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Editor’s Note: Sean Henry is known for his strong opinions on defence matters. Please be aware that the following views do not necessarily represent those of e-Veritas or the RMC Club of Canada.


Article by 4270 Sean Henry

Justin Trudeau is correct when he states that “Canada is the best country in the world.” It is not clear, however, that he understands how this came about and, more importantly, how it will be maintained into the future. The same may be said for most of his fellow Canadians.

It is evident that Canadians strive for perfection in their affairs. This is a noble sentiment but is generally impossible to achieve because of what is often referred to as “human nature.” At one time at RMC this reality was studied in an English course that examined utopias (from More’s Utopia (1516) to Huxley’s Brave New World  (1932). The topic was covered by studying some twenty essays and novels produced across that swath of history.

The human factors that undermine achievement of utopia are self-interest and/or self-indulgence. This condition is driven by DNA within all living organisms and generates two primeval forces: survival and procreation. Since these forces comprise undesirable traits, including aggression and gender inequality, there is a constant effort to build behavioral veneers to achieve peace on the one hand and fair human relations on the other.  However, since DNA is involved and veneers are easily stripped away, it seems that genetic engineering will be required to reach utopia. But be warned, this is assured to generate unexpected consequences that may exacerbate the problem.

At any rate, in democratic societies’ governments must convince the public that their policies will address and serve voters’ self-interest. In the case of defence policy this should be self-evident and easy to achieve. The problem is that self-interest covers a wide spectrum. Although national security is a fundamental requirement, most people would rather spend money on self-gratification for direct rewards. Hence, the key to selling defence policy is to convince voters that it is the essential component leading to security, stability and well-being for all concerned – and ensure that understanding is conveyed to politicians.

Having treated the premier obstacle to perfection in human affairs it would be useful to examine another circumstance that has influenced Canadian minds regarding defence. This would be the wind-down of the British Empire in the 1950s. Suddenly Canada had to decide how it would address its security in the face of the evolving realities of the Cold War. Simply put, and under the strong influence of Lester Pearson, it was decided that membership in NATO (and later, NORAD) would be the cornerstone of Canada’s defence policy.

However, the legacy of liberal internationalism dating from the end of World War I lurked in the background and influenced emerging Canadian defence trends. In principle it meant that pacifist tendencies were present. However, although Pearson was a liberal internationalist, he was also a pragmatist who knew that perfect solutions were not possible. Unfortunately this outlook has not been passed to his successors in the Liberal party. Pierre Trudeau wanted to take Canada out of NATO and Justin Trudeau has indicated he will avoid contributing Canadian military resources to combat operations.

Beyond this there are other corrosive influences on the creation of beneficial  defence policy and building effective armed forces to implement it. In this respect Canadian society suffers from the effects of several myths that have gained prominence over the years. A collateral problem of myths is that they are almost impossible.to remove once entrenched in human consciousness.

First in this category would be the myth of peacekeeping. However, almost everything Canadians think they know about peacekeeping, and their role in it, are incorrect. It was not “invented” by Lester Pearson in 1956. A wide array of neutral military units had been interposed to dampen conflicts between states since 1919 (see Alan James. Peacekeeping in International Politics. International Institute for Strategic Studies. MacMillan. 1990).

In the Suez Crisis of 1956 it was US Ambassador to the UN, Henry Cabot Lodge II, who proposed a similar force to resolve the problem. Pearson, then Canadian Minister of External Affairs, was selected as the most suitable person to coordinate execution of the plan, and he performed in exemplary fashion – to the extent he earned a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts.

Unfortunately, peacekeeping has proven to be only marginally effective in dealing with conflicts. Its major failing is that it does not resolve them. It is analogous to placing a band-aid on a boil. Temporary relief is generally followed by (often worse) renewals of fighting. This has occurred numerous times in the Middle East and according to his son, Geoffrey, Pearson became disenchanted and lost his enthusiasm for peacekeeping. Too often in the modern world it allows parties in a conflict to withdraw and plan their next moves. The most prominent example of this today would be UNIFIL in Lebanon. It provides cover for Hezbollah to continue rocket attacks against Israel and mount tunneling operations in preparation for cross-border aggression.

Since the end of the Cold War peacekeeping has often been unable to stop horrors involving genocide and abuse. Examples include Congo, Rwanda, Serbia and, today Mali. Even when authorized to use force under Chapter VII of the Charter, UN Headquarters and contributing nations have been reluctant to undertake combat. In the first instance this reflects that the P5 members of the Security Council will not support anything that resembles a ‘UN Army’. The nations, for their part, do not wish to sustain casualties.

In 1990/1991 NDHQ undertook a program review of Canadian contributions to peacekeeping. It was convened shortly after Canada withdrew its remaining troops from Europe and committed two battalions of infantry to a new UN peacekeeping operation in the Balkans. Witnesses from NATO allies were unimpressed. They stated Canada was using peacekeeping as an excuse to avoid military contributions to possible combat operations. Some added that Canada was the only country in the world that believed in peacekeeping.

Another myth that undermines Canada’s ability to produce effective armed forces is the belief that the Canadian healthcare system is the best in the world – and must be protected at all costs. In this respect it is useful to consider that only two other nations operate a similar universal system: Cuba and North Korea.  In Canada it promotes a generally low standard of results, including overcrowded hospital emergency rooms where patients are housed in beds in corridors and often die there. Similarly, wait times for surgical procedures are often excessive and many walk-in clinics are maintained at third-world standards.

The majority of nations field a system that embodies a combination of personal insurance with government subsidies. In the case of Canada, all levels of government are facing bankruptcy as a result of out-of-control healthcare costs. No wonder that defence spending has taken major hits. What people do not recognize/accept is that if a nation does not get defence right, all other objectives will suffer or fail.

In 2000, the Conference of Defence Associations published a document that proposed that stability and prosperity could be enhanced by investment in defence. It was presented to defence committees of both the Senate and the House of Commons and to numerous leaders in government  and business. The essence of the study is contained in the following paragraphs:

“National defence and the armed forces which implement it, ought to rank as one of the highest priorities of government. It is a central component of the national framework which assures our security and well-being and promotes Canadian interests and values elsewhere in the world.

.Canada has an economy more dependent than most on foreign trade. In fact, both exports and imports are equivalent to 70% of GDP, compared with 24% in the US and 21% in Japan. Moreover, some 85% of Canadian trade is with the US. That means Canadian prosperity is linked closely with US prosperity. In turn the latter depends on stable international security conditions to retain its vigour.”

In due course both prime ministers Martin and Harper were briefed on the CDA analysis and accepted it in principle. That remained the case until 2009 when, in the midst of the war in Afghanistan, public support began to fall. (see Murray Brewster. The Savage War). Instead of taking a strong stand to rebuild and reinforce public opinion in support of the war effort, the Harper government blinked and switched Canadian efforts from combat operations to training the Afghan National Army.

This represented a victory for those advocating an end to combat operations and instead undertake diplomacy and development activities. Conveniently overlooked was that while performing these valid tasks it was also necessary to continue killing the enemy.  Robert Gates (former US Secretary of Defence) explains this in his book, Duty, when he notes that the USMC brigade that replaced the Canadian infantry battalion battle group in Kandahar did fight and was successful in driving the Taliban back into Pakistan (undone when President Obama initiated a draw down of US forces).

Most analyses of Canadian security affairs since 1970 conclude that the situation has been and remains unsatisfactory. The basis for this opinion is that the defence budget has remained far below the level expected of a G7 nation. Brave words have been incorporated into the new Strong Secure Engaged defence policy document, but little has been done to assure the funding needed to start the advance to a satisfactory recovery of the Canadian Armed Forces.

Special criticism has been levelled at the inability to procure major weapon systems to  modernize all of the armed services, with emphasis on ships for the navy and aircraft for the air force. However, what is seldom acknowledged is the most critical shortfall of all – manpower levels well below the norm for all three services, but especially the army.

Starting in the 1990s, most army units functioned at 65% of their war establishment This imposed instability and lowered standards of readiness through the constant need to “rob Peter to pay Paul” to provide ‘full strength’ units every six months to rotate into overseas operational commitments – including the “war” in Afghanistan! This meant that the army was in a constant state of upheaval and the unfortunate consequences may have subsequently resulted in casualties and high levels of PTSD and suicide.

Senior bureaucrats who supported this process stated there was no need for special provisions. As far as they were concerned the army was a manpower pool and assembling the required manpower every six months ought to be a routine process. The new defence policy statement recognizes the need for increased manpower levels across the armed forces, but so far those revised levels have not been met.

Beyond the general argument that Canada and its armed forces should contribute to stability to benefit Canadians’ self-interest and well-being, there are far more important matters at stake in terms of evolving threats. Major power realignments involving the US, China and Russia are underway. Moreover, the so-called “Clash of Civilizations,” involving Islam and the rest of the world remains a smouldering concern. Finally, advancing technology and   nuclear weapons in the hands of unstable actors such as North Korea and Pakistan add a dangerous dimension to emerging international relations.

For example, whereas China has so far adhered to Sun Tzu’s dictum to win wars without fighting battles, recent events indicate a possible move into a conflict orientation. Concentration of Chinese military assets in the South China Sea has been joined recently by militarization of arrangements linked to the Belt and Road initiative in Pakistan.

Canada will not be able to wield great power in this game. But it should provide reasonably sufficient forces that are cohesive and well armed to contribute to alliance/coalition operations vice the tokenism that is now the case.

Finally, returning to the belief that Canada is the best country in the world, one could question that outlook in view of the matters examined in this essay. Reality demands that governments must designate security of the nation as their first priority. While addressing this reality, Justin Trudeau should be encouraged to review the reading list for the RMC course on utopias. Meanwhile, the heroes in this saga remain the men and women of the  Canadian Armed Forces who continue to produce outstanding results in the face of great adversity.


  • Paul Crober

    January 14, 2019 at 10:47 am

    “Strong opinions” you note on your advisory about this article. Indeed he has such “opinions” but they are backed up by a serious cascade of facts, marshalled in a logical, historical context — as usual by this author. He has been doing this for awhile in an exemplary fashion, thus providing a service to all those who interested in defence and security issues — and providing the same to those who are not much interested in such matters, whether they know it or not.

  • Doug (Shag) Southen

    January 14, 2019 at 12:59 pm

    It is always refreshing, and usually also educational, to read Colonel Henry’s writing. I suppose it is also true that a reader might enjoy articles that tend to reflect the reader’s point of view. Well done, sir!

  • 13789 Darren Rich

    January 14, 2019 at 2:27 pm

    Excellent article Sean. I concur with Paul’s comments regarding caveats – “damn the caveats – full speed ahead!” (Apologies to those who see this as a [email protected]$tardization of Admiral Farragut’s allegedly famous battle cry.)

  • Kompf

    January 14, 2019 at 5:29 pm

    Re: “Starting in the 1990s” !!!!
    At the RCSofI in the 50s, blank ammo was not available, so future leaders simulated gunfire with “Bang! Bang! F_____g Bang!”.
    In the 60s, 2QORofC, Calgary was “farm club” for Western Command. In one draft I took 225 or was it 250 Riflemen and Corporals up Hwy. 2 to Edmonton to be re-badged to PPCLI to then reinforce the battalion in Europe. In 2QORofC three or four Rifle Companies were reduced to an Officer, a CQMS and a Storeman. During the Diefenbaker shut down, vehicles were mothballed. Each company limited to a 2 1/2, a 3/4 and a i/4 ton which could only be repaired if safety was an issue. A broken fan belt grounded the vehicle. Cannabalization was not allowed. In the 70s, of the 18 infantry companies in the West, 15 or 16 were commanded by Captains (known as the 4 Cs Club – Canadian Captains Commanding Companies Club) (no pay differential, while so employed).
    At some point operating on a shoelace won’t (or hasn’t) worked).
    Kompf RL

  • L. Larsen 5573

    January 14, 2019 at 8:29 pm

    A well reasoned argument backed up with facts. I do have some reservations with the comments on the health care situation.

  • 5554 Les East

    January 15, 2019 at 1:45 am

    Bang on, Sean! And I wonder about Layne’s reservations about your health care criticisms. As a personal example, I waited 6 months to get an appointment with a specialist about a hearing/vertigo problem. A long time trying to remain stable…