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Jerry Amernic: The downfall of Canada’s military


When we’re talking about the Canadian military it begins and ends with how you pronounce Lieutenant. I doubt anyone has done a survey but my guess is a huge majority of Canadians would say Loo-tenant. But they’re wrong. In the Canadian Armed Forces, at least what remains, the word is Lef-tenant, as it is with all members of the British Commonwealth.

There may be several reasons for this state of affairs but here are two big ones. The first, and unquestionably the main culprit, is American influence. Indeed, when was the last time an American film about World War II recognized Canada’s contribution? Any American film that has anything to do with Canada, especially concerning things military, whitewashes us out of existence.

The 1963 classic The Great Escape about the legendary Allied escape from a German POW camp claimed to be based on a true story, but the truth involved no Americans. It involved Canadians, Brits, Aussies, and those of other Allied nations. However, the film depicts GI Joes Steve McQueen and James Garner as the real heroes in this event. More recently, the 2012 Oscar-winning Argo about the Iranian hostage crisis and rescue of American hostages in 1979 overplays the role of the CIA and vastly underplays that of Canada.On this day in 1980: The ‘Canadian Caper’ story behind Argo

The second reason we get Lieutenant wrong is our own pig-headed complacency about the military which is largely due to a succession of federal governments that are anti-military in their ideology.

Such is the view of this layman with no military background. My father was born in 1919 which means he was 20 when the war broke out. He served in the Canadian Army, but never ventured abroad since he was stationed in Newfoundland and, for whatever the reason, related precious little to us about his experience. However, in my life I’ve had a few insights into the armed forces and think our neglect of them—and our defence—is criminal.

Let’s go back to the late 1970s. I was in corporate communications at IBM Canada and got sent to North Bay, Ontario to visit the most northern base of NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command).“The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) is a United States and Canada bi-national organization charged with the missions of aerospace warning, aerospace control and maritime warning for North America. Aerospace warning includes the detection, validation, and warning of attack against North America whether by aircraft, missiles, or space vehicles, through mutual support arrangements with other commands.” We were admitted through the biggest, thickest steel door I ever saw—think of something a subway train could fit through—only to witness later a simulated attack on North America from inside the command centre which to me resembled something out of Star Wars. What did this have to do with IBM? Everything up there was controlled by a System/360 computer which even then was archaic but still worked. It would be like having a car from the 1990s that you drive today.

But driving to the corner grocery and protecting North America from the enemy are two different things. Unfortunately, Canada treating its military as a necessary evil best kept to a minimum is the norm in this country.

Consider that four Canadian soldiers walking down Toronto’s Yonge Street would undoubtedly draw stares from a public weaned on mythology that portrays Canada as nothing more than a peacekeeper, and this in a world that became very dangerous with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The feds make grandiose statements about contributing to Ukraine’s war effort but the fact is we can’t contribute much more than a few popguns, such is the state of our armed forces.As Canada sends ‘junk’ to help war effort, Canadians in danger of losing interest in Ukraine fight

I once had a magazine assignment that was to involve a week of “basic training” at a Canadian Forces Base. Everything was set and then it all fell apart. I got on the phone and called a senior military officer to ask what happened only to be rebuked by the person designated as my contact. I still remember his words: “You have circumvented our network of command.”

This was a different world than I was used to living in the suburbs of a big city, and a few years later I got a bigger dose. As a newspaper columnist writing about the justice system, I was invited to do talks at the two Canadian Forces Bases in Lahr and Baden Baden in the former West Germany. I spoke to the military brass and at the high school where the children of military personnel attend, did interviews on their radio station, and enjoyed nightly dinners with the base commander. My wife accompanied me on that trip and was treated like royalty. We were their guests and even flew in military planes. We met generals and a 6’6” captain from London, Ontario was our official escort. Later he invited us to his wedding.

Perhaps the most notable memory of that trip was courtesy of Herbie, the native German who was our chauffeur. He was about fifty, and keep in mind we’re talking 1987 here which means when the war arrived Herbie had been a kid and almost certainly in the Hitler Youth. He was driving us—my wife and me—through this lovely little town in the Black Forest when we came to a stop sign. On the sidewalk beside our car was a group of scruffy-looking, long-haired youths. Herbie wasn’t impressed.

“Hitler did a lot of bad things but he wouldn’t put up with that,” he said.

I remember a conversation with the base commander about which towns in the area had supported the Nazis during the war and he named town after town after town. Pretty well the whole lot of them.

Herbie aside, my overall takeaway from this trip was that the military was separate and remote from Canadian life, and vice versa. My view was, and still is, that the public lives in a fairyland world full of pixie dust. Maybe Vladimir Putin has been a reality check. Let’s hope so because the state of our armed forces is sad.

Where it all began I’m not sure, but in 1968 the federal government merged the Royal Canadian Navy, Canadian Army, and Royal Canadian Air Force into the Canadian Armed Forces. There would be one uniform. There was a huge outcry in many circles but over time many elements of that unification were reversed, including the distinct uniforms of each branch which were brought back by the government of Brian Mulroney. Then, in 2011, it all went back to square one with the Royal Canadian Air Force, Royal Canadian Navy, and Canadian Army.

Pierre Trudeau became Prime Minister in 1968. Like my father, he was born in 1919 but unlike my father, Trudeau managed to avoid military service. When young Canadian men were fighting and dying in Belgium and France he was traveling through places like the Soviet Union. Fast forward to 2007 when I secured a book endorsement from a retired Canadian general. He told me he had been part of Trudeau’s security detail when the PM had visited Canadian bases in West Germany back in 1971 and said Trudeau had an open disdain for the military.

You can’t pin the desecration of our military on one person but over the past 50 years and more it’s painfully clear the military has been off the radar in Ottawa. Pledges are made about meeting the NATO requirement of two percent of GDP but those pledges are always a lie no matter who forms government.What increased military spending may mean for Canada’s budget The truth is we are a laggard and remain beholden to the United States to protect us. It’s like that old System/360 computer running things at the NORAD base in North Bay. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it. But our armed forces are broken and that is shameful.

Livio Di Matteo: As the federation turns: Tracking each level of government’s share of expenditure since Confederation


The COVID-19 pandemic saw a surge in Canadian federal government spending the likes not seen since World War II.Budget reaction: We can’t have big government without paying for it Expenditure changes in a federation affect not only the government in question but also the other levels of government in terms of spending balance. Indeed, expenditure shares by tier of government provide a measure of the extent to which a federation is more centralized or decentralized, and over time that balance can change. 

While Canada’s constitution lays out the expenditure responsibilities and revenue tools of the federal and provincial governments—with the municipalities a creature of the provinces—over time there has been a give and take of spending responsibilities that reflect the policy decisions, politics, and demands of the era. What shapes have those trends taken over the years?

In constructing measures since Confederation, a number of data sources are needed. For the period from 1870 to 1926, annual government expenditure numbers from Mac Urquhart’s GDP estimates only pertain to goods and services spending with no separate transfer estimates. However, federal transfers to the provinces during this period are readily available and averaged about 15 percent of federal spending. They are used to estimate federal spending net of transfers from 1870 to 1926.  Provincial spending for this period, unfortunately, includes transfers to municipalities, but they were not particularly well developed prior to the 1920s, accounting for only about one percent of provincial spending even by the 1930s. 

As well, public education is part of government spending in Urquhart’s numbers as a separate category. The estimates here divide them across local and provincial governments in a 70/30 split based on the evidence available from Historical Statistics of Canada. There is a gap from 1927 to 1932, and then estimates only for the years 1933, 1937, 1939, 1941, and 1943 from Historical Statistics of CanadaHistorical Statistics of Canada (SeriesH161- 175; H176-187 and H188-196). For these numbers, federal transfers to other governments are accorded to the provinces and provincial transfers to other governments are accorded to local government spending.  

The period from 1945 to 1969 is again annual data from Historical Statistics of Canada (as per the series listed above) and net of transfers to lower-tier governments. For the period since 1970, the years 1970 to 1990 are from the 1995 Fiscal Reference Tables while 1991 to 2020 are taken from the 2021 Fiscal Reference Tables. Again, federal transfers to other governments are accorded to the provinces and provincial transfers to other governments are accorded to local government spending.

So, what are the results? 

As the accompanying figure shows, until World War I the federal share of total government spending rose gradually with a spike during the CPR railway building period. The federal share averaged 33 percent while the provincial share averaged 26 percent and the municipalities averaged 41 percent. For nearly the first fifty years of Confederation, Canada was actually quite decentralized as the dominant fiscal tier in Canada was actually municipalities. The start of the First World War and the demands of the war effort sparked a shift in fiscal balances that saw the federal share soar to 70 percent while municipalities dropped to about 20 percent and the provinces 10 percent.

Graphic credit: Janice Nelson

The 1920s saw a rebound in provincial and municipal shares with municipalities reaching just under 40 percent and the provinces under 30 percent while the federal government declined to about 35 percent. The new revenue tools that Ottawa acquired during the World War I era—income taxes and the federal sales tax—ultimately resulted in an expansion of its role that was given further impetus by the Great Depression and then World War II.Canadian Sales Tax Reform,transactions%20other%20than%20retail%20sales.

The period from 1914 to 1945 sees the spikes in the federal shares as a result of the war with a return to the prewar balance during the 1920s and early 1930s. The period since 1945 sees a steady decline in the federal share from a peak of about 90 percent in 1943 to reach 27 percent by 2016. Provincial and local shares in 1943 were at about 5 percent each and grew with the local share, levelling off at about 20 percent and reaching 22 percent by 2016 while the provinces grew steadily with their share in 2016 reaching about 50 percent. 

There are some periods of abrupt shifts —the late 1950s and 1960s—which coincide with transfer regime changes such as the onset of formal federal transfer arrangements like EqualizationWhat is Equalization? and Medicare.Canada’s Health Care System Then the federal fiscal crisis of the 1990s sees a period of steady decline in the federal spending share until the pandemic year of 2020 when there is a jump to 40 percent.

There are several stories here as the balance of the federation turns. The balance between Ottawa and the provincial-local sector in the early years of Confederation was a 40/60 split. After the mid-twentieth century, the federal share declined from a wartime peak of 90 percent. By 2019 it was a 30/70 split. The larger federal role earlier in the immediate post-World War II era was an aberration brought about by the demands of global war. 

However, the more interesting change is the reversal of provincial and local government expenditure shares over time. While local governments were more important in terms of their spending shares before WWI, their role diminished significantly after WWII. Much of this change was of course the expansion of health, education, and social welfare functions at the provincial levels.  

Essentially, Canada has been simultaneously decentralizing and centralizing since the 1970s—depending on your vantage point. The share of provincial spending rose relative to the federal government—a decentralization—and also relative to municipalities—a centralization. So, Canada became more decentralized at the federal-provincial level and more centralized at the provincial-local level. 

The pandemic appears to have delivered an abrupt change to these trends with the federal share rising and both the provincial and municipal shares dropping.

The more interesting question is what happens next. Do the numbers for 2020 herald a return to the approximate 40/60 split of the pre-World War I era or is it temporary? Given the planned expansion of the federal fiscal footprint through new spending aside from transfers outlined in the most recent federal budget, the post-COVID era could mark a new expansive phase of the federal role. The federal government to date has been resisting calls for increased social and health transfers to the provinces, preferring to go its own way on child care and dental care. 

Canada’s constitution outlines federal and provincial powers; however, spending balances are not anchored on blocks of granite but evolve in response to the dynamic between the tiers. Where the balance of the federation settles in the wake of the pandemic will depend on the health of federal finances, how willing it is to assert the federal spending power with respect to the provinces, and the quality of provincial leadership in pushing back.