The following article can be found at  It is a submission made to the Defence Policy Review by Paul Chapin and Rob Roy. Paul is the executive editor of and a former director general for international security at the Department of Foreign Affairs in Ottawa. Rob is an award winning documentary producer whose recent films focus on civil-military affairs. His coverage of conflicts and defence issues received a Gemini nomination and he has been honored with a screening at the US Congress. Both writers are affiliated with the Breakout Educational Network and are advocates for the Canadian National Leadership Program. 


The current defence policy review is likely to settle for some version of the status quo. If so, it is worth exploring why “settling” has become the norm and what might be done to encourage Canadians to think more seriously and imaginatively about defence policy.

Since the 1960s, there has been a steady decline in Canada’s military spending relative to its ability to pay, which smart opinion explains as a function of the public’s view of defence matters – defence doesn’t matter. But this doesn’t explain why Canada has so often gone to war and why Canadians have always insisted the troops be properly equipped no matter the cost. The defence budget doubled to support the war in Afghanistan. Nonetheless, there is a pattern in Canadian history of success in war being followed by neglect of the military and an inevitable reduction in their size and capabilities, until a new war comes along and a frantic effort has to be made to rebuild. With the war in Afghanistan over for Canadians, this is now happening again.

The explanation for the long-term decline in defence spending is not political or economic, but cultural. There was a time when citizens and soldiers were the same people, and it was the norm to find large numbers of people in civilian life who had served in the military. But things changed in the social ferment of the 1960s and the disconnect between civilians and the military has since become a cultural chasm. Both sides bear responsibility, but the result has been that most of the population no longer values the profession of arms or has much strategic sense, while the military live lives apart. With citizens no longer connected to their military, defence policy no longer pays much attention to the interests of either.

Cultural change takes time and the logical place to start is with the young people of Canada, who have been excluded from the policy process and poorly prepared to take on the leadership responsibilities they will inherit. With little public notice, some important steps have been taken to bridge the civil-military gap with the main focus on re-engaging young people.  The defence policy review should pay attention and put its shoulder behind three in particular: the Garrison Community Council initiative, the Canadian National Leadership Program, and the Chief of Defence Staff’s directive on Strengthening the Primary Reserve.


Canada’s defence policy is again under review. It happens about once a decade and invariably determines that the priorities should be to defend Canada, to help defend North America, and to contribute to international peace and security abroad. The only questions to be decided are how and by how much. The answers depend on the inclinations of the government of the day and sometimes on the depth of the public purse at the time, but the conclusions reached typically call for only marginal adjustments to existing defence activity and spending. A little more here, a little less there. The current review is expected to have a similar outcome.

Such an outcome would be especially unfortunate right now. Security conditions have been deteriorating across the globe in ways which present grave new dangers for Canadians, while basic Canadian defence needs are not being met for frivolous reasons. No serious country would remain for so long incapable of adequately asserting its sovereignty over national territory and deterring encroachments in contested areas. Nor would it cede defence of its aerospace to its neighbour while making political sport out of the procurement of modern interceptors and missile defences that would actually make it a “full partner” in the defence of the continent. No country bordering on three oceans would have a navy barely able to make its presence felt in one – a navy currently incapable of self-sustained operations in blue waters. And no country intent on exercising an influence in international affairs would have allowed the very instruments of that influence to atrophy. Pieties are no substitute for entrepreneurial diplomacy, an ability to deliver a military punch, and effective humanitarian aid.

None of this, it should be added, is necessary. While it is fashionable to talk about what Canada can “afford” in defence spending, the reality is that Canada can afford anything – certainly anything having to do with the safety and security of its citizens. With a population of 35 million of the best educated and technologically savvy people in the world, immense natural resources including the second largest oil reserves in the world, and the 11th largest economy with an annual GDP of $2.1 trillion, Canada is fabulously wealthy. And so is its government, with an annual budget in the range of $300 billion.

Since the defence review is likely to settle for some version of the status quo, it is worth exploring why “settling” has become the norm and what might be done to encourage Canadians to think more seriously and imaginatively about defence policy in the future.


The trend since the 1960s has been one of steady decline in Canada’s military spending relative to its ability to pay (percentage of GDP).  Smart opinion explains this trend as a function of the public’s view of defence matters, in short that defence doesn’t matter – and even if it did someone else would take care of it. Canadians, it is argued, have a deaf ear when it comes to discussion of defence policy, are generally disinterested in their military, and would prefer to spend whatever “discretionary” money there might be on other concerns. So, “not too much” is usually enough.

But this doesn’t explain why Canada has been prepared to “go to war” so often and, when it has, why the population has always insisted the troops be properly equipped for their mission no matter the cost. The defence budget doubled to support the war in Afghanistan – from $10 billion to $21 billion per year – with nary a murmur of complaint. Whatever smart opinion may believe, therefore, there is no iron law of history that Canadians just don’t care about defence. They clearly do sometimes.

The problem is the sometimes. There has been a pattern in Canadian history of success in war being followed by neglect of the military, resulting in the inevitable reduction in size and capabilities, until another war comes along and Canada’s ill-prepared forces have to be sent into harm’s way while frantic efforts are made to increase their numbers and equip them for the new tasks they have been assigned.  Following which the pattern repeats itself.


As it is now doing. For the last fifteen years or so, strong majorities of Canadians have consistently told pollsters that they consider their military an essential organization, that they have a very positive impression of those who serve in the military, and that they remain supportive of defence spending. This includes Quebec, often erroneously portrayed as pacifist, where a majority have been prepared to support foreign interventions provided these are demonstrably in the national interest and suitably authorized. But today, with the war over in Afghanistan (for Canada at least), Canadians seem content to stand by while the capabilities of their armed forces deteriorate and the budget to sustain them is raided again for other purposes.


What’s the explanation for this? Neither politics nor economics offer an answer. The long-term decline in defence spending, along with the periodic spikes and fall-offs within that trend, occurred under governments of all political persuasions and in good fiscal times as well as bad. Only a change in the culture of Canada can explain such a phenomenon.

There was a time when citizens and soldiers were the same people. Since the days of the levée en masse and for the first hundred years of Canada’s existence as an independent nation, volunteers comprised the great bulk of the forces Canada mobilized to fight its wars. During the two world wars, two million civilians put on the uniform. In Korea, most of the 25,000 forces were volunteers. In the Balkans and Afghanistan, 20 to 25 percent of Canadian Forces contingents were composed of reservists – civilians who had trained as soldiers and agreed to be called up to perform specialized tasks for a short period. In every walk of life, then, it was once the norm in Canada to find large numbers of individuals who had served in the military. If a citizen wasn’t actually a service member, he or she knew about military service from family and friends. In brief, the culture of the citizen-soldier pervaded politics, government, media, industry, and education.

All this had an enormous impact on how Canadians viewed their military. While there were exceptions, most of the population valued the profession of arms, understood and appreciated the contribution the military made to their safety and security, and did not begrudge spending on defence.

But things changed in the 1960s. In the social ferment of the time – anti-establishment, anti-Vietnam War, anti-military — a disconnect developed between Canadians and their military which has now assumed the dimensions of a cultural chasm. Both citizens and soldiers were responsible for it. Government and opinion leaders alike succumbed to the mood of the times, distinctly pacifist though unreservedly aggressive against all things military. The universities developed a special animus towards the armed forces and severed their institutional ties to the military formations in their districts. The beleaguered Canadian Forces, in a short-sighted effort to economize, terminated the three officer-training programs (army, navy, and air force) they had been conducting on some 27 university campuses beginning in 1914. They then added physical distance to the cultural disconnect by removing themselves from major urban centres and consolidating operations in mostly isolated military bases. By the 1990s, citizens and soldiers were living lives apart.

The Afghanistan war narrowed the chasm a little for a while: the Canadian Army was in the news a lot, fallen soldiers were honoured on their return. But today citizens hardly know their soldiers: who they are, what they do, and what they are capable of — or not. In Parliament, where once a third of the members had military backgrounds, only a handful of MPs now have any first-hand experience of life in the services. In the current 42nd Parliament, just 17 of 338 members have served in uniform.


The result has been two generations of Canadians, including the leaders and managers of those generations, who have no connection with the military, no knowledge of the Canadian Armed Forces as a national institution, little strategic sense about the world beyond Canada and the perils it can hold, and little interest in defence policy.

With citizens no longer connected to their military, Canadian defence policy no longer pays much attention to either. Notwithstanding the oft-repeated assurances that the first priority of government is the safety of citizens and that “no effort will be spared” to ensure the forces are well trained and equipped and cared for, defence policy today often seems to be driven by the interests of everyone but citizens and the military – the political interests of governments, the bureaucratic interests of departments including National Defence, the tribal interests of the army, navy and air force, the commercial interests of Canadian industry, even the fiscal interests of Canada’s European allies (who want Canada to spend more on defence – the defence of Europe).  Today, about the last consideration seems to be what citizens want and how the military can meet those wants.


It will take more than an election or two to change this. An incoming government can have a positive impact on its times – if it can get past reviewing and start deciding. The new Liberal government is in the fortunate position of inheriting extensive staff work already completed on most of the matters it should be deciding on during its first term: the future operational capability of the Canadian Armed Forces (Report on Transformation 2011, LGen Andrew Leslie); the strengthening of the Reserves; equipment renewal for the army, navy, and air force; Arctic operations; ballistic missile defence. But it will take decades to establish a new culture of citizen-based defence policy. It took a while for the current culture to become firmly rooted and it will take a while for a new one to displace it.

In the circumstances, the logical place to start is with the young people of Canada.  It is a cliché that the future of any country depends on its young people, but the truth is that Canada is not going anywhere without them. The baby-boomers, responsible for so much of Canada’s decline since the 1960s, are at last leaving the scene. What they are leaving behind, however, are young people who have been deliberately excluded from the public policy process and poorly prepared to take on the leadership responsibilities they will inherit.

Younger Canadians are not alone in feeling left out, as the current wave of populism in the United States and Europe illustrates. But they are a political force to be reckoned with. After being stagnant for several general elections, youth turnout in Canada rose from 55% in the general election of 2011 to 67% in 2015 and is credited with contributing to the highest voter turnout that year since 1993. Some 45% of young people voted Liberal, 25% NDP, and 20% Conservative, so their expectations for the new government are high. But they are more impatient than their elders and will not wait long before switching their allegiance. Obama benefitted from an extraordinary youth vote turnout in 2008 which plummeted in 2012. In 2016, young people in the United States have been flocking to the outsider candidates for president.

With little public notice, some important first steps have been taken to bridge the civil-military gap in Canada, with the main focus on re-engaging young people. The defence policy review should pay attention and put its shoulder behind these efforts. Three of these are particularly noteworthy: the Garrison Community Council initiative, the Canadian National Leadership Program, and the Chief of Defence Staff’s directive on Strengthening the Primary Reserve.

The Garrison Community Councils

In 2000, a group of citizens from the London area got together to examine the effects of military force reductions and base closures on the local community. They discovered that, despite the longevity of the military presence in the London area, there was a lack of civic connection with the military and little awareness of the contribution the military made to the local community both economically and in less tangible forms through service members’ expertise and engagement in community activities. To address the situation, community leaders and local military commanders brought together professional and service groups, associations, educational institutions, and emergency services to form Canada’s first Garrison Community Council. While the motto of the GCC was “Supporting Canada’s Military”, it soon became clear that the cooperation generated important benefits for all the participants and the community at large.

The GCC initiative featured in a documentary film by the Breakout Educational Network which examined the civil-military divide and recognized the GCC’s potential for communities across Canada.  Breakout is a registered educational institution which engages young people and employs audio-visual technology to conduct its public policy research. In 2007, Breakout brought the GCC initiative in London to the attention of the Royal Niagara Military Institute which subsequently led to the creation of the Garrison Community Council of Niagara in 2009. Through Breakout’s continuing advocacy, the GCC concept has since spread to other locations across Canada.

GCCWhile each GCC is independent and will have specific goals driven by the interests and needs of the local community, the GCCs share the same objectives:

  • To enhance and sustain the cultural and historic links between the local civilian and military communities;
  • To provide a visible and tangible means of support to military families; and
  • To develop, promote, publicize and co-ordinate events, projects, celebrations, and educational programs for the mutual benefit of both communities.

The Canadian National Leadership Program

Breakout’s research on civil-military relations also examined the role which university-based officer training programs had played in bridging the gap between the civilian and military worlds, not only in Canada but in Britain and the United States. A series of films directed by Rob Roy documented the benefits which had accrued to Canada from the training programs for undergraduates which the universities and the military had jointly run until 1968. They also reported on the continued success of Britain’s University Officer Training Corps which every year has far more student applicants than it can accommodate, and on the return of similar Reserve Officers Training Corps programs to the Ivy League colleges in the United States (Harvard, Yale, Columbia) which had banned them in the 1960s.

With this evidence in hand, Breakout launched a plan for a Canadian National Leadership Program (CNLP) modeled on the earlier Canadian and the current British and American programs, but updated to accommodate contemporary  circumstances. In brief, the program is a joint venture between institutions of higher learning and the Canadian Armed Forces, geared to university and community college undergraduates. Participants learn about leadership in the classroom and learn to become leaders through part-time internships with the Canadian Armed Forces Reserves.

The benefits are considerable:

  • Students benefit from unequalled leadership training, greatly improve their employability and job prospects, and receive Reserve officer training pay to help offset the cost of tuition.
  • Universities and colleges produce higher quality graduates and give themselves a competitive edge over other institutions.
  • Employers realize their long-expressed desire for new hires with a can-do attitude, teamwork skills, and executive potential.
  • The Canadian Armed Forces deliver a vital service to Canada, while rebuilding their institutional ties with universities and colleges, and creating a large cadre of civilian professionals with an appreciation for the military.

Canada, however, stands to be the greatest beneficiary. Were just one percent of Canada’s 1.7 million full-time university and college students enrolled in the CNLP, the program would annually graduate some 4500 exceptionally competent young men and women. The cumulative impact over time of thousands of such people entering the workforce every year would transform not just the workplace but Canada itself.

Breakout launched its CNLP initiative at a conference on Parliament Hill in 2009 attended by Ministers, MPs, Senators, senior military representatives, corporations, and students. In 2011, the Standing Senate Committee on National Security and Defence endorsed the idea and commended it to the government. That same year, the Provost of the University of Alberta wrote to the Prime Minister volunteering to host a CNLP pilot project. Another two dozen university presidents, provosts and deans have since expressed interest in having their institutions participate in the program. In 2012, the Minister of National Defence, with the support of the Minister of Employment and Immigration, confirmed that the government would be willing to assist with a pilot project, and the Commander of the Canadian Army subsequently secured the agreement of the Armed Forces Council to provide trainers and facilities for the U of A pilot project.

In 2015, the government decided that the program should be rolled out to five regions of Canada. As a result of this decision, it is now realistic to believe there will be a nationwide CNLP program in place by 2017, the 150th anniversary of Confederation.

The CDS directive on Strengthening the Primary Reserve

The Reserves are today’s citizen-soldiers. Regular Force members enroll for “continuing, full-time military service”, while Reserve Force members take part in military life only part-time — unless they are temporarily on active service. For most in the Primary Reserve, their service takes the form of a few days of training every month on weeknights and weekends.* The rest of the time they hold down jobs, attend school (some do both), or otherwise live civilian lives in their communities.

* Other components of the Reserve Force are the Supplementary Reserves who are former members of either the Regular or Reserve Forces who are not training or on duty but can be called on in an emergency; the Cadet Organization and Training Service who are commissioned Reserve officers whose primary responsibility is the management and training of the 12-18 year olds in the Cadet program; and the Canadian Rangers who provide a military presence in sparsely settled coastal and northern communities.

The government-mandated strength of the Regular Force is 68,000 and that of the Primary Reserve 27,000. As of a year ago, however, both were under strength by significant numbers (1,870 and 5,293 respectively).  According to a recent report by the Auditor General of Canada, the Army portion of the Primary Reserve, which is by far the largest, had 21,000 funded positions but only 13,944 active and trained soldiers. This suggests that the Canadian Armed Forces have a serious recruitment and retention problem – and that the footprint of the citizen-soldier in cities and towns across Canada is diminishing.

The problem is not a new one. Over the last five years, several major reports have flagged the issue notably the Leslie Report, a study by former defence minister David Pratt, and a report of the Standing Senate Committee on National Security and Defence. In response, in June 2015 the Conservative Government approved a comprehensive program to strengthen the Primary Reserve and in October 2015 the Chief of the Defence Staff issued a directive to implement the agreed strategy.


In his directive, Gen. Vance described his vision of the Primary Reserve as “a predominantly part-time professional force, located in communities across Canada, ready with reasonable notice to contribute to operations at home and abroad”. He noted that “The Canadian public is more readily in contact with Reservists who live in hundreds of Canadian communities; any measures to strengthen the P Res will reflect positively on DND/CAF as a whole.”

The Directive lists the measures to be taken, which include improving recruiting and retention, infrastructure, equipment, training and professional development, predictable funding, and “enhancing the connection with Canadians”.  The primary mission is to grow the Reserves to a sustainable average paid strength of 28,500 by 2019.  The “main effort” will be to re-engineer the recruitment methodology with the goal of 60-90 days for the recruitment process by summer 2016, and to improve retention through better terms and conditions of service and access to training and professional development.


The latter includes the Canadian National Leadership Program, which the Canadian Armed Forces title the Civil Military Leadership Pilot Initiative (CMLPI). The military see the program as potentially attractive to university and community college students who might be interested in joining the Reserves and to individuals already in the Reserves who might be induced to remain at their university or college to gain academic credit for their military training – a first for institutions of higher learning in Canada.  The Directive stipulated that MOUs be concluded with institutions in British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia, and that programs be in place and start by the fall of 2017.


The defence policy review has solicited and received a host of proposals for “fixing” whatever their proponents believe are the problems which today afflict the Canadian Armed Forces. The foregoing has an eye to a more distant future.

Canada’s young people will not be inheriting a country as strong and confident as the one their elders were bequeathed. There is nothing that can be done about that now. But what is possible is to begin forthwith the rebuilding of the nation. It will take time, but the process can be accelerated if the government, the Canadian Armed Forces, the universities and community colleges, and business leaders support the citizen-based initiatives which are leading the way.

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The Defence Policy Review: How about an eye to the future?