Cross Country Checkup

$8-billion budget boost in military spending draws mixed reviews

Depending on whom you ask, the spending commitments laid out by Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland on Thursday are either woefully too little or they're thankfully smaller than they could have been, preserving funding for other budget areas.

'It's worse than I could possibly have feared,’ says retired lieutenant-general

Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland, who is also deputy prime minister, speaks at a news conference before tabling the federal budget in the House of Commons on Thursday. One critic said her budget did not provide enough funding for the military, while another was relieved that defence spending wasn't higher. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Defence spending was a key area of focus in the federal budget tabled this week, given that Russia's invasion of Ukraine had prompted a renewed emphasis on security in NATO countries.

But depending on whom you ask, the spending commitments laid out by Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland on Thursday are either woefully too little or they're thankfully smaller than they could have been, preserving funding for other budget areas.

The key figure is a plan to boost defence spending by $8 billion over five years, bringing the country's 2026-27 defence spending to 1.5 per cent of gross domestic product, up from 1.39 per cent currently.

Of that $8 billion, $6.1 billion is slated to go toward modernizing NORAD, the defence partnership between Canada and the United States, while $500 million is earmarked to help Ukraine. There will also be another amount set aside to meet Canada's commitments to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

But retired lieutenant-general Andrew Leslie was critical of the government's plan.

"What she's telling [the Department of] Defence to do is to do more with less," said Leslie, a former Liberal MP for Orléans, a suburb of Ottawa, noting that when the Liberals took power in 2015, they promised $12 billion in defence spending, much of which he says hasn't been spent.

He noted that the funding also falls short of NATO's request made to member countries.

"They've been asking us to go to two per cent for years — our GDP's the same size as Russia's. And this brings us from 1.3 per cent to about 1.5, but only at the end of five years, if that. So it's worse than I could possibly have feared."

Retired lieutenant-general Andrew Leslie says the government is asking the Department of National Defence to do more with less based on the funding allocated in the federal budget tabled this week. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

"Our government's defence policy — Strong, Secure, Engaged — increases defence spending by over 70 per cent between 2017 and 2026 and places Canada's defence spending, in real dollar terms, sixth among NATO's 30 members in 2020-2021," Daniel Minden, spokesperson for Minister of National Defence Anita Anand, said in an email to Cross Country Checkup.

"In the short term, Minister Anand will present a robust package to modernize NORAD and to ensure our Arctic sovereignty. Minister Anand is in frequent contact with U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin on this matter," he wrote.

'The system cannot handle more money'

Peggy Mason, president of the Rideau Institute, an independent foreign policy and defence think-tank, and former Canadian ambassador for disarmament to the United Nations, said that Canada isn't lagging when it comes to defence spending. However, the war in Ukraine may have led some to expect more money for defence in the budget.

"I am quite relieved that it is $8 billion over five years, and I'm further relieved by the fact that ... six billion of it is focused on NORAD modernization," Mason said. She added that she hoped the funding for NORAD would improve Canada's ability to monitor the Arctic, "which is pretty fundamental for sovereignty and security," she said.

"At the same time, I'd point out that we still have the fundamental problem that the system cannot handle more money — that they're unable to spend what we've already committed to," she said.

Mason cited figures from the Parliamentary Budget Office that show the Defence Department is under-spending by about $2 billion a year because of delays in equipment procurement.

Mason said that to get the country's defence spending to two per cent of GDP, Canada would have to spend an additional $16 billion on defence.

"I mean, it's ludicrous. Frankly, it is preposterous that we would do that," she said.

But for Leslie, he sees it as part of what he calls Canada's "ever-diminishing role on the international stage."

"I'm very concerned that this relentless focus on social programs to please the voter comes at the expense of national security and international security, because we're not contributing to peace and stability missions anymore, really," he said.

Defence relies on diplomacy, soft skills

Branka Marijan, a senior researcher at Project Ploughshares, a peace and disarmament think-tank that is part of the Canadian Council of Churches, agrees that Canada hasn't been focusing on peacekeeping missions.

"I think generally public support has been for peacekeeping and peace support operations," she said. "But that hasn't been true in a long time, right? Canada really doesn't do peacekeeping much anymore."

Branka Marijan, a senior researcher at Project Ploughshares, says she wanted to see more funding in the federal budget for diplomacy efforts and other soft skills that are also critical to defence and international relations. (Submitted by Branka Marijan)

Marijan said there is a "disconnect" between the public's perception of Canada as a peacekeeping country and what the country's military does.

"There's still very much the perception that we are ... the peacekeepers," she said. "That is not reflective of where we are."

She also said the defence spending levels in the federal budget did not come as a surprise to her based on what had been hinted at before it was tabled.

"What's disappointing about it is that we aren't seeing the same kind of investment and the same kind of commitment to, you know, peace-building and diplomacy and humanitarian aspects," she said.

Marijan pointed out that those kinds of soft skills are needed, for example, in the response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine — from building consensus with other countries to helping refugees if they want to come to Canada.

"This is something that's going to be relevant beyond this conflict," she said.

Written by Andrea Bellemare with files from CBC News. Interviews produced by Steve Howard and Abby Plener.