The sound and fury over whether Canadas military would participate in an Iraqi war drowned out a deeper, long-term military problem. Canada, for the first time ever, is abrogating any role in its defence and in the defence of North America.
For the first two-thirds of Canadas history, Britain guaranteed Canadas security. Since then, its been guaranteed by the United States. But through all recent times, Canada had an active military role, participating in defence command and contributing to defence forces with what was, not so long ago, a well-equipped, highly professional military.
Canada, until now, has been fully integrated into the command structure of North American defence. Canada is also a significant player in NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. Lester B. Pearson, Canadas Prime Minister in the mid-1960s, earlier had helped negotiate NATOs creation. Pearson was cited for this when awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1957.
Now the future of NATO is muddy, to say the least, and Canada has almost completely dealt itself out of any role in the continental defence of North America, as University of Calgary scholars Mercedes Stephenson and Barry Cooper document in a recent article, The end of Canadian sovereignty?
The title reflects the idea that a nation, which leaves its defence to others, loses sovereignty in its first duty -- the provision of security for its citizens.
A common Canada-United States continental defence strategy first emerged following a series of meetings between Prime Minister Mackenzie King and US President Franklin Roosevelt in the late 1930s and early 1940s. In 1957, the two nations formed NORAD, the North American Aerospace Command, a joint commanded involving Canadian and US officers.
However, last October the United States created NORTHCOM, Northern Command, to coordinate North American defence. Canada basically dealt itself out of the NORTHCOM structure. As a result, Canada has increasingly been excluded from defence decisions.
Canada also dithered on Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) better known as Star Wars. Although Canada played a role in the development and testing of BMD, Canada never committed to the program. Post-September 11, the United States has sped up BMD planning. Canadas indecision means Canada will have no influence on BMDs development and its command structure.
Recent events in North Korea and Irans ongoing nuclear program show the potential importance of missile defence. Canadas lack of coherent policy means itll be left to US politicians and the US military to decide whether Canadian cities will be protected and the magnitude of resources devoted to defending Canadian targets. This is a shocking abrogation of Canadian sovereignty.
This failure at the top level of our defence strategy is matched by erosion of capacity throughout the military. Problems with the widow-making Sea King helicopters and Canadas new-to-us submarines get big headlines.
These are not isolated troubles. They are part of a deep corrosion. By next year, almost half of Canadas weapons and vehicle fleet could be sidelined because of lack of spare parts. Think about that for a moment. How many Canadians drive cars so old that spare parts are no longer made? Thats the plight of our soldiers.
At sea, the Navy has not fully explained how or when it will replace its two 30 year-old supply ships or aging command-and-control destroyers. In the air, Canadas transportation aircraft are too old and small to operate effectively in war zones. More than half of Canadas original fleet of CF-18s fighters is out of operation.
At the top level, Canada is excluding itself from a command role while on the ground or at sea or in the air the military is too weak to make any difference.
As Stephenson and Cooper write, The frustrating aspect to the erosion of a Canadian presence in continental defence is that it has resulted, not from a widely discussed and deliberate government policy, but rather from its absence. To continue on this path of inaction at this pivotal time in history will ensure Canadians are less secure tomorrow than they were yesterday.
By:Fred McMahon, Director of the Centre for Globalization Studies