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Grady Munro and Jake Fuss: Trudeau government faces lose-lose situation with NATO spending pledge

Commentary

Last week, when asked about Canada’s responsibility to NATO during his visit to Poland, Prime Minister Trudeau acknowledged that “there is still more to do.” Indeed, at the Vilnius Summit last summer, the 31 member countries of NATO, which includes Canada, once again pledged to spend a minimum of two percent of their gross domestic product (GDP) on defence. Unfortunately, with no plan to reach this benchmark, the Trudeau government is in a lose-lose situation: accumulate billions more in debt or further disappoint its allies.

According to NATO, the 2 percent minimum pledge will ensure the alliance’s military readiness and improve the credibility of the organization. 

Yet Canada (a founding member of NATO) has failed to reach this target every year since first making this pledge in 2006. In 2022, the latest year of available spending data, Canada’s defence spending measured 1.29 percent of GDP—fifth-lowest in NATO and well short of the two percent target.In 2023, Canada invested an estimated 1.38 percent of GDP in defence. And much of Canada’s recent progress towards the spending target is due to a 2017 change in NATO’s definition of “defence spending.” Consequently, Canada has been branded a “military free-rider.”

Although most NATO countries haven’t reached the spending benchmark either, this is changing as the war in Ukraine continues. Seven members of the 30 members spent more than two percent of GDP in 2022, and it’s estimated that 11 members will meet the target in 2023. With more members fulfilling their pledge, Canada likely will fall further behind its allies without higher defence spending. Yet according to the Parliamentary Budget Officer, for Canada to meet the target and maintain it through 2026/27, it must increase defence spending by $57.1 billion. 

Unfortunately, due to the Trudeau government’s record-high spending, Ottawa is in a weak fiscal position. From 2014/15 to 2023/24, the federal government increased per-person program spending from $9,064 to $11,395 (adjusted for inflation), primarily by borrowing. As a result, the government has racked up substantial debt and projects more borrowing in the coming years, with no balanced budget in sight.

Without a plan to restrain spending in other areas to accommodate a $57.1 billion increase in defence spending, the government would have to rely on debt to meet the two percent target. This would significantly increase future deficits. In 2023/24 alone, the deficit would increase from $40.0 billion to $55.5 billion. The next several years would also see deficits increase by no less than $13.0 billion. In total, from 2023/24 to 2026/27, cumulative budget deficits would increase from $143.8 billion to $200.9 billion. Such an increase would substantially weaken an already shaky fiscal position.

Despite this, it’s unlikely the Trudeau government would rework its spending to avoid such debt accumulation. Since 2014/15, the majority of spending increases have gone towards expanding or implementing new programs such as the Canada Child Benefit or $10-a-day daycare, rather than core government functions such as defence or justice. 

In fact, the government increasingly treats defence as an area to find additional savings. It recently cut the defence budget by $210 million, and it’s rumoured additional cuts of $1 billion are on the way. Clearly, spending on new programs takes precedence for this government, leaving Canada in arrears on its NATO commitment. 

If the Trudeau government intends to uphold its recent defence spending pledge but is unwilling to change its priorities, then Canadians will likely see Ottawa’s mountain of government debt grow even higher. But should the government again fall short of the NATO target, Canada’s reputation among its allies will continue to deteriorate.  

Zachary Patterson: University ‘decolonization’ is a threat to academic freedom

Commentary

Across the country, the “decolonization” of curricula, and indeed universities themselves, is being advocated as necessary and adopted with seemingly little resistance. The most recent high-profile example of this is Concordia University, which released a five-year strategic decolonization implementation plan. Its priorities, among others, are to “critically evaluate and decentre Eurocentric knowledge systems across all academic programs university-wide.” Moreover, this is to be achieved by “cultivating a ‘collective critical consciousness.’”

Universities receive large amounts of public money. Unlike private sector companies, political parties, or non-governmental organizations, they are funded to provide society with a neutral and disinterested perspective on the world and how it functions.

Academic freedom enables universities to fulfill this role and their missions as truth-seeking institutions. It does so by protecting professors from universities interfering in their scholarly activities. It’s necessary because it frees professors to openly pursue, teach, analyze, and debate important questions, even those that might challenge the status quo. 

This allows for the rejection of wrong ideas while strengthening our understanding of truthful ideas. It has been an important ingredient to the secret sauce that has contributed to the incredible advances in knowledge since at least the Enlightenment.

Academic freedom is most commonly associated with the right of professors to express themselves without suffering repercussions from their universities on topics considered to be controversial. In this respect, it is epitomized by the well-known “Chicago Principles.”

Equally important for academic freedom is the political neutrality of universities. This is essential not only because universities are publicly funded, but because non-neutrality itself impinges on academic freedom. In fact, the University of Chicago also articulated this important principle in its Kalven Report.

When universities take political positions or support political causes, they implicitly and, often explicitly, interfere in the teaching, research, and commentary functions of those who work there. If you were a professor and your university took a public position on a topic, would you feel more or less free to teach, comment on, or pursue research that comes to different conclusions than those of your university?

Some argue that universities have a right and even an obligation to influence teaching and research through training on the use of new equipment and technologies, or perhaps best practices. This may be true if done neutrally. But what if the university insists on promoting political ideologies in teaching and research?

This question is central to discussions around “decolonization.” While many things could be said about the notion of decolonization and the Concordia implementation plan, it’s difficult to argue they are politically neutral.

The first sign giving the game away is the word “critical.” This is not “critical” as in critical thinking that we expect to be at the centre of a university education. No, critical here refers to “Critical Social Justice.” It’s a mix of neo-Marxist “critical theory” and postmodern theory. Its aims are variously to disrupt and subvert society with no less a goal than overthrowing Western Civilization.

If that doesn’t seem political enough, the term “critical consciousness” comes directly from the influential neo-Marxist educational theorist Paulo Freire. Freire believed that education was an inherently political act and that it should be undertaken to cultivate the critical (i.e. neo-Marxist) consciousness of students with the aim of turning them into revolutionaries.

People take part in a protest next to the James McGill statue in Montreal, Saturday, August 1, 2020, where they called on the university to take down the statue. Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press.

The term “decolonization” draws on the same “critical” roots as Freire through well-known post-colonial theorists like Edward Said and, most relevant here, Frantz Fanon. Fanon was a Marxist decolonial theorist. Among other things, he is known for having justified and defended the use of violence and terrorism in conflict against “colonizers.” If he was not the intellectual inspiration for Hamas on October 7th, he is for many sympathizers of Hamas on university campuses across Canada.

As such, Concordia’s decolonization plan (as well as other decolonization initiatives at universities across the country), with its reach “across all academic programs university-wide,” seeks to advocate for, and directly impose, a radical political ideology onto university teaching and curriculum. It also implicitly imposes the ideology on research and public commentary. But these activities are exactly what academic freedom is intended to protect—even from universities themselves.

Such interference is antithetical to the entire mission of the university as a dispassionate, rational, truth-seeking institution. And besides violating academic freedom, these initiatives betray the public’s trust. Moreover, the vast majority of the Canadian public appears to disagree with the ideology inherent in these initiatives.

Since universities function and are funded at the pleasure of the public, they should refrain from undermining their core functions through the imposition of radical ideologies on faculty and students—unless, that is, they seek to be defunded.