Matt Gurney: Only dead Canadians will shock us out of our appalling complacency

We don't even fund our search-and-rescue units properly. That's the least controversial thing the military does.

If you've heard of General Wayne Eyre, Canadian Army, it's probably because he's currently the acting chief of the defence staff — that's the top officer in the Canadian Armed Forces, in command of the army, navy and air force. He got the job after the last CDS got entangled in the sexual misconduct scandal now roiling the military. Gen. Erye stands a pretty good chance of being the next CDS on a full-time basis, assuming the government ever gets around to making a decision on that front. Given the attention the Liberals usually give the military, this is not a guarantee.

If you'd heard of Gen. Eyre before all the weirdness alluded to above, there's a decent chance it's because of a pretty stark warning he sounded not long ago. Interviewed by the Canadian Press, the general, then head of the army, warned that the military was simply too small to do all that was being asked of it. Specifically, he warned that increasingly frequent domestic deployments were interfering with the military's ability to conduct large-scale, multi-unit exercises. In typical Canadian fashion, the general reached for a hockey metaphor to describe why such large exercises are essential, and told the CP, “It’s like a hockey team that would never train, never play on the ice together, and then all of a sudden being thrown into an NHL game and be expected to win."

There are other concerns with increasing domestic deployments, which the CP noted were becoming larger as well as more frequent in line with worsening natural disasters. They exhaust personnel and wear out equipment. But the point was made — the general was telling Canadians that our world was changing, and our military was struggling to keep up. Military guys usually aren’t verbose or particularly expressive. The fact that Gen. Eyre gave this interview at all was notable on its own.

The interview was published on Jan. 20, 2020, by the way, on a day when hundreds of troops were helping Newfoundlanders dig out after a nasty winter storm. Anyone recall what else was getting underway back in early 2020?

As I write this column, I'm watching a press conference from British Columbia government officials, addressing the massive damage done by recent floods and landslides. It's an unusually emotional press conference. That's not a criticism, but simply an observation from a journalist who's watched more of these than he can remember over the years. The ministers are clearly possessed by the enormity of this problem; the minister of transportation aptly described the province's transportation network as "crippled." Major highways and railways are either underwater or blocked by debris. Some others seem to have been partially destroyed, the ground beneath them simply gone. Many communities in B.C. are now entirely cut off from the outside world or have, at best, extremely limited access; helicopters are hauling supplies in and stranded people out. The city of Vancouver, Canada's third largest, is essentially detached from the rest of the country unless one wants to take a huge detour through the United States, which only reopened its land border to Canadians a few days ago. 

The economic toll of cutting off the Port of Vancouver from the rest of the country, at a time when supply chain disruptions are already biting hard, is going to be gigantic. Economist Trevor Tombe did some quick math and estimated it at over $2 billion a week in trade between B.C. and the rest of the country that's just been wiped off the national GDP, not to mention the direct costs of actually fixing the damaged infrastructure, of repairing property damaged or destroyed by the tragedy and, sadly, and the massive losses to farmers in property and livestock, much of which has drowned. This is a big, big economic hit to Canada.

But right now it's also, more importantly, a major life-threatening emergency. The military is being called out to provide assistance. One suspects the general may have to cancel a training exercise or two to free up the necessary manpower: Bill Blair, minister of emergency preparedness, told the CBC on Wednesday that 300 troops were heading in immediately, with up to 4,000 more on standby. The mission will include shoring up supply chains, which is a remarkably bland euphemism for literally feeding people who are now cut off from normal trade. For Canada's small military, that's a massive effort. To be blunt, we couldn't sustain that for very long without cannibalizing other operations.

Because the military is too small. It's been too small for years. We've known it's too small for years. Gen. Eyre went out of his way to tell us so. It also doesn't have enough equipment and Canada has an absolutely horrific track record of procuring more. We're going to need a much bigger military, with much more equipment, ready to handle missions both at home and abroad, trained and ready to go with almost no notice. (A week ago, who knew B.C. would be crippled today?) This is going to cost enormous sums of money that we simply haven't been willing to spend.

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The disaster in B.C. right now provides a fascinating example of this very problem. After landslides wiped out sections of highway, stranding hundreds of motorists and cutting off isolated communities from food and medicine, the RCAF's 442 Squadron, based in Comox, B.C., sprang into action. You've probably seen footage of bright yellow helicopters rescuing civilians — those are the 442's Cormorant helicopters. Canada, the world's second-largest landmass, has ... 14 of those. (A 15th crashed a few years ago.) This works out to about one Cormorant for every 714,000 square kilometres of land area. For comparison purposes, France has a land area of about 640,000 square kilometres, and this actually understates how poorly Canada is covered ... these choppers also patrol our vast coastal waters. Recall that Canada has the world's longest shoreline. 

It sort of sounds like we should get some more choppers, eh? Indeed, that was considered. Now-former defence minister Harjit Sajjan announced in 2019 that Canada would spend more than a billion bucks on a modernization of the existing 14 choppers, plus the delivery of two new ones. But that project was shelved for cost-related reasons in 2020, and if anything has happened since, it hasn't been reported. The air force makes do by using C-130 transport planes and CH-146 Griffon tactical helicopters in search-and-rescue roles when needed, but since Canada doesn't have enough tactical choppers or transport planes, that's the aviation version of robbing Peter to pay Paul.

Adding two choppers to the overall fleet wouldn't have made a huge difference, given the scale of the challenge. But it's illustrative, isn't it? Canada, a country blessed with far too much geography, had a chance to add a few extra choppers, but passed because we didn't want to spend the money.

The Cormorant experience is replicated across the military. The air force also uses fixed-wing aircraft for some search-and-rescue missions, and our current fleet of CC-115 Buffalo planes dates back to the 1960s. (It’s never a good sign when planes that are still in service are also installed as museum exhibits, yet here we are.) A contract to replace those has been signed; indeed, the first aircraft has been delivered. It took four years to deliver the first plane after the deal was sealed, which isn’t bad, but it took the Canadian government — wait for it — 12 years to pick a plane. Twelve years! 

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Search-and-rescue makes an interesting example when considering Canada's appalling neglect of its military because search-and-rescue is the easiest cost to justify. It's not controversial. It's not inordinately expensive. There’s zero risk of accidentally bombing an orphanage or a particularly lively wedding reception. It's the one mission the military can launch that won't trigger protests in the streets. Basically everything else the military does is subject to criticism, and fair enough. We're a democracy, after all. But search-and-rescue is literally that — it's searching for lost people and rescuing them in an absolutely gigantic country that is increasingly prone to devastating disasters.

And we still skimp out. Because we're cheap.

The bills always come due eventually, of course. And I just don't mean the costs of our broken procurement system and policies. The day is going to come — we came close during COVID-19 — when the military simply won't be able to do all we ask of it, when we ask. That will mean a battle lost or Canadians abandoned to drown or burn in their own country.

We have been warned. Gen. Eyre has warned us. I and a handful of others have been writing about this for years. Nature itself seems to be doing all it can to make us care. But we don't, and until we start paying in blood, I'm not sure anything will make us. At this point, I'm not sure anything else could.


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