Defence policy review to be released after Trudeau meets NATO allies in Brussels

Canada's new defence policy will not be made public until June 7 — almost two weeks after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau faces allies at the upcoming NATO Summit in Brussels.

'I think the Americans are going to be disappointed and our European allies will be dumbfounded'

Harjit Sajjan will deliver Canada's defence policy review after next week's NATO Summit. It has been more than a year in the making and will set the future direction for the military in terms of expectations, spending and equipment. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Canada's long-awaited new defence policy will be delivered on June 7, almost two weeks after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau meets with allies at the NATO Summit in Brussels, the country's defence minister has acknowledged.

Harjit Sajjan announced the date in response to a friendly question posed by a fellow Liberal MP during Monday's question period.

But he faced unmistakably less friendly questions from the Opposition Conservatives, who are upset that the Trump administration was given a sneak peek of the policy document that will guide the Canadian military for the next two decades.

A senior government official told CBC News on Sunday night that the original plan had been to release the policy before the NATO meeting, likely this week. But officials now believe it is important that Canada's updated defence policy be aligned with a broader set of foreign policy goals.

It's a significant decision that could make the NATO gathering uncomfortable for Trudeau, especially in light of the demands and expectations of U.S. President Donald Trump, who has insisted allies boost spending on their militaries.

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland will deliver a major speech shortly after next week's gathering of NATO leaders that will more clearly define the Liberal government's vision, said an official with direct knowledge of the plan.

That will be followed closely by Sajjan's policy review, which has been more than a year in the making and will set the future direction for the military in terms of expectations, spending and equipment.

Many critical decisions — including the replacement of aircraft, ships and vehicles — have been in a holding pattern because of the review.

The latest federal budget removes more than $8 billion from the immediate equipment-purchasing plans of National Defence and promises to sprinkle the cash into programs in future years.

NATO leaders agreed at the 2014 summit in Wales that, with a resurgent Russia on the world stage, member countries should have a plan to increase their defence budgets and bring spending up to two per cent of their gross domestic products.

That would require Canada to double the size of its defence appropriation to just over $40 billion, up from the current $18.7 billion.

Cash vs. action

Both Trudeau's Liberal government and former prime minister Stephen Harper's Conservative government have balked at the notion, arguing that the GDP measurement is arbitrary and that the true measurement is participation in NATO missions.

But the Trump administration, which has consistently hammered allies to pay more toward collective security, is likely to be unimpressed that Trudeau is showing up empty-handed, said one defence analyst.

"I think the Americans are going to be disappointed and our European allies will be dumbfounded," said Dave Perry, of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. "Our recent budget changes have all been negative. We've pushed several billions of dollars of purchasing off into the future and our share of defence spending continues to decline."

According to NATO estimates, Canada is spending just under one per cent of its GDP on defence, but a recent Senate committee report, using Library of Parliament data, pegs that figure at 0.88 per cent.

"So to go into the meeting empty-handed, without even the defence review — it will put our government in a very uncomfortable position," said Perry.

Ending defence cuts

The senior government official, who spoke on background because of the sensitivity of the file, said they are expecting that defence spending  "will be brought up, as it always has been" at the NATO meeting. But the official argued "the defence policy is not for our allies; it is for Canadians."

Sajjan extended that narrative in the Commons on Monday.

"The defence policy was done by and for Canadians," he said. "We consulted them extensively and that is why we want to release our new defence policy to them first."

But the Americans were recently given a preview of the new policy and were "pleased," said a pair of defence sources, who were not authorized to speak to the media.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the 28 member nations are expected to raise their military spending to two per cent of GDP. (Frank Augstein/Associated Press)

Interim Conservative Leader Rona Ambrose keyed in on that, accusing the Liberal government of giving the U.S. a "secret" briefing on Canada's defence plans while keeping the public in the dark.

"I know the chamber has not seen it. I know members of Parliament have not seen it. And the military has not seen it," said Ambrose.

"Why do Washington insiders get privileged access to Canadian defence policies before the Canadian public does, and before the Canadian military does?"

The expectation that Canada was prepared to deliver a substantive new policy before the upcoming NATO Summit on May 25 extends beyond the U.S.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the 28 member nations pledged to stop cutting defence and find a way to to get to two per cent GDP.

"I expect all allies to be able to meet the commitment we made in 2014," Stoltenberg said last Thursday, following a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

It will be a major topic in the coming days, and he said everyone is expected to be on board.

"What we're going to address is how to implement the pledge and I am encouraged by what I see across Europe and Canada."


Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.