Defense spending was a key area of focus in the federal budget released this week, as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had sparked a renewed emphasis on security in NATO countries.
But depending on who you ask, the spending commitments set out by Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland on Thursday are woefully too small, or fortunately smaller than they could have been, preserving funding for other budget areas.
The key figure is a plan to increase defense spending by $8 billion over five years, raising the country’s defense spending for 2026-27 to 1.5% of gross domestic product, from 1.39% today.
Of that $8 billion, $6.1 billion is slated to modernize NORAD, the Canada-US defense partnership, while $500 million is earmarked to help Ukraine. There will also be another amount set aside to meet Canada’s commitments to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
But retired Lt. Gen. Andrew Leslie criticized the government’s plan.
“What she’s saying [the Department of] Doing defense is doing more with less,” said Leslie, a former Liberal MP for Orleans, an Ottawa suburb, noting that when the Liberals took power in 2015, they pledged $12 billion in defense spending, much of it , he says, they have not been fulfilled, it has not been spent.
He noted that funding also falls short of NATO’s request made to member countries.
“They’ve been asking us to go to two percent for years – our GDP is the same size as Russia’s. And this takes us from 1.3 percent to about 1.5, but only at the end of five years, if that’s so. So it’s worse than I could have feared.”
“Our government’s defense policy (Strong, Secure, Engaged) increases defense spending by more than 70% between 2017 and 2026 and places Canada’s defense spending, in real dollars, sixth among 30 members of NATO in 2020-2021,” Daniel Minden, a spokesman for Minister of National Defense Anita Anand, said in an email to cross country check.
“In the short term, Minister Anand will present a robust package to modernize NORAD and secure our sovereignty in the Arctic. Minister Anand is in frequent contact with US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin on this matter,” he wrote. .
‘The system can’t handle any more money’
Peggy Mason, president of the Rideau Institute, an independent foreign policy and defense think tank, and a former Canadian ambassador for disarmament to the United Nations, said Canada is not far behind when it comes to defense spending. However, the war in Ukraine may have led some to expect more defense money in the budget.
“I’m pretty relieved that it’s $8 billion over five years, and I’m even more relieved that … $6 billion is focused on modernizing NORAD,” Mason said. He added that he hoped NORAD funding would improve Canada’s ability to monitor the Arctic, “which is quite fundamental to sovereignty and security,” he said.
“At the same time, I would point out that we still have the fundamental problem that the system can’t handle more money, that they can’t spend what we’ve already committed to,” he said.
Mason cited figures from the Parliamentary Budget Office showing that the Department of Defense spends less than $2 billion a year due to equipment procurement delays.
Mason said that to bring the country’s defense spending to 2 percent of GDP, Canada would have to spend an additional $16 billion on defense.
“I mean, it’s ridiculous. Frankly, it’s absurd that we would do that,” he said.
But for Leslie, he sees it as part of what he calls Canada’s “shrinking role on the international stage.”
“I am very concerned that this relentless focus on social programs to please the voter comes at the expense of national security and international security, because we are not really contributing to peace and stability missions anymore,” he said.
Defense is based on diplomacy, interpersonal skills
Branka Marijan, a senior fellow at Project Plowshares, a peace and disarmament think tank that is part of the Canadian Council of Churches, agrees that Canada has not focused on peacekeeping missions.
“I think in general public support has been for peacekeeping and peace support,” he said. “But that hasn’t been true in a long time, has it? Canada really doesn’t do much peacekeeping anymore.”
Marijan said there is a “disconnect” between the public’s perception of Canada as a peacekeeping country and what the country’s military does.
“There is still a perception that we are… the peacemakers,” he said. “That doesn’t reflect where we are.”
She also said that the levels of defense spending in the federal budget did not surprise her based on what had been hinted at before it was introduced.
“What’s disappointing is that we’re not seeing the same kind of investment and the same kind of commitment to, you know, peacebuilding and diplomacy and the humanitarian aspects,” he said.
Marijan noted that those kinds of soft skills are needed, for example, in the response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, from building consensus with other countries to helping refugees if they want to come to Canada.
“This is something that is going to be relevant beyond this conflict,” he said.
Written by Andrea Bellemare with archives from CBC News. Interviews produced by Steve Howard and Abby Plener.