How much will the defence file matter to voters?

In this week’s Canada Votes newsletter: How will Canada's defence file factor into October's vote? Also: Ontario is seat-rich. Polls analyst Eric Grenier looks at the numbers in the province.

The Canada Votes newsletter is your weekly tip-sheet as we count down to Oct. 21

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, left, greets NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, in May, 2017. Stoltenberg visits Canada this week. (The Associated Press)

Will the defence file be a factor in this election?

Vassy Kapelos, host of Power & Politics

Jens Stoltenberg is coming to Canada.

The NATO secretary general will visit the Canadian Forces Base in Petawawa with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau Monday, then go on to Toronto to deliver a speech.

The meeting with Trudeau, according to the PM's office, will be about defending the rules-based international order. 

"Rules-based international order" — it's one of those phrases politicians use all the time, even though no one else does.

According to people much smarter than me, that international order is being threatened by political populists like U.S. President Donald Trump who argue it doesn't work for everyone. At times, the Trudeau government attempts to anoint itself as the great defender of that order — not a bad thing on its own, since multilateral institutions are supposed to keep any one country from acting unilaterally in a way that harms the rest of us.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization is one of those multilateral institutions. It's a military and political alliance, formed after the Second World War, between Europe and North America. At NATO's heart is the concept of collective defence, enshrined in Article 5 of the treaty that created it. It means that an attack against one NATO member is regarded as an attack against all of them.

NATO has taken some heat over the past few years from Trump. The president has suggested the U.S. could withdraw from the alliance, questioned the utility of Article 5 and called member states "delinquent" in their defence spending.

Stoltenberg, left, with U.S. President Donald Trump at the 2018 NATO Summit in Brussels, Belgium. Trump has mused about pulling out of the military alliance. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

He's not entirely alone on that last point; former presidents like Barack Obama also have come down on allies like Canada for not spending enough on defence, arguing the U.S. has to do too much of the heavy lifting.

Canada appeared at first to be responding to Trump's goading on defence spending. The Trudeau government released its defence policy in 2017, promising a 70 per cent increase in defence spending over a number of years.

But that timeline is important. A lot of that spending is contingent on whether projects go ahead as planned. The nightmare that is military procurement in this country (ships, jets - you know what I mean) doesn't exactly bode well for any timetable.

Canada's spending on defence this year amounts to 1.23 per cent of this country's GDP. There was a loose agreement among NATO members to shoot for the 2 per cent mark.

We aren't the only ones missing that mark, of course. According to NATO's latest analysis, only seven of the 29 member countries hit that target. They include the U.S., the U.K. and Greece.

This stuff matters as far as the 'rules-based international order' goes - but will it matter in the next federal election? Traditionally, defence issues aren't a big factor for Canadian voters.

I remember asking an expert about that in the midst of one of our fighter jet procurement controversies: billions of taxpayer dollars on the table, millions misspent - why wasn't it bothering people more? He told me Canadians like to see themselves as peaceful people (or at least they like the image), while the sums involved are too big, too abstract to really matter at the polls.

What might lift the defence file to the level of an actual election issue in 2019 is the government's handling of the military itself. I'm thinking particularly of Mark Norman, the former second in command of the military, and everything that's happened in his case over the past few months.

Repercussions from the dropped case against Vice-Admiral Mark Norman have continued with the recent shakeup in the senior military ranks. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Norman was accused of leaking cabinet secrets, investigated, charged and suspended from his job. Ultimately, the charge against him was dropped. Along the way, his legal team accused the Prime Minister's Office of withholding evidence and meddling in the case. Norman's case had ended but it wasn't clear if he'd get his old job back. Turns out Gen. Jonathan Vance, Canada's top soldier, was going to reinstate Norman - and Norman's replacement wasn't happy with that.

In the end, Norman settled with the government (no details were released); he won't be going back to his old job. But the man who replaced him, Lt. Gen. Paul Wynnyk, was so put off by the whole experience he decided to leave his job early. Basically, it's all a huge mess.

Will Canadians buy the Opposition's claim that this is a mess created by the Liberals, that the military is in disarray because of unnecessary politicking? I don't know, but disarray in the Canadian military certainly strikes closer to home than NATO and defence spending. Stability in the military's top ranks really matters to the men and women tasked with defending our country. It might also turn out to matter to voters in October. 

Vassy Kapelos is host of Power & Politics, weekdays at 5 p.m. ET on CBC News Network.

Power Lines

The Power & Politics Power Panellists on where the big parties will be focused this week

Amanda Alvaro, president and co-founder of Pomp & Circumstance

Liberals and Justin Trudeau, at the 100-day countdown to Election Day, are launching the largest Day of Action so far of 2019. Hundreds of Liberal teams across Canada will be on the doorsteps connecting with Canadians about the clear choice in this election, between the Liberal plan to invest in the middle class and the Conservative plan to go backward with cuts to vital services.

Rachel Curran, senior associate at Harper & Associates Consulting

The Conservatives will be focused next week on an emergency meeting of the Public Safety Committee, which Opposition Leader Andrew Scheer pushed for, to discuss the massive data breach at Desjardins Group. They will also be highlighting agricultural issues, including ongoing trade access problems between Canada and China, ahead of the mid-July FPT Agriculture Ministers' Conference in Quebec City.

Kathleen Monk, principal at Earnscliffe Strategy Group

New Democrats will be in Canada's manufacturing heartland this week. The manufacturing sector has been dealt some serious blows in 2019 and folks are frustrated that politicians keep pointing fingers at one another. Jagmeet Singh will campaign alongside NDP candidate Malcolm Allen in Welland, Ont. to announce a plan to return those good, family-supporting manufacturing jobs to Canada.

Poll Tracker Takeaway 

Éric Grenier's weekly look at key numbers in the political public opinion polls. 

The gap between the Conservatives and Liberals is narrowing — and it's mostly because of Ontario.

A couple of polls this past week gave the Liberals the national edge over the Conservatives. It's possible that the political environment has flipped from the Conservative lead that has prevailed for the past five months.

But some caution is called for here. Mainstreet Research and Nanos Research, the two pollsters that put the Liberals ahead last week, have tended to post better results for the Liberals than other polling firms.

Confirmation of a Liberal lead would have to wait until more pollsters weigh in — particularly those that have been less bullish on the Liberals in the past.

Nevertheless, the Poll Tracker is moving and the margin between the two parties is now just 2.9 percentage points. In the June 10 update, that gap was 5.7 points.

Most of the shift can be chalked up to Ontario. The Conservatives have slipped 2.7 points there since June 10, while the Liberals have gained 3.1 points — a total swing of nearly six points that's responsible for most of the movement we've seen in the national numbers.

The Liberals now lead in Ontario with 36.7 per cent in the Poll Tracker, compared to 32.4 per cent for the Conservatives.

The dial also has moved in a similar direction in most other parts of the country, particularly in Alberta, the wider Prairies and in Atlantic Canada. But it's Ontario that has the biggest electoral implications.

That's why — despite the Conservatives still leading by just under three points nationwide — it's virtually a toss-up as to which party would win the most seats if an election were held today.

They don't call Ontario "seat-rich" for nothing.

(Eric Grenier/CBC)

Tap here to go to the full poll tracker 

Ask us

We want to know what YOU want to know

Irene Beaupré asks: What are the Conservatives, NDP and Greens promising on Indigenous issues? Are they committed to following the recommendations of the TRC? Are the Liberals promising to continue with their commitments to First Nations?

Historically, federal political parties haven't done all that much to court Indigenous voters. The First Nations, Métis and Inuit demographics have seen some of the lowest voter turnout rates — no doubt owing to a legacy of mistrust between many of them and a federal government that didn't always have their best interests in mind (the Indian residential school experience and the Inuit tuberculous policy are two obvious cases in point).

Indeed, status Indians — First Nations peoples with 'status' under the Indian Act — weren't even allowed to vote until reforms were pushed through by Progressive Conservative Prime Minister John Diefenbaker in 1960 to extend the franchise.

In the modern era of reconciliation, ushered in by the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) final report documenting the horrors of residential schools, there has been a shift in Indigenous voting patterns.

In the 2015 federal election, First Nations members living on reserve voted in record numbers, recording a massive 14 point jump in participation, from 47.4 per cent in 2011 to 60.2 per cent in 2015. While that's still much lower than the overall voter turnout rate of 69.1 per cent, a new generation of First Nations people was clearly motivated to vote. In 2015, Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde reversed what he called a long-standing practice and cast a ballot in a federal election.

To that end, political parties, particularly those on the centre-left, have made more of an effort to champion Indigenous policy options to court a growing voter bloc. The 33 federal ridings with substantial Indigenous populations could be very important to the fates of all the major parties, especially with Liberals and Conservatives deadlocked in the most recent polls.

Liberal Party

The current Liberal government has had a mixed record on Indigenous issues. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau clearly made reconciliation a top priority, investing billions of dollars in new money in program spending (in the last federal budget alone, 25 per cent of all new spending was earmarked for Indigenous-related initiatives). His government has lifted 58 of 105 long-term drinking water advisories on-reserve, committed $333 million over five years to revitalize Indigenous languages, passed legislation to begin reforming a badly broken child welfare system, signed a host of self-government agreements and made a series of apologies for past wrongs against Indigenous people.

It's a good record by many measures — but it's undermined by Trudeau's conflict with former justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, the first Indigenous person to hold such an important cabinet position, and by the government's championing of some natural resources projects (hello, Trans Mountain!) against the will of coastal First Nations in B.C. And even with the new investments, Indigenous activists have argued that much more money is needed to end persistent inequities.

Look for the Liberals to propose further, deeper reforms to the Canadian state during the election campaign, including measures to enact the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) inquiry's "calls for justice" to address systemic levels of violence.

Conservative Party

The Conservatives have not been as vocal on the Indigenous file — Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer has said the word "Indigenous" only seven times in the House of Commons over the last four years — but former Conservative interim leader Rona Ambrose signalled a shift early in the last Parliament by dropping the party's longstanding opposition to an MMIWG inquiry. 

The party's Indigenous critic, B.C. MP Cathy McLeod, said that while the party doesn't agree with the inquiry's final "genocide" finding, a government led by Scheer would draw up its own proposal to implement those "calls for justice."

True to form, the Conservative Party also has said that it will champion oil and gas projects — and energy infrastructure initiatives like the Indigenous-led Eagle Spirit pipeline — to bring more wealth and prosperity to remote Indigenous communities that have few economic opportunities beyond the natural resources sector.

In 2015, the Conservative platform had three pages of specific Indigenous proposals — including a promise to establish a property ownership regime for those reserves that want it, and pitches to expand anti-gang programming and rural broadband services. Scheer could very well recommit to those promises and build on them.


The New Democratic Party has been a champion of Indigenous issues in this Parliament, with the party's MPs frequently lambasting the prime minister and his ministers for perceived inaction. They successfully pushed the government to begin fully implementing 'Jordan's Principle' to ensure equal funding for Indigenous kids in health care and other social services, and to end discriminatory practices in the child welfare system.

Jagmeet Singh will likely look to continue the party's strong legacy on the First Nations file by promising to introduce government legislation to enact the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (as the Liberals also have promised to do) and kill pipeline projects they think lack sufficient Indigenous support. The most important aspect of the NDP's Indigenous policy platform is the idea of spending more to tackle the on-reserve housing 'crisis' that has left so many First Nations people without adequate shelter.

The Green Party

Elizabeth May's Green Party also has said it will act on Indigenous issues if elected but their proposals to this point have faced criticisms. Robert Jago, a prominent Montreal-based Indigenous writer, businessperson and member of the Nooksack Tribe and Kwantlen First Nation, called them "thin, unrealistic and riddled with embarrassing errors" in a piece for the B.C.-based online news outlet The Tyee. The party's "Vision Green" platform proposes a phase-out of the Indian Act, "ideally in less than 10 years," and better accommodation of Indigenous interests with respect to natural resources projects.

— John Paul Tasker, senior writer

Have a question about the October election? About where the federal parties stand on a particular issue? Or about the facts of a key controversy on the federal scene? Email us your questions and we'll answer one in the next Canada Votes newsletter.

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Thanks for reading. If you've got questions, criticisms or story tips, please email us politics@cbc.ca. 

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