to conduct future security studies and military capability analyses to be able to better shape future defence policies.52 In sum, for all intents and purposes, within a year of taking over as CDS, Hillier had created an operations-focused military headquarters inside NDHQ, and, more significantly, had strengthened considerably the capacity of the CDS to provide military advice to government on a broad range of CAF and defence matters.

Two types of criticism, relevant to this study of military advice, were leveled at the CDS. Hillier’s vision was clearly inspirational, but it was delivered with a forceful and convincing manner that did not encourage much discussion inside the CAF and DND. Many, particularly in the air force and navy, clearly saw an army-centric vision (particularly with the ‘three-block war’ metaphor). The concerns raised in 1964 that a strong CDS would favour his service above the broader CAF institutional interest seemed, to many observers, to be materializing with this transformation.53

Some critics also argued at the time that the key strategic governance changes inside NDHQ, when combined with Hillier’s commanding personality and significant influence with Minister Graham and Prime Minister Martin, was eroding the traditional balance between the civilian and military staff and leading to the marginalization of the influence of senior public servants inside Defence.54 NDHQ was being militarized, the reverse of what occurred between 1971 and the mid-1990s. Those fears were certainly valid, yet exaggerated somewhat. In fact, the passing of the Federal Accountability Act in late-2006 by the new Conservative government, aimed at improving transparency, oversight, and accountability in government, and the ensuing changes to the Financial Administration Act, which designated Deputy Ministers as ‘accounting officers’ for their department, considerably invigorated the status of the DM at Defence.55

DND photo CK2008-0157-22 by Private Pamela Turney

During a visit to 4 Wing Cold Lake on 28 May 2008, Deputy Minister of National Defence Robert Fonberg (centre) poses in front of a 410 Squadron CF-18 with 410 Squadron pilots after a successful familiarization flight.

As the Departmental accounting officer, the DM is responsible and accountable for all measures to organize resources in the Department, to deliver government programs in compliance with policies and procedures and to maintain effective systems of internal control in the Department.56 With the emphasis upon accountability in government, the advisory role of the DM in areas of defence management, finances, procurement and audit became more exclusive and demanded greater specialized expertise.57 Coincidentally, a few months after the Federal Accountability Act received royal assent, a new Deputy Minister, Robert Fonberg, arrived in May 2007 at Defence. Hillier had worked very well with the current DM, Ward Elcock, who had facilitated his efforts to develop and implement his transformation policies and initiatives. It is evident that Hillier did not work as well with Fonberg, who clearly had a more robust Departmental mandate. Frustrated with the way NDHQ was evolving, Hillier suggested in his memoirs that the separation of the CAF from DND (i.e., to break apart NDHQ and return to a pre-1972 construct) would be best in order to bring clarity to the military and civilian roles inside Defence.58

Notwithstanding Hillier’s wishes, NDHQ was not dismantled, and it continues to function as an effective integrated civilian and military headquarters to this day. DMs Fonberg and his successor Richard Fadden took a page from Hillier’s notebook and also initiated key changes at NDHQ to better position themselves to meet their new accountabilities and their role as senior Departmental policy advisor to the government. Changes they instituted, to name a few, included bringing in new Associate DMs on resource management and procurement, as well as establishing powerful new governance committees, including the Investment Resource Management Committee (IRMC) chaired by the DM, and a new Defence Executive Policy Committee co-chaired by the DM and the CDS.59

There can be no doubt that the high operational tempo that the CAF faced between 2001 and 2015, in particular the high-intensity war in Afghanistan, coupled with the implementation of the Federal Accountability Act and the sensationalized problems that surfaced with several major defence procurement programs, contributed to some polarization of issues under the CDS and the DM along military and civilian lines within NDHQ, while at the same time delineating more exclusive spheres of advice for the CDS and DM.60 Ironically, this reality helped to reduce some of the ambiguity in the responsibilities and accountabilities of the CDS and DM, particularly in the shared advisory space, and to lessen some of the frustration and friction at the senior echelons of NDHQ. As one senior DND official remarked, through this period, each side gained greater understanding – and respect – for the responsibilities and accountabilities of the other principal in the CDS-DM diarchy.61 It should therefore come as no surprise that the development of the 2017 defence policy, Strong Secure Engaged, was an excellent effort of collaboration between military and civilian officials in NDHQ, with both the CDS and DM personally and closely engaged throughout the entire process.62

The Policy, Public Service, Defence, and Military Advice Universes

As this historical review has highlighted, the responsibilities, specific accountabilities and advisory roles of the CDS and DM have never been defined in statutes, or even codified in practice. In 2014-2015, building from the most recent edition of Minister Young’s Authority, Responsibility and Accountability (ARA) document, which had been revised in 1999,63 a significant effort led by the VCDS was made at NDHQ to prepare a new document describing the responsibilities and accountabilities of the CDS and DM. The 50-page document was briefed to the CDS and DM, but never approved for release. Interestingly, the main concern raised at the time was that the document was too detailed and too precise, particularly since it was not supported by the necessary legal foundation in statutes and regulations.64

DND photo CX2005-002d by Private Vaughan Lightowler

Deputy Minister of National Defence Ward Elcock (right), visits 19 Wing CFB Comox, 20 July 2005.

Ward Elcock, DM at Defence between 2004 and 2007, contends that “…some greyness is useful” in the unique CDS-DM diarchy, as it provides opportunities for flexibility and responsiveness, also allowing the CDS and DM to adapt the National Defence structure and its governance, particularly NDHQ, to meet changing government priorities.65 Still, the lack of precision can lead to confusion, ambiguity and frustration among participants about the respective roles that the CDS and the DM should play in Canada’s system of governance, including the spheres of advice for which they are “ultimately” responsible.

Commenting with respect to the complex governance structure of NDHQ, Rob Fonberg cautioned that “…when the military drifts into providing policy advice – whether intentionally or inadvertently – Ministers (and other senior officials) can be easily confused and misled.” When the CDS or senior officers are speaking, “…Ministers properly expect that they will be listening to military advice.”66 The former DM did not define what constituted the military and policy advice spaces, but it was clear to him that there are two separate and distinct spheres of advice, with the military one controlled by the CDS, and the policy one owned by DM and public servants. Fonberg thought it was important to make this distinction, as he had observed during his tenure at Defence the significance and the serious implications of non-transparent intrusions by the CDS and the military into the advice space of the Deputy Minister. To prevent any adverse outcomes, the CDS and the military should “…stay in their swim lane and avoid as much as possible providing policy advice to decision makers.”67

This debate certainly highlights the need to bring some precision to the discussion of military, defence, public service, and policy advice, to eliminate any ambiguities in terminology for the second part of this article. Clarifying what is “policy” and what is “advice” is a good starting point to do so.

Public policy can be defined as a course of action – or inaction – chosen by the government to address a given problem, issue or interrelated set of problems.68 A policy is usually a clear goal, a set of decisions and/or direction, coming “from the considered election of one choice among competing compelling choices.”69 The Prime Minister and Ministers are responsible and accountable for making those policy decisions, based on advice they receive from multiple sources.

Advice to government has a special and legal meaning under the Access to Information Act (ATIA). “Advice or recommendations developed by or for a government institution or a minister of the Crown” is protected from public disclosure.70 Advice, for the purposes of the ATIA, must contain more than mere opinion, in that advice constitutes a submission on a future course of action (i.e., a policy), which will ultimately be accepted or rejected by its recipient (i.e., a Minister or Cabinet).71 Formal advice and recommendations are protected from disclosure to maintain the ability of the military and public servants to provide full and frank advice to politicians, while preserving their political neutrality. It is important to note that when senior military officers and public servants express a professional opinion in public, either to the media or in answering questions to parliamentary committees, their comments do not constitute advice to government. Advice is provided to ministers for decisions.

Building from the foregoing definitions, it follows therefore that military advice to government is not separate from policy advice, but rather, it is one of its constituents. It is concerned with CAF matters, including current and future force development, force structure and capabilities to meet Canada’s defence policy, readiness, and current and potential future CAF operations, in Canada and abroad. As the senior military expert in Canada, the CDS is also expected to advise on the nature of modern warfare, particularly the complexities arising from the sophisticated unconventional warfare used by today’s adversaries, and its implications for Canada’s national security. Only the CDS can provide “military advice” to government, although any public servant or official, including the DM, can and do provide advice to ministers on military matters.

The Guidance for Deputy Ministers, issued by the Clerk of the Privy Council and intended to clarify how Deputy Ministers fulfill their role, states that in supporting a Minister, “the Deputy Minister is responsible for ensuring … sound public service advice on policy development and implementation, both within the Minister’s portfolio and with respect to the government’s overall policy and legislative agenda…. as well on management on the Minister’s entire agenda.”72 The generic expression “policy advice” is used on the Deputy Minister of National Defence web page to characterize the defence advice provided to the Minister.73 For the purpose of this article, “defence advice” is the advice provided by the DM DND. Adopting the divisions that MND Young used in his 1997 Report, defence advice can be simplistically divided into two essential components.74 The first includes advice on defence policy and departmental management issues, such as human resources, defence programs, acquisition and procurement, finances, and audit. The second includes advice on how best to implement government priorities, policies and programs at Defence, including how to achieve collaboration with other Departments.


In summary, there is a divide between the military and civil domains at National Defence that is unique, and that is not replicated elsewhere in government. Without clear boundaries enshrined in legislation, both the CDS and the DM are bound at times to tread into the other “swim lane.” The “bifurcated defence system” that exists at National Defence certainly complicated matters for MND Graham. In his memoirs, he complained that the “division [between the CDS and DM] … proved a headache to manage when the two responsibilities overlapped and even clashed,” forcing him to often “mediate between the conflicting advice” he was receiving.75

While there are domains of advice that are certainly more exclusive to both the CDS and the DM,76 it remains that because of the nature and complexity of defence activities and operations, the large majority of issues that require a decision from the MND and the government will call for both military and defence advice. Since most CAF and Departmental issues overlap or are intricately linked, the shared space of CDS-DM advice is inevitably large, as expected in a diarchy, and it therefore makes sense for the DM and the CDS to synchronize their advice before engaging the political echelon.77

Even with acknowledging the exclusive responsibilities and accountabilities spaces of the CDS and DM within the diarchy, when the two individuals work issues of the shared – or blurred  – space jointly and harmoniously, this cohesion can be a powerful advantage to Canadian defence, particularly regarding the quality, soundness and timeliness of the advice provided to the minister, Cabinet and the prime minister.78 This aspect, and many others relating to the politics of military advice, will be discussed in greater detail in the second part of this article.


  1. The ‘blurred’ expression to describe the shared responsibilities of the CDS and DM was used by former DM C.R. Nixon is a presentation to the CF College in 1981, and by Minister Douglas Young in his Report to the Prime Minister on the Leadership and Management of the Canadian Forces (Ottawa: DND, 1997), p. 29.
  2. I am much grateful to Colonel Patrick Feuerherm and Major Michel Gosselin for their helpful comments in reviewing earlier versions of this article.
  3. General Jonathan Vance, 2015 Conference of Defence Associate Institute roundtable, August 2015.
  4. RSC 1985, c. N-5, National Defence Act, s18(1). The NDA does not specifically mention command, but Minister Young, in his 1997 Report to the Prime Minister, used the expression “command, control and administration” to describe the responsibilities of the CDS, p. 30. The ‘command’ authority and powers of the CDS come from the Crown Prerogative. See Philippe Lagassé, “The Crown’s Powers of Command-in- Chief: Interpreting Section 15 of Canada’s Constitution Act, 1867,”in Review of Constitutional Studies 18, No. 2 (2013), p. 214.
  5. The responsibility and accountability to advise government by senior officials has long been recognized by conventions, precedents and practices in the Westminster system of government. In fact, there are very few officials in the Canadian government who have statutory responsibilities to provide advice to government. One of them is the Chief Public Health Officer, “…who shall provide the Minister and the President with public health advice that is developed on a scientific basis.” See Public Health Agency of Canada Act, S.C. 2006, c5, s 7(1.1). At
  6. Several discussions and also exchange of e-mails with Lieutenant-Colonel Erik Liebert, CDS Initiatives Group, 13-14 February 2020.
  7. The word “politics” in the title and in this article is meant within the context of Graham Allison’s classic model of bureaucratic politics, where outcomes are decided by politics as in “bargaining along regularized circuits among players positioned hierarchically within the government.” Outcomes, being government policies and decisions are determined by power, expertise and influence. The use of the word “politics” is therefore not to suggest that Canadian military leaders use their influence to intervene in areas that would be construed as partisan politics (i.e., for the government to gain an electoral advantage). Graham Allison, Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuba Missile Crisis (Boston: Little Brown, 1971), pp. 162-184.
  8. Since the creation of NDHQ in 1972, the VCDS has always been acknowledged as reporting to both the CDS and the DM and considered the chief of staff of NDHQ. Individuals filling this position over the years have been critical to the good functioning of the CDS-DM diarchy. The evolution of the position of VCDS and its influence on the CDS-DM diarchy is beyond the scope of this article, but deserving of a separate study.
  9. R.L. Raymont, The Formulation of Canadian Defence Policy from 1945-1964 (Ottawa: Department of National Defence, 1981), Appendix A, pp. 19-27.
  10. Bland, Chiefs of Defence: Government and The Unified Command of the Canadian Armed Forces (Toronto: CISS, 1995), p. 74. Bland has been a constant and ardent critic of the creation of NDHQ in 1972, arguing that the CF and Departmental headquarters should be separated to enhance authority and accountability. Therefore, some of his deductions and interpretations should be read with care, particularly those discussing the relationship between the CDS and the DM.
  11. Paul Hellyer, House of Commons Debates, 8 May 1964, pp. 3065-3066.
  12. Bland, Chiefs of Defence, pp. 87-88; also, Paul Hellyer, Damn the Torpedoes: My Fight to Unify the Canadian Forces (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1990), pp. 32-38.
  13. Bland, The Administration of Defence Policy in Canada, 1947 to 1985 (Kingston: R.P. Frye & Co, 1987), pp.44-46.
  14. Bland, Chiefs of Defence, p. 74.
  15. On the evolution of the role of civilians in DND, see Daniel Gosselin, “Unelected, Unarmed Servants of the State,” in Canadian Military Journal Vol. 14, No. 3 (Summer 2014), pp. 38-52.
  16. Both quotes from Royal Commission on Government Organization, Report 20: Department of National Defence (Ottawa: Queen’s Printers, January 1963), pp. 77-79.
  17. Hellyer, Debates, 8 May 1964, p. 3068.
  18. Bland, Administration of Defence Policy, p. 46. On the crisis of civil-military relations, see Daniel Gosselin, “The Storm over the Unification of the Armed Forces,” in The Insubordinate and the Non-Compliant: Case Studies of Canadian Mutiny and Disobedience, 1920 to Present, Howard G. Coombs (ed.), (Toronto: Dundurn, 2007), pp. 309-343.
  19. For the list of symptoms identified by the MRG, see Management of Defence in Canada – Report in Brief (DND: Ottawa, 1972), in Douglas L. Bland, ed., Canada’s National Defence, Volume 2 Defence Organization (Kingston: Queen’s University, School of Policy Studies, 1998), pp. 185-200.
  20. Ibid., p. 209.
  21. Ibid., p. 220.
  22. Ibid., p. 191.
  23. J.L. Granatstein and Robert Bothwell, Pirouette: Pierre Trudeau and Canadian Foreign Policy (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990): p. 236.
  24. Bland, Administration of Defence Policy, pp. 209-215.
  25. Ibid., pp. 213-214.
  26. Peter Kasurak, “Civilianization and the Military Ethos: Civil-Military Relations in Canada,” in Canadian Public Administration Vol. 25, No. 1 (Spring 1982), pp. 108-129; and Bland, Chiefs of Defence, pp. 27-74, passim.
  27. Bland, Volume 2, p. 249.
  28. Task Force on Review of Unification of the Canadian Forces, Final Report (DND: Ottawa, 15 March 1980), in Bland, Volume 2, p. 304.
  29. Bland, Chiefs of Defence, p. 107.
  30. Ibid., pp. 109-116; and Bland, Volume 2, pp. 343-350. There was already a functioning Armed Forces Council (AFC), led by the CDS, in which environmental commanders were members. The three positions were Commanders of Mobile Command, Air Command and Maritime Command.
  31. Bland, Chiefs of Defence, pp. 160-165.
  32. Admiral Falls, quoted in Bland, Chiefs of Defence, pp. 161-162.
  33. Gerry Theriault, “Democratic Civil-Military Relations: A Canadian View,” in Jim Hanson and Susan McNish, (eds.), The Military in Modern Democratic Society (Toronto: The Canadian Institute of Strategic Studies, 1996), pp. 9-10.
  34. Bland, Chiefs of Defence, pps. 117-121 and 160-165.
  35. C.R. Nixon, “Role of the Deputy Minister in the Department of National Defence,” presentation to the CF Staff College, Toronto, 9 September 1981. Those other areas of the slide included: public service, departmental manager; audit, use of resources; policy; planning; training; operational plans; operation of CF; and internal direction. Emphasis added.
  36. Robert Fowler, “The Organization of Canadian Defence” (DND: Ottawa, 1994), document prepared for the Special Joint Committee of the Senate and House of Commons.
  37. Commission of Inquiry into the Deployment of Canadian Forces to Somalia (CIDCFS), in Dishonoured Legacy: The Lessons of the Somalia Affair (Ottawa: Public Works and Government Services Canada, 1997), Vol. 5, pp. 1431-1434.
  38. Ibid., p. 1459.
  39. Ibid., p. 1454, and pp. 1458-1460.
  40. Young, Report to the Prime Minister, p. 29.
  41. Ibid.
  42. Ibid., p. 30.
  43. Douglas M. Young, “Authority, Responsibility, and Accountability: Guidance for Members of the Canadian Forces and Employees of the Department of National Defence.” Document prepared for the Report to the Prime Minister (Ottawa: DND, 1997).
  44. Ibid, p. 6.
  45. Douglas L. Bland and Sean M. Maloney, Campaigns for International Security: Canada’s Defence Policy at the Turn of the Century (Kingston: McGill-Queen’s UP, 2004), pp. 149-150.
  46. Philippe Lagassé and Joel J. Sokolsky, “A larger ‘footprint’ in Ottawa: General Hillier and Canada’s shifting civil-military relationship, 2005–2008,” in Canadian Foreign Policy Journal 15 (2), pp. 16-40.
  47. Janice Stein and Eugene Lang, The Unexpected War: Canada in Kandahar (Toronto: Penguin, 2007), pp. 147-148.
  48. Bill Graham, The Call of the World: A Political Memoir (Victoria: One Point Press, 2016), p. 354.
  49. Stein and Lang, The Unexpected War, pp. 149-151; also “Too Few Hilliers: The General Goes Where Ottawa Mandarins Fear to Tread,” in The Walrus 4 (April 2008), pp. 34-39.
  50. See Daniel Gosselin and Craig Stone, “From Minister Hellyer to General Hillier,” in Canadian Military Journal, Vol. 6, No. 4 (Winter 2005-2006), pp. 5-15.
  51. In 1995, Bland had dreamed of this possibility. Bland, Chiefs of Defence, p. 124.
  52. The author was working in the CF Transformation Team at the time. Of note, Hillier wanted to make CFD a three-star position reporting to him directly. The three environments (services) pushed back on this idea, and Hillier backed down.
  53. See Lieutenant-General (Retired) Michael K. Jeffery, Inside Canadian Transformation (Kingston, CDA Press, 2009), pp. 48-50. In fairness to Hillier, he had articulated some of his ideas about transforming the Canadian military in a letter written when he was Chief of the Land Staff in 2003.
  54. Lawrence Martin, “In Defence, the civilian side is on the slide,” in The Globe and Mail, 7 September 2006, p. A21.
  55. R.S.C., 1985, c. F-11, Financial Administration Act, s. 16(4). At
  56. Ibid.
  57. Alan Gilmore, “The Canadian Accounting Officer: Has it Strengthened Parliament’s Ability to Hold the Government to Account,” Chapter 4 in Christopher Dunn, (ed)., The Handbook of Canadian Public Administration (Don Mills: Oxford UP, 2010), pp. 75-84.
  58. General Rick Hillier, A Soldier First: Bullets, Bureaucrats and the Politics of War (Toronto: HarperCollins, 2009), p. 427.
  59. In 2012-2013, ADM (Finance), who reports to the DM, and is also the Departmental Chief Financial Officer (CFO), attempted to move the Chief of Programme (CProg) organization under its group. CProg reports to the VCDS and is responsible for corporate strategies and for analyses on planning and resource allocations. The move was not supported by the CDS and the VCDS, and the DM backed down.
  60. Confidential interviews.
  61. Confidential interview.
  62. Confidential interviews.
  63. Department of National Defence, “Organization and Accountability: Guidance for Members of the Canadian Forces and Employees of the Department of National Defence” (Ottawa: DND, 1999).
  64. The author was involved with the review of one of the versions of the ARA document. Also, confidential interview.
  65. Ward Elcock, Conference of Defence Associations Institute roundtable on DND governance, Ottawa, 27 January 2017.
  66. Robert Fonberg, Ibid. Also, exchange of e-mails with the author on 13-15 August 2020.
  67. Ibid.
  68. Leslie Pal, Beyond Policy Analysis: Public Issue Management in Turbulent Times (Toronto: Nelson, 2014), p. 2.
  69. Glen Milne, Making Policy: A Guide to How the Government Works (Ottawa Milne, 2014), p. 18.
  70. R.S.C., 1985, c. A-1, Access to Information Act, s. 21(1). At
  71. Information Commissioner of Canada, Investigator’s Guide to Interpreting the Act, Section 21: Advice and Recommendations, at
  72. Government of Canada, Privy Council Office, “Guidance for Deputy Minister,” online at Emphasis added.
  73. Government of Canada, National Defence, “Deputy Minister of National Defence,” online at
  74. Young, “Authority, Responsibility, and Accountability,” p. 6.
  75. Graham, Call of the World, pp. 351-352.
  76. Former CDSs and DMs interviewed for this article confirmed this, although many had different perspective on what constituted these exclusive spaces.
  77. On the need for synchronization, confidential interviews. It can be argued that if the areas of responsibilities and advice of the CDS and DM were clearly identified and exclusive, there would be no requirement for a CDS-DM diarchy. It is precisely because of this large, shared responsibility space that a diarchy is needed.
  78. Confidential interviews.