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Dozens of political and military luminaries call on Ottawa to stop backsliding on national defence

More than 50 of this country’s former top security officials, military commanders and politicians — along with a former top Supreme Court justice — have signed an open letter imploring the Liberal government to take national security and defence more seriously.

The letter was released Monday by the Conference of Defence Associations Institute (CDAI). It includes the signatures of five former Liberal and Conservative defence ministers, nine former chiefs of the defence staff, four former ambassadors, two former top national security and intelligence advisers, a former director of the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS), business leaders and former chief justice of the Supreme Court Beverley McLachlin.

“There is no more important responsibility for the federal government than protecting Canadians against all threats — foreign and domestic,” says the letter, a copy of which was obtained by CBC News.

“Now is the time to fully discharge the commitments we have made to our allies and partners in sharing the burden of the collective security, commitments which are essential to safeguard our peace, prosperity and way of life.”

While the criticism is mostly aimed at the current Liberal government, the letter acknowledges that successive governments since the end of the Cold War have reduced Canada’s emphasis on defence and foreign policy.

“Among the most important responsibilities of the federal government is the need to protect the safety and security of its citizens, defend Canadian sovereignty and maintain our territorial integrity,” says the letter. “However, in recent decades, issues of national security and defence are rarely treated as a priority other than in times of great peril.”

Jens Stoltenberg, secretary general of NATO, recently signaled the military alliance’s upcoming leaders summit in Vilnius, Lithuania would reset allied expectations about defence spending in light of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and rising tensions with China.

A close up photograph of NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.
NATO Sec. Gen. Jens Stoltenberg has signalled the alliance is going to start expecting more from its members when it comes to military spending. (Jonas Ekstromer/TT News Agency via AP)

Stoltenberg said members are quickly coming to regard the NATO benchmark for members’ defence spending — two per cent of the gross domestic product — as the “floor, not the ceiling.”

The open letter says “Canada cannot afford to conduct ‘business as usual'” and strongly encourages Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his cabinet to “lead and act with a sense of urgency” and accelerate the timelines for the purchase of new equipment.

Last month, NATO published an annual report that shows Canada’s defence spending amounted to just 1.29 per cent of GDP in fiscal 2022-2023.

Critically, the letter said the federal government needs to invest in improving the ability of the Department of National Defence (DND) “to spend its budget in an expeditious and timely manner.”

For years, DND has been unable to spend its full appropriation, with tens of billions of dollars going unspent since the end of the Afghan war. Under the former Conservative government, that money used to lapse back to the federal treasury. The Liberals changed the rules to allow the department to keep more of the cash until it’s ready to spend it.

Letter pins blame on multiple governments

The Canadian Press recently uncovered an internal DND report that said roughly 30 per cent of the department’s military procurement positions — 4,200 jobs — were vacant at the end of May last year.

Separately, almost a decade ago, an independent study by the Conference of Defence Associations Institute (CDAI) and the MacDonald-Laurier Institute said that cuts introduced by the Liberal government under Jean Chretien in the 1990s gutted the military’s equipment-buying branch, while the Conservatives did nothing to fix the problem after winning power.

Retired lieutenant-general Guy Thibault, the chair of the CDAI, said the decision was made to draft the letter after the government decided recently to open up the defence policy review to public consultation, further pushing back its delivery for what might be a year.

Minister of Foreign Affairs Melanie Joly speaks to reporters before heading into a meeting of the Liberal caucus, on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on Wednesday, March 8, 2023.
Minister of Foreign Affairs Melanie Joly has said decisions about Canada’s military spending will have to wait for the completion of the defence policy review. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly said recently that decisions on whether Canada would aspire to meet the NATO spending target would be made in the aftermath of the policy review, which is supposed to look at Canada’s defence posture both overseas and at home.

Thibault said the policy update is being delayed during a time of great peril for global peace and security due to the threats posed by China and Russia.

He said authoritarian regimes are continuing their military expansion and are willing to use force to achieve their aims.

“The recent federal budget was largely a summary of previous announcements without any acknowledgement that the government must accelerate program spending,” he said.

Thibault pointed to the non-partisan nature of the letter and its criticism.

Last fall, the recipient of CDAI’s annual Vimy Award, retired lieutenant-general Michel Maisonneuve, delivered a blistering acceptance speech that many interpreted as a thinly veiled attack on the Liberal government. In it, he railed against divisive leaders, cancel culture and the sorry state of the Canadian military.

The CDAI, which bills itself as non-partisan, distanced itself from Maisonneuve’s remarks, saying they did not reflect the institute’s views.

Thibault said he hopes the Liberal government will consider seriously the letter’s expression of deep concern for the future security of the country.

The people who signed the letter include:

  • The Right Honourable Beverley McLachlin, former chief justice SCC
  • The Honourable Peter MacKay, former minister of national defence
  • The Honourable David Pratt, former minister of national defence
  • General (Ret’d) Raymond Henault, former chair NATO MC, chief of the defence staff
  • Ambassador Yves Brodeur, former ambassador to NATO
  • Ambassador Deborah Lyons, former UN special rep UNAMA Afghanistan
  • Blake Goldring, former honorary colonel Canadian Army, executive chairman AGF Management
  • Dick Fadden, former national security adviser and deputy minister of national defence
  • Chiko Nanji, CEO Metro Supply Chain Group
  • The Honourable John Manley, former deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs
  • The Honourable Anne McLellan, former deputy prime minister
  • The Honourable Perrin Beatty, former minister of national defence
  • The Honourable John McCallum, former minister of national defence
  • The Honourable Jason Kenney, former minister of national defence
  • The Honourable David Collenette, former minister of national defence
  • The Honourable Andrew Leslie, former chief whip, commander Canadian Army
  • The Honourable Senator Peter Harder, former deputy minister of foreign affairs
  • The Honourable Colin Kenny, senator (Ret’d), founding chair of the standing Senate committee on national security and defence
  • The Honourable Dan Lang, senator (Ret’d)
  • The Honourable Joseph Day, senator (Ret’d)
  • Mel Cappe, former clerk of the Privy Council and U.K. high commissioner
  • General (Ret’d) Paul Manson
  • General (Ret’d) John de Chastelain
  • Admiral (Ret’d) John Anderson, former NATO ambassador
  • General (Ret’d) Jean Boyle
  • General (Ret’d) Maurice Baril
  • General (Ret’d) Rick Hillier
  • General (Ret’d) Walter Natynczyk
  • General (Ret’d) Tom Lawson
  • Ambassador (Ret’d) Robert Fowler, former foreign policy adviser, deputy minister of national defence
  • Ward Elcock, former director of CSIS, deputy minister of national defence
  • Margaret Purdy, former deputy secretary to the cabinet (security and intelligence) and associate deputy minister national defence
  • Daniel Jean, former national security and intelligence adviser, deputy minister Global Affairs Canada
  • John Forster, former chief of CSE, deputy minister of national defence
  • Margaret Bloodworth, former deputy minister of national defence
  • Roland Paris, former senior adviser (global affairs and defence) to the prime minister
  • Vincent Rigby, former national security and intelligence adviser
  •  

The CDA Institute board of directors and CDA executive:

  • LGen (Ret’d) Guy Thibault, former vice chief of the defence staff
  • Ambassador (Ret’d) Gord Venner, former senior associate deputy minister of national defence
  • Ambassador (Ret’d) Kerry Buck, former NATO ambassador
  • Mike Hamilton, senior vice president RBC Insurance
  • Naresh Raghubeer, managing partner Sandstone Group
  • Renée Filiatrault, former foreign service officer
  • Dr. Stéfanie von Hlatky, Queen’s University Centre for International and Defence Policy
  • Honorary Colonel Jeff Westeinde, president Zibi Canada
  • LGen (Ret’d) Marquis Hainse, former commander Canadian Army
  • VAdm (Ret’d) Drew Robertson, former commander Royal Canadian Navy
  • VAdm (Ret’d) Darren Hawco, former NATO military representative
  • VAdm (Ret’d) Mark Norman, former commander Royal Canadian Navy
  • VAdm (Re’d) Bob Davidson, former NATO military representative
  • VAdm (Ret’d) Denis Rouleau, former chair CDA, vice chief of the defence staff
  • MGen (Ret’d) Steve Noonan, former commander of Canadian Operational Support Command
  • MGen (Ret’d) Michel Lalumiere, former chief Fighter Capability
  • Youri Cormier, adj. professor Royal Military College of Canada and CDA executive director

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