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When most people envision a defence policy, they think bullets, bombs and battleships, but Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government appears set to deliver something decidedly different early next month.
“I can assure them, and I have been assuring them, that Canada will continue to be there,” Trudeau said, before adding an important caveat: “Decisions around Canadian policy are made in Canada by Canadians.”
That may go without saying, but Trudeau’s answer to allies who have been barking about under-investment was instructive, and it raises important questions about what we will see on June 7 when the defence policy is released.
“That is where our focus is.”
It’s meant to articulate what threats there might be to sovereignty and national interests; it would state how and under what circumstances Canada would choose to shed the blood of its sons and daughters and the blood of others.
A review is meant to lay out how the military should be organized to meet those threats and what the country is prepared to do in return for those serve.
That raises the question as to whether Canada is about to receive a review of defence — or social policy.
“I am a bit curious about framing the whole policy around people,” said Dave Perry, of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, who has written about past defence policy papers, which usually emphasize the nuts and bolts of defence and foreign policy issues.
The previous Conservative government’s one and only attempt at a white paper — the 2008 Canada First Defence Strategy — was widely derided in the defence community as a shopping list of equipment that quickly turned out to be unaffordable.
The Liberals spun electoral gold in 2015 by casting themselves as nothing like Stephen Harper’s government. They were going to embrace peacekeeping. They were not going to buy the F-35 stealth fighter. They were going respect and embrace veterans.
It’s not too far-fetched to imagine the defence policy will be cast through a similar political lens.
Word within National Defence is the Prime Minister’s Office, as late as a few weeks ago, had a go at the final draft of the policy and chose to accentuate the social aspects.
Much of the political debate over defence in this country has for months revolved around the NATO spending benchmark, which the Liberals, like Conservatives before them, have argued is arbitrary and not an accurate reflection of a country’s military contribution.
So, when U.S. President Donald Trump demanded on Thursday that alliance members spend two per cent of their gross domestic product “as the bare minimum” on defence, Trudeau answered, but shifted the focus.
“Over the past 10 years — and more than that — there has been underfunding, for the troops specifically. The men and women of the Canadian Forces. In their care, in their equipment, in the support and training that goes directly to the valorous men and women that live across our country, who choose to serve their country and put tremendous risk on themselves and their families,” he said.
And that came with a light whiff of political messaging.
“It is going to be extremely important moving forward that Canadians see their government has heard the pride that all Canadians feel in supporting our troops and that we demonstrate with concrete actions and investments that our priority is in supporting the extraordinary men and women of the Canadian Forces, who choose to serve,” Trudeau said.
The reflex to conflate defence and veterans policy is not strictly a Liberal thing. Conservatives went a long way on their “support the troops” mantra, something that contributed to their undoing when they didn’t live up to the expectations of what can be a volatile constituency.