Announcing a major boost to defence spending, Freeland delivers a wartime speech

Observers in the national security sector — accustomed to hearing cabinet ministers talk in circumspect terms about Canada's war-fighting abilities — say they were surprised by the unambiguous language about Russia's war on Ukraine in Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland's budget speech.

With defence poised to receive another $8 billion, it's a new era in federal finance

Canadian Forces personnel load lethal and non-lethal aid for Ukraine on a transport aircraft bound for Poland at CFB Trenton on March 7, 2022. (Lars Hagberg/Reuters)

It's not the kind of language Canadians are used to hearing from a federal budget.

Speeches on budget day tend to be built from long passages of arid prose — part statistics, part economic back-slapping and part political pep rally for the governing party.

What Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland delivered to the House of Commons on Thursday was a remarkably stark assessment of the tumultuous world beyond Canada's borders — one that hinted at the kind of sacrifices and choices that lay ahead.

Her remarks were framed around the Liberal government's planned $8 billion increase in defence spending — $500 million of which has been set aside to arm Ukraine to resist the Russian invasion.

Implicit in her argument was that sanctions on Russia — money measures that can devastate balance sheets and bottom lines — have failed to stop the slaughter of innocent Ukrainians.

"Russia has become an economic pariah but the mutilated people of Bucha, shot with their hands tied behind their backs, have shown us that this is not enough," said Freeland, referring to the massacre of hundreds of civilians in a suburb of Kyiv — an atrocity that was uncovered after the recent retreat of Russian troops from the Ukrainian capital.

In what bordered on a wartime speech, Freeland warned of the struggle ahead.

"Putin and his henchmen are war criminals. The world's democracies — including our own — can be safe only once the Russian tyrant and his armies are entirely vanquished," she said.

"The world's dictators should never mistake our civility for pacifism. We know that freedom does not come for free, and that peace is guaranteed only by our readiness to fight for it."

A 'remarkable' shift in tone

Ukrainians are the ones doing the fighting and dying and Freeland argued it's in Canada's "urgent national interest to ensure that they have the missiles and the money they need to win."

One defence expert said Freeland's choice of language in the budget speech — with its references to "free" people defeating totalitarian rulers — was "remarkable."

WATCH | Canada increases defence spending, but misses NATO target: 

Canada will boost defence spending by $8B, falling short of NATO target

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Featured VideoThe federal government will increase military spending by $8 billion over the next five years — falling short of NATO’s two per cent of GDP spending target — alongside a review of its defence policy.

"It's incredibly strong language," said Dave Perry, the president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, an Ottawa think-tank that has occasionally hosted events sponsored by defence contractors.

"That comment to me looks like a reinforcement, or echoing, of [U.S.] President [Joe] Biden's comment that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin's got to go."

If the speech was clear about Russia's actions and the consequences of not supporting Ukraine, the budget itself was less specific about what's ahead for the Canadian military.

A down-payment to NATO

CBC News reported Wednesday the Liberal government plans to spend an additional $8 billion at the Department of National Defence over five years. That sum was confirmed on Thursday but the lion's share of the new money — $6.1 billion — appears to be a down-payment on future commitments to continental defence and a reshaped, hardened NATO.

According to officials, the $6.1 billion is earmarked for the multi-year modernization of NORAD, the joint U.S.-Canada air and maritime defence command. Negotiations with Washington on that project have yet to conclude and the final price tag has not been settled.

Another part of the appropriation will be set aside for future NATO commitments — initiatives that are expected to be agreed upon when leaders of the western military alliance meet in Madrid at the end of June.

While the budget commits to arming Ukraine, it makes no reference to replenishing the stocks of weapons Canada has donated to the embattled eastern European country and says nothing about covering urgent equipment gaps.

Corporal Nicolaus Lalopoulos, a door gunner with 408 Tactical Helicopter Squadron, mans a Browning M2 .50 Caliber Heavy Machine Gun on a CH-146 Griffon training flight during Joint Pacific Multinational Readiness Center 22-02 at Fort Wainwright, Alaska on March 8, 2022. (Submitted by Cpl. Angela Gore, Canadian Armed Forces)

"There's a lot of vagueness and lack of detail about the money that's going to go to our Department of National Defence," said Perry. "A lot of it seems to be an IOU awaiting the defence policy review."

Perry said the vagueness of the plan worries him because of the Ukraine crisis and the fact that there are clear gaps in the Canadian military's equipment inventory.

"There is no clear indication they're willing to replace what they took out of the hands of our own soldiers to put into the hands of Ukrainian soldiers," he said.

The federal budget does set aside $100.5 million over six years to support culture change and justice reform within the military. Another $144.3 million is earmarked to improve military health services. The budget also makes a specific commitment to an additional $845 million to bolster cyber defences at the Communications Security Establishment.

Thursday's budget also saw the Liberal government vow to refine the ability of the foreign affairs minister to forfeit and dispose of assets seized from Russian oligarchs under sanction. It highlighted how Canada, along with international partners, formed the Russian Elites, Proxies, and Oligarchs (REPO) Taskforce to target "the assets and ill-gotten gains of Russia's elites."


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.