Canada’s top soldier says he’s “wrestling” with the fact Ottawa has asked the Department of National Defence to cut roughly $1 billion from its budget.
“There’s no way that you can take almost a billion dollars out of the defence budget and not have an impact. This is something that we’re wrestling with now,” he said.
“I had a very difficult session this afternoon with the commanders of the various services as we attempt to explain this to our people. Our people see the degrading, declining security situation around the world, and so trying to explain this to them is very difficult.”
Treasury Board President Anita Anand, who previously served as national defence minister before Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shuffled his cabinet in July, tasked federal cabinet ministers in August to identify by Oct. 2 $15.4 billion that can be cut from spending.
The government wants to refocus underutilized funds on critical services such as health care — and it doesn’t expect to cut any public-service jobs, a spokesperson for Anand previously told The Canadian Press.
They said the savings would meet a commitment in this year’s federal budget to reduce overall government spending by $14.1 billion from 2023 to 2028, and by $4.1 billion annually after that.
The Liberals pledged to reduce discretionary spending on government consulting, professional services and travel by 15 per cent or $7.1 billion over five years. The government also promised to save $7 billion over four years on operations and transfer payments.
The cuts come at a time when demand for the Canadian Armed Forces is increasing both domestically and abroad. The military has been called upon more frequently to respond to natural disasters, such as the record-breaking wildfires this year. It also is prioritizing its defence of the Arctic, and has a major troop deployment in Latvia as part of NATO’s response to deter Russian aggression in the region.
With the war in Ukraine, billions have been pledged for Kyiv’s fight against Moscow. While at home, modernizing NORAD has been a major focus.
Those issues aside, Canada has been under pressure from NATO allies to dramatically ramp up defence spending to two per cent of GDP – a NATO target. Canada has agreed to that target but has not set out a plan to reach it, with current spending sitting just shy of 1.3 per cent.
However, Defence Minister Bill Blair told MPs on that committee Thursday that given the current “fiscal environment,” the government needs to look carefully at how it is spending taxpayer dollars.
“I’ve always looked upon the expenditure of tax dollars as an investment in creating public value for Canadians, and it is incumbent upon all of our departments to make sure that we’re doing that as carefully and as appropriately as possible,” he said.
“At the same time, I also want to assure you and every member of this committee of our unwavering commitment to make sure that we support the Canadian Armed Forces with the people that are doing the work and getting them the equipment that they need, and so we are looking very carefully at expenditures.”
Blair added those choices may involve revisiting outsourcing of certain contracts, or stretching investments over a longer period of time.
Deputy Defence Minister Bill Matthews also told MPs the figure the department is being asked to trim is around $900 million, which will ramp up over four years.
“We have to prioritize those decisions so they have the least amount of impact possible, acknowledging that there will be impact,” he said.
“The decisions have not yet been taken, but minimizing impact on military readiness has to be a driving force behind the decision, and that process is still underway.”
More Canadians view military as ‘old and antiquated’: poll
According to an August Ipsos poll conducted exclusively for Global News, more than half of Canadians (56 per cent) see the Canadian Armed Forces as “old and antiquated.”
The findings are in line with polling the defence department conducted between Dec. 19, 2022, and Jan. 15, 2023. That phone and internet survey found only one in five Canadians saw the military as a modern institution, with 29 per cent saying it’s outdated.
Ipsos CEO Darrell Bricker told Global News at the time that most respondents to the poll, conducted in June, said there is a way to shift this perspective: put more money into the armed forces.
“The solution to that, Canadians tell us, is probably giving them more money. And if they could just find their way through the, what Canadians see as incompetence and political interference … Canadians feel that they could get there. But at the moment, definitely not there,” he said.
Seventy-five per cent of those polled by Ipsos said Canada should increase defence spending to ensure Canada can protect its own territory and sovereignty.
The poll found there were a number of reasons spurring Canadians’ worries about military readiness.
Most Canadians said their concerns about defending Canada are directly related to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (71 per cent) and China’s recent actions in the Taiwan Strait (69 per cent).
Denis Thompson, a retired major general, told Global News at the time that all branches of the Canadian Forces are in need of modernized equipment, such as frigates for the navy and incoming F-35 fighter jets for the air force.
Ottawa has committed to $8 billion in new military spending over the next five years in the 2022–23 federal budget, along with a defence policy update.
— with files from Global News’ David Baxter and The Canadian Press