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Richard Shimooka: The neglect of Canada’s armed forces is leaving us all defenceless

Commentary

On Thursday, the Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS), General Wayne Eyre, made a tacit acknowledgment of what most people in the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) have long known—the military is in serious trouble and unable to sustain its current commitments in the present state. While it is easy enough to point at the depleted state of its core capabilities like aircraft and ships, the evidence of the crisis is evident everywhere. Just last week it was revealed that 4500 members and their families are on a waitlist for base housing, a basic necessity for many personnel’s lives. 

In most other countries, this would have been a major scandal with political leaders resigning. Yet it barely made a ripple in the press. While CDS Eyre has outlined a plan to fix the situation, there are serious doubts that he will be able to achieve this outcome, partly because the problem is so severe, and partly because he does not have the necessary tools to do so.

Many factors are behind how the CAF reached this inflection point. While COVID has been a major issue for retention, many of these trends far predate the pandemic. A key component is related to funding. Simply too little money has been spent on the department since the end of the Cold War, and it has now caught up to the military.

Recruitment is one such area and a major source of the personnel problems the military currently faces. Moreover, the department’s procedures and functions have become particularly problematic and had a detrimental impact on the lives of its soldiers. This is not a new challenge, as finding the balance to sustain the CAF during peacetime and war has been fought since the 1950s. 

However, many soldiers feel that their administration has become turgid and unresponsive to their needs—getting basic paperwork through can be difficult at times, housing is nearly impossible to obtain, and the cost of relocation, an unfortunate reality for many members, is far too high. Furthermore many aspects of cultural reform have been poorly implemented, despite the critical nature of this effort considering the systemic issues surrounding sexual harassment. But it has alienated members and risks further damaging already sagging morale. Large segments of the personnel are disenchanted and have become unwilling to continue in their roles. They simply cannot continue to sacrifice their own well-being or that of their families and have instead “voted with their feet” and left the forces.  

Particularly problematic is the capital base of the armed forces, from physical facilities to the actual planes, ships, vehicles, and the like. Everywhere one looks, the CAF is crumbling due to significant underinvestment. Moreover, the basic tools that soldiers need to conduct their mission are simply falling apart. 

For example, the Royal Canadian Navy’s frigates—12 vessels that constitute the vast majority of the navy’s ability to protect the country—are in a dilapidated state. The fleet is now roughly over twenty-five years old and starting to show its age after years of hard deployments worldwide. Seven of the ships are currently in yards undergoing refits or repairs, with two on, which means fewer deployments available for crews. Unable to serve on their assigned systems for too long, many sailors become disillusioned and leave the service. It’s a problem experienced by many within the CAF and not just limited to the Navy. 

While some individuals see too few deployments, others are often over-committed. Due to undermanning, a small number of key specialists are utilized unsustainably. Some individuals spend six or more months away from home, only to be sent away for another deployment six months later. In some of these roles, like aircraft maintainers or sensor technicians, undermanning has reached 50 percent of the authorized strength. These specialists burn out and leave the service, leaving fewer individuals to shoulder the burden and exacerbating the “death spiral.” Eventually, there will be nobody available to man these critical positions.  

Political representatives continually claim how they support the forces and point to policies and programs that purport to show just that. But this cannot disguise the plain reality that faces CAF members every day. The 2017 white paper Strong, Secure and Engaged was supposed to remedy these issues—yet the situation is fundamentally worse now than before. Money has not materialized, and even the recent announcement of a $5 billion infusion over the next six years only represents a two percent increase in the force’s budget a year. None of it is earmarked for areas that will improve serving members’ situations. Personnel are simply disenchanted by the whole situation, feeling that the government does not truly care about their institution. 

This is not the first instance of a similar crisis in living memory, however. In the mid-1990s, the CAF faced similar organizational pressures, albeit for different reasons. It was undergoing a drawdown from the end of the Cold War, even as it was undertaking unsustainable missions simultaneously in places like the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and Haiti. The National Defence leadership attempted to implement an operational pause in 1996. Despite their best efforts, the military was still sent out on additional missions, such as Canada’s support of the Stabilization Force in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It was only in the 2000s that the situation was temporarily stabilized, thanks to a major infusion of funding and support midway through the decade. 

A similar situation may negate General Eyre’s plans. Given the ongoing war in Ukraine and growing tensions in the Western Pacific around Taiwan, it’s easy to see a situation where the CAF may be called upon to send more troops into the world. This week it announced the deployment of 40 combat engineers to Poland in order to train Ukrainian soldiers, and it is easy to envision more soldiers being deployed in the future.

Simply put, there are no easy answers to this problem. What is needed, however, is for the government to provide strong leadership in order to fix this situation. Unfortunately, given this government’s seven-year track record on the defence file, this seems unlikely to happen. Actually reconstituting the military will be a costly enterprise, given the perilous state of the CAF. Moreover, rather than proscribing solutions that are completely out of step with the military culture, any reforms must focus on service-members needs to deal with them effectively. Pouring cash into this existing system will be highly inefficient and may even be counterproductive in the end. 

This all suggests that the CAF, and the government writ large, may require a more fundamental change to how foreign policy is guided, administered, and funded. The orthodoxy of today is clearly not working, and unless Canada makes a major change, the current situation will only worsen—to the point where we may become truly defenceless. And that is not in anyone’s interest.

Steve Lafleur: Why housing was key to François Legault’s resounding re-election

Commentary

I was in Quebec City earlier this year for the first time since the start of the pandemic. It’s quite possibly the most beautiful city in the country, and one of the most livable—for those who don’t face linguistic or cultural barriers, of course. But for at least a plurality of residents, things are pretty good. So it’s not surprising to me that Premier François Legault cruised to re-election. People tend not to throw out incumbents when they’re feeling good about the issues that directly impact their lives.I assume the mood is somewhat different in Anglophone and Allophone parts of Montreal, where I have not been yet this year. Given the poor showing of the CAQ in those parts, I’m guessing some of the premier’s more controversial policies are more topical. But at least in primarily francophone parts of the province, people seem pretty content. 

I have a habit of talking to locals about politics when I travel. People are usually surprisingly open to sharing their views even on hot-button issues, if you ask. So I was a bit surprised by how little anyone seemed to want to talk about electoral politics during my week in Quebec City. I gave a lot of people openings to talk about politics, but no one seemed interested.People had many thoughts on things like the state of the roads (not great) and some heavily delayed infrastructure projects. I also realized that there were no Uber drivers during the morning commute because the labour market was too tight. But electoral politics? Nope. Maybe I was just there too far in advance of the election. Or maybe francophone Quebecers are particularly guarded about talking politics with outsiders. Either way, people didn’t seem too fussed about who’s in charge. Other than some graffiti under a bridge that someone apparently spraypainted during our last night in town, the name François Legault didn’t come up at all. People seemed pretty content. So we talked about restaurants and coffee shops instead.

Before I go on, I want to make it clear that I am not here to defend the premier or excuse the fact that a lot of voters tacitly endorsed some worrisome policies. But it’s also important to remember that most people hold political identities lightly and don’t want to spend their lives debating politics. Your job, your friends, your family, and having a decent place to live tend to matter more than which party is in office. In Quebec, the crucial variable of housing is not the same challenge that it is in much of the country.

I like to joke that if Quebec was indeed a sovereign nation, its national motto would be à louer. You can’t miss the signs in Quebec: they’re everywhere. It’s a bit disconcerting as an Ontarian. Signs like this just don’t really exist in Toronto. Apartments readily available to rent is almost a foreign concept here where you have to hunt down vacant units online and hope no one beats you to it. In Montreal and Quebec City, there’s often a phone number right outside for you to call. In this respect, Quebec truly is a distinct society. 

Relatively low housing prices in Quebec mean that shelter costs aren’t eating into middle-class paycheques as much as elsewhere. So it’s not treated like a middle-class issue. Most of the housing promises during the recent election campaign centred around social housing or other policies targeted at low-income renters and buyers and not the broad public. Housing in Quebec, for lack of a better word, is normal. It’s not a light-your-hair-of-fire issue, just one among many. Mostly one for other people. 

Contrast this with English Canada where it is arguably emerging as the issue. For a long time, it was a Greater Toronto Area and Lower Mainland issue. Over the past few years, in particular, housing shortages in those two metro areas have spilled over into adjacent markets. As a result, it is no longer just a municipal or even a provincial issue: it’s a federal issue now. Given that the Lower Mainland and the GTA decide federal elections, that isn’t surprising. 

Housing has become so dominant in provincial and federal elections that just posturing as pro-housing is enough to get elected—at least for now. Doug Ford was recently re-elected in Ontario, in part thanks to the perception that his party wanted to build while neither of the other major parties seemed to have well-telegraphed visions for the GTA. Even though the Ford government has not yet acted on the most important recommendations of its own housing affordability task force, at the very least they were able to prevent the issue from becoming a political liability.Similarly, a big part of Pierre Poilievre’s pitch thus far has been that housing prices are too high. It’s too early in his tenure to know if he’ll come out with detailed plans to address the issue, though the federal government has limited tools at its disposal. Even if he doesn’t, he might be able to win over voters in the 905 on pro-housing vibes alone. Housing has become that powerful in parts of English Canada. The parts that decide elections, anyways.

Naturally, we might wonder what sort of magical formula the Legault government has stumbled on to. Did they slash red tape? Did they undertake a herculean housing construction effort? Did they make it so hard to move to the province that they crushed demand? The answer to all of these questions is no. In fact, it doesn’t really have much to do with the Legault government at all. It’s that “missing middle” housing isn’t missing in Quebec.

Residential buildings in Quebec City representing gentle density and the inexpensive “missing middle” housing. Credit: Steve Lafleur

Take a walk through Le Plateau in Montreal or Vieux-Limoilou. What you’ll see is a mix of all different types of housing. Townhouses, three-story walk-ups, apartment buildings. Not just on main streets like in Toronto or Vancouver. Density is woven into the fabric of neighbourhoods. Rather than oceans of detached houses surrounded by islands of density in most of the GTA and Lower Mainland, neighbourhoods throughout Montreal and Quebec City have a variety of housing types. Since housing isn’t throttled like it is in much of English Canada by intractable fights, they don’t have the same kind of supply constraints

They also don’t have the same kind of prices. According to Rentals.ca, the average rent for all property types in Quebec was $1723 for the month of August compared to $2367 and $2578 for Ontario and British Columbia, respectively. Zooming into the metro areas, the average two-bedroom apartment in Vancouver cost $3694, while in Toronto it ran $3266. In Montreal? Less than two grand. 

Purchase prices tell a similar story. The Canadian Real Estate Association pegged the average home price in Ontario for August at $829,739. For British Columbia, it was $910,914. It was $484,070 in Quebec. Looking specifically at the Lower Mainland and Greater Toronto Area, the average prices came in at $1,180,500 and $1,124,600. The Montreal and Quebec City CMAs came in at $523,700 and $315,300, respectively.

That’s not completely surprising given that when it comes to housing supply, Quebec is in a far better situation than most of the rest of the provinces—and certainly compared to other large provinces. According to Scotiabank analysis, Quebec’s total private dwellings per population ratio is much higher than the national average and close to the G-7 average.

In short, housing in Quebec isn’t the policy problem that it is in BC or Ontario. So they aren’t major political issues. “Drive until you qualify” (commuting from as far as it takes to afford a home) isn’t as much of a thing in Quebec. It’s hard to overstate how much more breathing room you have when you don’t need to commute two hours a day to buy a home, let alone if you have to wait months for an apartment to open up in your preferred neighbourhood. Believe me—it’s stressful. 

Every time I’m in Quebec, I can’t help but feel jealous. Walkable, mixed-use neighbourhoods tend to be the exception rather than the rule in North America. Given how few there are, they’re expensive. You’re not going to get the Brooklyn lifestyle on an entry-level Toronto wage. In Quebec, it’s much more plausible. You don’t need to earn six figures or have rich parents to live in St. Roch or Griffintown. So on some level, I can see why people are complacent. Things are pretty good—for most people.That isn’t to say that some of the government’s most controversial measures haven’t been harmful to some residents. But it’s fairly easy to tune out if you live in fairly homogenous, Francophone parts of the province. 

You might vote differently from the forty-one percent of voters that gave the premier his majority. I would have. But I can also see how someone who isn’t necessarily thrilled about the premier’s most controversial positions might just tune them out. When you’ve got a roof over your head and aren’t worried too much about the bills, you get to sleep easier at night. So easy that you might not wake up to get to the polls.