As the East Coast picks up the pieces after Fiona, MPs wonder what an army is for
As members of the Canadian military cut their chainsaw through the tangled wreckage of a storm-ravaged east coast on Tuesday, members of a House of Commons committee gathered in Ottawa to wondering if cleaning up after a storm is really a job for soldiers.
Their responses were – perhaps predictably – split along partisan lines.
Tory MPs seemed to suggest that the primary duty of the military was to train for war, as we see in Eastern Europe. Liberals in power, more often than not, have turned to fighting climate change, while New Democrats have lamented the lack of capacity of civilian governments to do what people in uniform do.
Caught in the middle of this political crossfire were two senior army officers who could only awkwardly defer and deviate when MPs asked them to pontificate on government policy issues that fall outside their purview.
« Our minister will submit the defense policy update for discussion in the cabinet, and we are following this closely, » the major-general said. Paul Prevost, who directs the military nerve center known as the strategic joint staff.
He was responding to a question from Quebec Liberal MP Emmanuella Lambropolous, who wanted to know what specific capabilities the military needs to respond to national and international emergencies.
Naturally, this was not a question Prévost could answer. The military advises, plans and executes government policy. It does not work.
Another Quebec Liberal MP, Yves Robillard, tried again with a more general question about what the military needs to carry out its national and international mandates. Prévost basically gave him a one-word answer: people.
Short of soldiers, long of tasks
Prevost told MPs how two political and social crises – the pandemic and the sexual misconduct scandal – left the military short by 10,000 bodies.
More than 100 military personnel were deployed to provide storm relief.
In addition to ripping up rooftops in Atlantic Canada, Fiona once again exposed the enigma at the heart of Canadian defense policy: what does Ottawa want its Armed Forces to be?
Does he want the military to be an instrument of state power, projecting Canadian values and protecting Canadian interests in an increasingly dangerous world? Does he want it to be a poorly equipped police force, capable of offering assistance to the provinces in the event of an emergency, climatic or otherwise?
The answer, of course, is that the two tasks are not mutually exclusive. And for a very long time, Canada has asked its military to do both — and do more — with fewer resources.
Prevost also told the committee about the growing challenge of repeated calls for help from civil authorities across the country — calls that have been growing rapidly for years.
In 2021, the army received seven such requests to respond to provincial emergencies – floods, wildfires and other natural disasters.
The years between 2017 and 2021 saw an average of four requests per year. The military received an average of two requests per year from 2010 to 2017.
Statistics given to the House of Commons Defense Committee on Tuesday do not include the 118 calls for help the military responded to during the pandemic, as soldiers supported exhausted healthcare staff at nursing homes. long term in Ontario and Quebec.
The strength of the first resort?
« It’s best to look at the Canadian Forces as the force of last resort, and for several reasons, » Prevost told members of the all-party committee.
Unfortunately, the pandemic has pretty much demonstrated otherwise. The federal government, at the behest of the beleaguered provinces, has sometimes made the army the force of first engage in tasks such as managing the deployment of vaccines in Canada.
Using soldiers to bail out provincial health care systems and respond to disasters seemed anathema to Conservative MP Cheryl Gallant.
“What would be the impact [be on] our Army’s future ability to do its job in a future conflict if the Army Reserve becomes a climate change defense force, which some of our members are suggesting?” Gallant asked.
The army is trained and ready to do anything asked of it, Prévost told him.
Later, Alberta Conservative MP Glen Motz cited personal conversations with current and former members of the military. He said they had complained to him about the ‘domestic obligations’ they were taking on in addition to training and deployment, and told him that was one of the reasons people drop out. the military as a career – or don’t consider it in the first place.
He asked Prévost to respond to this “reality”. The general seemed a little disconcerted.
« I haven’t seen any complaints that responding to domestic or international operations is one of the reasons we have a shortfall, » Prevost said, adding that in his experience soldiers tend to intervene when tragedies occur in their homes because they affect them personally.
NDP MP Lindsay Mathyssen seemed to suggest that some kind of Rubicon had been crossed in terms of expectations of the military – that the military was called upon to do what the federal and provincial governments should do for themselves. .
“We saw it during the pandemic. The military was called upon to do warehouse management, supply chain management,” she said, before asking Prévost to reconcile the ordinary tasks that the military are asked to perform « with the significant underfunding » of public services.
« I can’t speculate and I’m not aware of the level of funding in the different provinces, » Prevost said.
With a major war raging in Ukraine threatening to become more dangerous, coupled with devastating weather disasters, the Liberal government — as Prevost noted — is working behind closed doors to overhaul its defense policy.
Unlike the last policy vision, released in 2017, the latest review is conducted mostly internally, with extensive public consultation.
The question seems to be whether he will be able to reconcile all of the competing visions that were on display on Tuesday.