As the military struggles with recruitment, Atlantic Canada answers the call
Data shows recruitment numbers from Atlantic Canada well above the national average
The Canadian Armed Forces may be struggling to fills its ranks, but data provided by the military reveals that Atlantic Canadians enlist at a higher rate than the national average, with Nova Scotia and New Brunswick — by a long shot — leading the way.
In response to a request by CBC News, the military provided a pre-pandemic five-year snapshot of recruitment data up to 2020, and it reveals that on average, 0.06 per cent of Canadians between the ages 17 to 34 — a demographic known as the recruitable population — enlist in the regular forces.
That's just under 5,000 new recruits each year.
The military did not provide recruitment data for last year, saying the numbers are "vastly different" because of the effects of the pandemic and public health measures across the country.
But a closer look at the numbers show that Atlantic provinces contribute personnel to the army, navy and air force at a rate well above the national average.
Over that five-year period, an average of 0.15 per cent of military aged Nova Scotians joined the forces, while New Brunswick was slightly behind at 0.14 per cent. That's more than 500 new recruits each year from those two provinces.
The No. 3-ranked province was Prince Edward Island, at 0.09 per cent, where an average of 27 people joined each year, while Newfoundland and Labrador was fourth at 0.08 per cent, with an annual average enlistment of 81 people.
The data captures the province in which a person enlisted, and does not account for situations in which a person may have enlisted after relocating from their home province.
Maya Eichler, an associate professor in political and Canadian studies at Mount Saint Vincent in Halifax, is not surprised by the data.
"They always tend to over-recruit from non-urban areas and from lower socioeconomic strata," said Eichler, who leads the Centre for Social Innovation and Community Engagement in Military Affairs at the university.
Newfoundland and Labrador on par with Saskatchewan
By comparison, enlistment numbers for Saskatchewan and Newfoundland and Labrador are practically identical, but Saskatchewan has a recruitable population that's nearly three times larger.
It's a revealing picture of a military that's desperately trying to reconstitute its ranks during an era in which recruitment has been hampered by the pandemic, a pattern of sexual misconduct at the leadership level, and intense competition for personnel in an economy where the national unemployment rate is below six per cent.
As of last month, the military was roughly 7,600 personnel short of what it calls its trained, effective strength of some 65,000 regular members.
The high vacancy rate comes at a time of heightened international tension, highlighted by Russia's invasion last month of Ukraine, and Canada's decision to place 3,400 personnel on alert to quickly bolster NATO's presence in Eastern Europe, if needed.
Gen. Wayne Eyre, chief of the defence staff of Canada, said recently that military readiness is "one of the things that keeps [him] awake at night."
So why do Atlantic Canadians enlist at a higher rate than other regions of the country?
Let's start answering that question by highlighting the story of Nick Barfett, a high-achieving 17-year-old from Clarenville.
His family is not swimming in money, and the cost of a post-secondary education is going nowhere but up. So he's prepared to dedicate his life to the military in exchange for a high-end education.
For the past six years, he's been setting the stage for his military career by joining air cadets, studying French and immersing himself in high school science courses such as chemistry, math and physics.
Why? He wants to be an aerospace engineer and maybe travel into space one day — and he doesn't want to be saddled with debt to accomplish these goals.
"A lot of people don't have the money, and I know for a fact I don't have the money to go to a university, going with a student loan," he said recently.
'A good investment'
Barfett hopes to attend the Royal Military College of Canada, and his mother is one of his biggest advocates.
"Essentially, they're investing in him. And it's going to be a good investment," said Barfett.
Eichler says Barfett's story is consistent with a historic phenomenon in Atlantic Canada, one driven by the employment and educational opportunities offered by the military, and not by any ingrained notion of militarism.
It's common in countries with an all-volunteer military, Eichler explained, for recruiting to be most effective in regions where the jobless rates are higher, fewer people live in cities, and where there's a long-standing family history of military service.
She said Atlantic Canada checks all those boxes.
"I think patriotism and pride in service become important factors after someone joins, but for the most part, it's pragmatism. That's really a key factor for why someone enrols in the Canadian Armed Forces today," she said.
'You always met Newfoundlanders'
That was exactly what motivated Dale Benson of Clarenville when he enlisted with the Canadian army in 1985.
For him, it was the fishery or a firearm, and he didn't want to work in a seafood plant.
"I would say there's probably a dozen of us on that plane that went and done our basic training together from Newfoundland," he recalled.
Benson served a 30-year career in the army, specializing in armoured warfare. He served twice as a peacekeeper in Bosnia, and spent three years in Germany before the end of the Cold War.
He retired as a master warrant officer, with zero regrets, a lifetime of memories, and a good pension.
"I am proud to be a Newfoundlander and I'm proud to be a Canadian and I'm proud to serve my country and I'm really glad I did that," he said.
"Wherever I was stationed, you always met Newfoundlanders, no matter where you went."
A lot has changed, however, since Benson enlisted in the '80s.
Today there are many more career options in Newfoundland and Labrador, from oil and gas to mining to a growing high tech sector.
Barfett said a career in the military is not something his friends even talk about.
But he marches to his own beat: one he hopes will include a life of military service, and a good, free education.