There is a myth widely accepted by many in the military, by veterans and by the civilian public that the Conservatives are the party of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF). This idea holds that while the Tories have traditionally supported and increased funding to the CAF, the Liberals are constantly looking for opportunities to cut costs. It's a prevalent notion, but a fallacious one nonetheless, and one that's being repeated as we look ahead to the Liberals' plans for 2017.
Back in 2006, a year from retirement as a reservist, I stood beside General Rick Hillier — then chief of the defence staff — as he was scrummed by the media on a visit to Halifax. The new Conservative defence minister had just announced a massive multi-billion-dollar plan to upgrade the military, especially the navy.
A 'decade of darkness'
Hillier, the burly Newfoundlander who had captivated the public with his down-home folksiness, could not resist slipping into political vernacular as he told the newsies that under the Stephen Harper government, the "decade of darkness" under the Liberals was over, and the navy was going to get "big honkin' ships."
As a lifelong Tory supporter, I was thrilled. Not only did it seem like Canada's men and women in uniform would finally get the respect they were due, but as a veteran (I was set to retire the following year), I was certain I would be looked after by the Harper government.
My optimism didn't last.
The Harper government began closing Veterans Affairs offices across the country, ending the face-to-face service we expected. The relationship between veterans affairs minister Julian Fantino and the men and women whose interests he was supposed to represent became combative, with sides trading barbs at a news conference. Under the New Veterans Charter, the government ended lifetime support for wounded soldiers and instead offered lump-sum payments, which many of us took to be "shut up and go away" payoffs.
As for military spending, there were no new ships — big, honking or otherwise — after nine years, and precious little of anything else. Defence spending fell to 0.99 per cent of GDP.
Training and recruiting were cut, and our last destroyer — HMCS Athabaskan — became so clapped out that there is doubt she will even make it to her planned retirement date later this year. There are no support ships. Canada's aged Sea Kings are still flying (barely), as are the CF-18s.
What Harper did do was restore the "royal" designation of the navy and air force, and officers had their British-style rank insignia returned: shades of prime minister Brian Mulroney, who in 1985 gave us three coloured uniforms, and then sent us to the Gulf War without, from what we saw, a single penny of additional spending. Napoleon said men would die for scraps of ribbon. He was probably right.
Defence spending lore
Recently, in a military mess, I spoke with young officers who were convinced we were about to enter another "decade of darkness" under the Liberal government. These guys, all young enough to be my grandchildren, were adamant that Stephen Harper had increased defence spending every year, and that Justin Trudeau was now going to cut it again.
Facts and figures meant nothing. They were absolutely certain: Conservatives good, Liberals bad. End of story.
The argument can be made that defence spending in Canada rises and falls no matter who is in power. My personal experience, which includes four decades of service, was that almost all significant improvements in equipment, pay and allowances and family support came under Liberal regimes. But then again, the Liberals were in power for most of that period.
In the year Canada's new government has taken the reins, some improvements have been made: the Liberals have re-opened many of Veterans Affairs offices closed under the Conservative government. Interim measures have been taken to back up the CF-18s and provide support vessels for the navy, and a decorated soldier is serving as defence minister. But the Grits are still struggling to nail down the procurement process, and have taken up the former government's lawsuit over the Veterans Charter, among other things.
Nevertheless, the myth of one-party support for the CAF still remains, and as long as military personnel and veterans continue to believe it, it will continue to skew how they vote, and how we, as a people, think. That tired way of thinking needs a reality check.