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Richard Shimooka: If you care about Canada’s security, 2023 was a year of substantial disappointment

Commentary

As the calendar turns over to 2024, I’ve been reflecting on the year that was in Canadian security and defence. It started off with great promise. There was the potential for a new defence policy update that would address many of the government’s shortcomings with respect to defence policy and the military capabilities of the armed forces, and there was the potential for the procurement of the P-8 alongside a number of other capabilities.

Furthermore, there was hope for progress in dealing with substantiative issues around culture change and recruitment/retention. After General Eyre’s directive on reconstitution in October 2022, there was good evidence to suggest that the political leadership understood the poor material shape the Canadian Armed Forces were in and would become more discriminating as to what missions it was sent on. Relatedly the government as a whole seemed to better understand the national security environment it found itself in, especially after the publication of the Indo-Pacific Strategy in November of 2022

Yet the close of 2023 highlights just how much this was a year of substantial disappointment for those who care about Canada’s military, defence capabilities, and its place in the world. 

Rather than the beginnings of a renewal, the CAF is in a worse state and facing an even deeper hole it needs to dig out of. The delay of the defence policy update, reportedly due to its cost, as well as the shuffling out of Anita Anand, a popular minister within the department, tore out the tender shoots of hope many military members had nurtured for the military’s revival. The announced budget cutbacks of approximately $1 billion dollars over the next three years further put this to bed.

While there were some funding announcements, such as the P-8 and the Remotely Piloted Air System program, they are being layered onto a military that has haemorrhaged much of its key personnel. Many individuals, who are already overtasked, rightly wonder who will be there to integrate, operate, or sustain these new capabilities. 

None of this even acknowledges the increased threat environment or the massive technological change that is affecting a CAF that desperately requires modernization. While National Defence has outlined several efforts to address this challenge, such as the pan-domain strategy, its requirement to simply survive on an austere budget means there are no resources or intellectual capacity left to implement them. 

Looking back at the past year, I have been searching for historical precedents to compare it to. One has come to mind a few times: 2003. 

Similar to the present, the country was faced with a number of serious security challenges: 9/11, Afghanistan, and the debate over the impending Iraq war. The 2003 CAF faced serious material and manpower challenges—what General Rick Hillier would later describe as the “decade of darkness” of the 1990s. In 2003 the military faced multiple crises simultaneously: a rust-out crisis of aging military equipment, a personnel crisis, and multiple open-ended missions. As one influential study, titled “Canada Without Armed Forces” published in 2003 suggested: 

The next government will be caught up in a cascading policy entanglement initiated by the rapid collapse of Canadian Forces core assets and core capabilities. This problem will inevitably disarm foreign policy as Canada repeatedly backs away from international commitments because it lacks adequate military forces. In these circumstances, new policy initiatives aimed at ‘being useful to the United States in our own interests’ may well be derailed.

Sound familiar? While some of the direst of predictions did not immediately emerge, they were only delayed. The military received substantial investments, but a large portion of it was tied to funding the operations in Afghanistan or helping build a military that would continue similar operations. Modernization was delayed on capabilities that would help defend Canada and its allies from great power conflict, and in some cases entire capability sets were retired with no replacement forthcoming. 

Looking back at the past year, one way to look at my columns is that they are chronicling the consequences of the inadequate modernization of the Canadian Armed Forces since 2003. It is a likely outcome that by 2028, the country will likely have a navy and air force that are effectively unable to provide a basic level of defence in key areas, and an army that will be unable to assist our allies with previously announced commitments. 

But this does not explain why we’ve arrived at this moment. Over the years, many observers of Canadian foreign and defence policy have noted that the fundamental “problem” of the country’s national defence is that there are no “pressing” threats to its security. I’ve personally had difficulties with this perspective, as it lazily excuses present-day inaction. It ignores (or, perhaps more accurately, confirms) the perspective that it is not actually to do with the threats themselves, but Canadians’ perception of them. One book, also published in 2003, diagnosed this problem well: Andrew Cohen’s While Canada Slept. It is still worth reading today. 

From 1945 to 1968, successive Canadian governments from Louis St. Laurent to Lester B. Pearson viewed international security as a critical focus. Many had fought or been a direct participant in one or both World Wars and saw the ruinous cost of inaction and unpreparedness. They had built close relationships with senior officials of all of Canada’s major allies, which allowed them to tackle problems in lock-step with each other. Canada was present at the creation of the key institutes that have provided for our economic prosperity and security. Cohen’s book lamented the decline of Canada’s principal foreign policy instruments due to neglect that occurred even as Canadians agreed that being a good international partner was in the country’s national interest. 

That really hasn’t improved over the subsequent twenty years. Rather, the reality is grimmer. Like in 2003, the international system has changed radically, this time with Russia and China actively undermining the rules-based order. In the 2000s, both Paul Martin (and later Stephen Harper) understood the poor material state of the CAF and made efforts to address it. Unlike then, however, the government of today has been extremely slow to acknowledge this reality, and in some cases ignores it for their own political interests.

This has given me the most pause over the past year. Rather than acknowledge or address the real possibility of capability collapse or the broader international challenges, the political leadership has chosen to obfuscate these issues and continue policies that have already contributed to the state it currently is in. There is a preference for big, showy announcements while ignoring the much more desperately needed substantial action to fix the armed forces and foreign policy writ large.

Just this week the minister of national defence announced the deployment nine helicopters to Latvia followed by sending a handful of personnel to support the multinational effort to provide security in the  Red Sea. These are token contributions that are unsustainable in aggregate for the military, yet they serve the political purpose of showing Canada doing “something.” Domestic priorities, no matter how small, will trump international ones for this government.

This was evident last July at the NATO meeting in Lithuania, which was focused on the threat posed by Russia and the war in Ukraine. Rather than focus on the topic at hand, Prime Minister Trudeau took to lecturing the assembled leaders on the threat posed by climate change, which was not well received by the gathering. Even in non-defence areas, such as with foreign interference, similar preferences are visible. The continual delay in establishing an inquiry while trying to control its scope is an example of putting parochial interests over that of the country writ large. 

Considering the hope that the year started with and how it ended, it’s unlikely that much will change in 2024. Even a cursory look at the political interests of the Liberal and NDP parties (joined by their supply and confidence agreement) suggests that it is unlikely that the government will accelerate their spending on defence—rather they are more likely introduce more delays. Yet the military and other instruments of the country’s foreign and security policy will not be able to wait. Their failings need to be addressed now, or we will collectively suffer its consequences. 

Dave Snow: The CBC prioritizes allyship over objectivity in Saskatchewan parental consent coverage: An empirical analysis

Commentary

A common argument in favour of defunding the CBC is that its news content exhibits ideological bias. In particular, it has been subject to criticism that it is too progressive and Liberal-friendly, including for instance in its recent coverage of the Israel-Hamas war and Chinese interference in Canadian elections.

However, the assumption of the CBC’s progressive bias has rarely been tested empirically. To remedy this, I conducted an analysis of the CBC’s coverage of an issue that became a sustained national news story this past fall: Saskatchewan’s parental consent policy for children’s gender pronoun changes in schools. 

The public debate around Saskatchewan’s pronoun policy involves complexity, competing perspectives, and evolving public opinion. It’s the sort of issue for which the role of the news media is presumably to establish and situate the facts, present the different points of view, and help Canadians work through the nuances. Yet, as my analysis shows, that’s not how the CBC’s reporting handled the issue. 

Before describing the CBC’s coverage, it’s necessary to briefly describe the genesis and substance of the Saskatchewan government’s policy. In August, the government announced it would require parental consent for students under 16 to change their names or gender pronouns at school. The policy was challenged in court by the University of Regina Pride Centre for Sexuality and Gender Diversity (“UR Pride”), and on September 28, Justice Megaw of the Court of King’s Bench issued an injunction pausing the operation of the policy because of “the potentially irreparable harm and mental health difficulty” for students “unable to find expression for their gender identity.” 

Later that day, Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe announced that his government would respond to the injunction with a law invoking the notwithstanding clause. On October 20, that law, called the Parents’ Bill of Rights, was passed. The law stipulates that if a child under 16 requests that a “new gender-related preferred name or gender identity be used at school,” teachers and school employees “shall not use the new gender-related preferred name or gender identity unless consent is first obtained from the pupil’s parent or guardian.” 

As a high-profile issue involving a clash of rights, Saskatchewan’s pronoun policy serves as an ideal case study to examine how the CBC covers contentious social policy disputes. To do so, I conducted a content analysis of all of the CBC’s written articles about Saskatchewan’s pronoun policy from August 22, 2023, the day the government announced its initial policy, to October 22, 2023, two days after the Parents’ Bill of Rights became law. During this period, the CBC published 38 news stories in which Saskatchewan’s policy featured prominently, six of which were written by journalists working for the Canadian Press

Even before reading the articles, the headlines betrayed the direction of the CBC’s coverage: while no headline made an explicit argument against the policy, fourteen (37 percent) contained what I call “attributed criticism” of Saskatchewan’s policy—denunciation from someone other than the reporter. Examples include “Families of trans kids, activists say they’re angered, scared, disgusted by Sask.’s pronoun law” and “Sask. Opposition says pronoun and naming policy motivated by politics, transphobia.” By contrast, not one of the 38 articles contained attributed praise of the policy; the closest, “Sask. premier touts survey showing support for informing parents of name, pronoun changes in school,” referenced the Premier himself.

As these headlines show, CBC reporters relied heavily on outside sources to describe the policy’s purported impact. To determine who those sources were, I coded every person or organization quoted in the 38 articles into three categories: supporters of the government’s policy, critics of the policy, and sources who were neutral towards the policy (I excluded quotes from the government, politicians, and the judicial injunction itself). I also distinguished between those whose opinions were clearly sought by the CBC and those whom the CBC quoted from the public record

Across 38 articles, the CBC quoted more than five times as many critics of Saskatchewan’s policy as supporters (81 critics, 15 supporters, and five neutral). Moreover, supporters were grouped into a small number of articles, with six of the 15 supporters quoted in a single story about competing public rallies. Only 16 percent of the total articles (six of 38) quoted at least one supporter of the policy, compared to 95 percent of articles (36 of 38) that quoted at least one critic of the government’s policy. And support was never presented independent of criticism: all six articles that included a quote from a supporter also included at least one quote from a critic.

The critics quoted by the CBC were also far more likely to be in a position of authority, while supporters were almost entirely laypeople. Of the 59 critics whose opinions were sought out by the CBC, 26 were what I classify as “experts”—lawyers and legal scholars, professors, school board presidents, health professionals, and LGBTQ organizations—and a further six were teachers. The focus on expertise was even higher from those quoted from the public record: of the 22 critics who were quoted from the public record, twenty (91 percent) were experts or organizations representing experts. By contrast, CBC reporters did not seek out a single “expert” to speak in favour of Saskatchewan’s policy. Of the 13 quotes from supporters that were sought by the CBC, nine were from community members or protestors at rallies, while four were from the leaders of three small socially conservative interest groups.

The only expert the CBC quoted in defence of the rationale behind Saskatchewan’s policy (from the public record) was Dr. Erica Anderson, a clinical psychologist and a trans woman who presented an affidavit for the Saskatchewan government in court. The CBC article presented Dr. Anderson in a negative light, calling her a “vocal critic” of youth gender transition while failing to mention her decades of research and clinical experience. Most egregiously, the CBC article did not quote from Dr. Anderson’s affidavit even though the affidavit was the topic of the article (and even though much of it was quoted in the publicly available judicial injunction). Yet the same article included a quote from UR Pride’s legal counsel criticizing Dr. Anderson’s affidavit.

The selective presentation of content was even more apparent when it came to the CBC’s reporting on public opinion polls. Between August and October 2023, three Canadian polls were released regarding pronoun changes at schools. To understand the content of these polls, it is important to conceptualize of three policy options when it comes to informing parents when their child seeks to change gender pronouns at school. These fall along a continuum: 

  • Option A: Require that a child’s parents must be informed and require consent for any pronoun changes. This was the policy Saskatchewan ultimately chose.
  • Option B: Require that parents be informed, but not require their consent. 
  • Option C: Neither inform parents nor require their consent. 

On August 28, the Angus Reid Institute released a poll (though its data had been collected before Saskatchewan’s policy announcement). The poll showed that 50 percent of Saskatchewan residents believed parents should be informed of and provide consent for any changes (Option A); 36 percent of Saskatchewanians thought parents should be informed only (Option B); and only 10 percent said parents should be neither informed nor provide consent (Option C). 

The day the poll was released, Saskatchewan’s Premier posted its results on X, highlighting that 86 percent of Saskatchewan residents support “some level of notification for parents when children want to change their gender identity in school.” This, of course, was a sleight-of-hand: Premier Moe’s statement elided the fact that only 50 percent of respondents thought parental consent should be required, which was his government’s policy.

“Perhaps even more troubling, however, is the lack of curiosity present in the CBC’s reporting”

Yet the CBC’s reporting engaged in a similar sleight-of-hand. In the CBC news story about this poll, its subhead read “Survey shows split on whether schools should require parental permission.” The CBC article framed the issue as permission vs. non-permission (Option A vs. Options B and C combined) where a 50-46 split indeed existed. However, none of the critics of Saskatchewan’s policy quoted by the CBC, in this article or in any other, recommended Option B. Of the 81 criticisms of Saskatchewan’s policy quoted across 38 CBC articles, not one said, “We think the Saskatchewan law goes too far, but we support a middle ground where informing parents should be a requirement.” By framing the survey results as “split,” but only giving voice to sub-position within one side of the split that had 10 percent support in Saskatchewan, the CBC overstated the extent to which critics of the law had public support for their position.

Even more concerning was how the CBC reported (or didn’t report) two subsequent polls. On October 12, polling firm Leger released survey results on gender identity and sexual orientation. Unlike the Angus Reid poll, this poll gave respondents only two options: “Schools should have to let the child’s parents know” about pronoun changes (combining Options A and B above), or “schools should not have to let the child’s parents know” (Option C). Although not as strong a divide as the Angus Reid poll, respondents still supported informing parents by an almost three-to-one margin, with 63 percent saying parents should be informed, 22 percent saying no, and the rest unsure. 

As the Saskatchewan government had just invoked the notwithstanding clause to pass its law, the Leger survey also asked respondents “How much would you support or oppose your province using the ‘notwithstanding clause’ in the Constitution to ensure schools must inform parents if their child wishes to be identified by a different gender or have their gender pronoun changed?” Respondents supported the use of the clause by a roughly three-to-two margin: 46 percent supported the use of the clause, 31 percent opposed it, and 22 percent did not know.

A day before Leger released its poll, polling firm spark*insights had also released a poll commissioned on behalf of Egale Canada, an LGBTQ advocacy group that was involved in the litigation against Saskatchewan’s law. Unsurprisingly, this survey framed its questions rather differently. On the question of informing parents, spark*insights asked respondents whether a teacher should have “the discretion to not inform a parent if there is a credible risk to believe telling a parent could put the student at risk.” The inclusion of “credible risk” led to different results than the Leger results: 51 percent of respondents agreed that the teacher should have the discretion, while 49 percent said the teacher should have to inform the parent (the numbers for Saskatchewan residents were slightly more in favour of teacher discretion, 55 percent to 45 percent). 

On the notwithstanding clause, the spark*insights survey prefaced its question by saying “A court has ruled that the policy will likely cause irreparable harm to affected children under the age of 16.” With the inclusion of the language of “irreparable harm,” only 27 percent of respondents agreed that Saskatchewan should “use legislative powers to immediately overrule the court and enact the law,” while 73 percent said the government “should allow the courts to review the policy before taking further action” (the numbers were 32 percent and 68 percent for Saskatchewan residents).

Of course, by inserting the language of “credible risk” and “irreparable harm,” the spark*insights survey is a textbook example of how not to frame unbiased polling questions. This is clear when the results are contrasted with the Leger poll released only a day later. Whereas Leger’s neutral framing showed a three-to-one ratio on informing vs. not informing parents, the spark*insights “credible risk” ratio was one-to-one; whereas Leger’s neutral framing showed a three-to-two ratio in favour of the notwithstanding clause, the spark*insights use of “irreparable harm” produced a nearly one-to-three ratio on the same topic.

Thus two surveys with differently-worded questions released a day apart produced very different results. How did CBC report on this disjuncture? Simple: it reported on the spark*insights poll, but not the Leger poll. 

Whether deliberate or not, the omission of any mention of Leger’s poll was arguably the most damning aspect of the CBC’s coverage of Saskatchewan’s pronoun policy. Indeed, the CBC published 11 articles about Saskatchewan’s pronoun policy in the 10 days after Leger’s survey was released, none of which mentioned the poll. And it is not as if the poll flew under the national radar: it was the subject of a news story written by a Canadian Press reporter and published by CTV News, Global News, The Globe and Mail, and the Toronto Star. The CBC had even used a Canadian Press story about Saskatchewan’s pronoun policy by the same author a month earlier. Yet somehow, a poll that happened to complicate the CBC’s preferred narrative on Saskatchewan’s pronoun policy was simply not mentioned in the CBC reporting.

The above analysis lends empirical weight to what many have long suspected regarding the ideological tilt of the CBC’s news coverage. Perhaps even more troubling, however, is the lack of curiosity present in the CBC’s reporting on Saskatchewan’s pronoun policy. The 38 CBC articles were written by a combined 15 reporters, 13 of whom were CBC employees. Yet there was virtually no attempt to understand the justifications for a policy of informing parents about their children’s pronoun changes. The articles weren’t just one-sided; they were entirely predictable.

Perhaps this can explain why Canadians are increasingly shrugging their shoulders at the idea of a defunded CBC. If the CBC continues to push allyship over objectivity—and to do so in a way that leads to a less informed public—its $1.3 billion annual public subsidy will become increasingly harder to defend.