Politics·Analysis

As the East Coast picks up the pieces post-Fiona, MPs ask themselves what an army is for

While members of the Canadian military hacked and chainsawed their way through the tangled wreckage of a storm-ravaged East Coast on Tuesday, members of a House of Commons committee gathered in Ottawa to ask themselves whether storm cleanup is actually a job for soldiers.

Vaccine management, disaster response — can the Canadian Armed Forces do it all? Should it?

Cpl. Brandon McRae of the Cape Breton Highlanders removes brush under the direction of Nova Scotia Power officials along Steeles Hill Road in Glace Bay, N.S. on Monday, Sept. 26, 2022. (Vaughan Merchant/The Canadian Press)

While members of the Canadian military hacked and chainsawed their way through the tangled wreckage of a storm-ravaged East Coast on Tuesday, members of a House of Commons committee gathered in Ottawa to ask themselves whether storm cleanup is actually a job for soldiers.

Their answers were — perhaps predictably — divided along partisan lines.

Conservative MPs seemed to suggest that the military's overriding duty is to train for war, the kind we're seeing in eastern Europe. The governing Liberals, more often than not, looked toward the battle against climate change, while New Democrats lamented the lack of capacity within civilian governments to do what people in uniform do.

Caught in the middle of this political crossfire were two senior ranking members of the military who could only awkwardly defer and deflect as MPs asked them to pontificate on matters of government policy that are outside their purview.

"Our minister will submit the defence policy update for discussion in cabinet, and we keep a close eye on that," said Maj.-Gen. Paul Prevost, who runs the military nerve centre known as the Strategic Joint Staff.

He was responding to a question from Quebec Liberal MP Emmanuella Lambropolous, who wanted to know what specific capabilities the military needs to respond to domestic and international emergencies.

Naturally, it wasn't a question Prevost could answer. The military advises, plans and executes government policy. It doesn't make it.

Another Quebec Liberal MP, Yves Robillard, tried again with a more general question about what the military needs to execute both its domestic and international mandates. Prevost basically gave him a one-word answer: people.

Short on soldiers, long on tasks

Prevost told MPs how two political and social crises — the pandemic and the sexual misconduct scandal — have left the military short by as many as 10,000 bodies.

During a briefing on the federal response to Fiona Wednesday, Defence Minister Anita Anand said there are now about 600 CAF personnel in the region, and that the number will steadily increase. 

Aside from ripping off roofs in Atlantic Canada, Fiona has exposed once again the conundrum at the heart of Canadian defence policy — what does Ottawa want its Armed Forces to be?

Does it want the military to be an instrument of state power, projecting Canadian values and protecting Canadian interests in an increasingly dangerous world? Does it want it to be a lightly-equipped constabulary capable of offering assistance to provinces in emergencies, climate-related or otherwise?

The answer, of course, is that the two tasks aren't mutually exclusive. And for the longest time, Canada has been calling on its military to do both — and to do more — with fewer resources.

An evacuation centre in Agassiz, B.C., on Nov. 15, 2021. Canadian Forces helicopters flew until last light, rescuing people from flood-driven landslides that littered the mountain passes. (Andrew Lee/CBC)

Prevost also laid out for the committee the growing challenge presented by repeated calls for aid from civilian authorities across the country — calls which have been growing swiftly in number for years.

In 2021, the military received seven such requests to respond to provincial emergencies — floods, forest fires and other natural disasters.

The years between 2017 and 2021 saw an average of four requests per year. The military received an average of two requests per year from 2010 to 2017.

The statistics given to the House of Commons defence committee on Tuesday do not include the 118 calls for assistance the military answered during the pandemic, when soldiers were backstopping exhausted health care staff in long-term care homes in Ontario and Quebec.

The force of first resort?

"It is best to think of the Canadian Forces as the force of last resort and this is for multiple reasons," Prevost told members of the all-party committee.

Unfortunately, the pandemic pretty much demonstrated the opposite. The federal government, at the behest of panicking provinces, sometimes made the military the force of first resort for such tasks as running Canada's vaccine rollout.

Canadian Armed Forces traffic technicians load special freezers onto aircraft pallets near the Ottawa Airport on Dec. 11, 2020. The work was part of the Canadian Armed Forces’ mission in support of Ottawa's COVID-19 vaccine distribution and delivery efforts. (Cpl Matthew Tower/ Canadian Forces Combat Camera)

Using soldiers to bail out provincial health care systems and respond to disasters seemed anathema to Conservative MP Cheryl Gallant.

"What would the impact [be on] our army's future ability to do its job in a future conflict if the reserve army were to become a climate change defence force, which is what some of our members are suggesting?" Gallant asked.

The army is trained and ready to do whatever is asked of it, Prevost told her.

Later, Alberta Conservative MP Glen Motz cited personal conversations with current and former members of the military. He said they've complained to him about the "domestic obligations" they take on in addition to training and deployment, and told him that's one of the reasons people ditch the military as a career — or don't consider it in the first place.

He asked Prevost to respond to that "reality." The general seemed a little flummoxed.

Canadian Armed Forces personnel arrive at the Villa Val des Arbes seniors residence on April 20, 2020 in Laval, Que. The federal government deployed soldiers to long-term care homes hit hard by COVID-19. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

"I haven't seen any complaints that the response to domestic operations or international operations is one of the reasons we have a shortfall," Prevost said, adding that in his experience, soldiers tend to step up when tragedies happen at home because they affect them personally. 

New Democrat MP Lindsay Mathyssen seemed to suggest that some kind of Rubicon had been crossed in terms of the expectations set for the military — that the military was being called upon to do what both federal and provincial governments should be doing for themselves.

'Warehouse management'

"We saw this during the pandemic. The military was called on to do warehouse management, supply chain management," she said, before asking Prevost to reconcile the ordinary tasks the military is asked to perform "with the significant underfunding" of public services.

"I can't speculate and I am not aware of the level of funding in different provinces," Prevost said.

With a major war raging in Ukraine that threatens to get more dangerous, coupled with devastating climate-driven disasters, the Liberal government — as Prevost noted — is labouring behind closed doors to revise its defence policy. 

Unlike the last policy vision, released in 2017, the latest review is being done mostly in-house, without a great deal of public consultation.

The question seems to be whether it will be able to reconcile all of the competing visions that were on display Tuesday.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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.

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