Keith Gerein: On climate change, domestic disasters and reprioritizing the role of Canada’s military

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Among its many labels, Edmonton is known as a military town, arguably one of the largest and most important in the country.

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Edmontonians often speak proudly of soldiers based here, who have sacrificed and distinguished themselves in assignments all over the world.

But as that world has grown more complex in recent years, it’s fair to wonder if the most daunting conflict now facing our Canadian Armed Forces is an identity crisis.

Are we truly still a peacekeeping nation? Does a reputation of punching above our weight within NATO still hold true? What capability do we have to defend our own nation, including against threats that are more environmental?

That last question may seem surprising, but it’s worth asking because apart from that frantic evacuation from Afghanistan earlier this year, Canada’s military has probably been best known during the last couple of years as a domestic disaster response service.

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Whether that’s been assisting with fires and floods in British Columbia, serving in long-term care homes, administering vaccines in remote communities or adding to the ICU capacity in Alberta, the military has stepped up ably.

This is no surprise. Based on my interactions with soldiers over the years, I know that you can give them almost any problem to solve and they will find a way to do it as long as they are given proper supports.

Still, this kind of role isn’t necessarily what most soldiers sign up for, and yet they may need to get used to it as a bigger part of their workload.

We know climate change tends to increase the frequency and severity of various disasters. And oh yeah, this includes pandemics , because a warming climate improves the conditions for the development of new pathogens, or increases the opportunities for existing ones to spread north of the 49th parallel.

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That said, it’s not clear that our country has really resolved the question of whether the military, as currently constituted, is the right tool to throw at these crises.

(Growing concern about whether the United States will remain a stable and reliable partner/protector gives this issue extra importance.)

I posed this to new National Defence Minister Anita Anand last Friday as she visited Edmonton to thank local troops for their recent disaster response work.

In our brief interview, she twice noted “ Strong, Secure, Engaged ,” the Liberal government’s wide-ranging strategic plan for the military that was released in 2017.

To its credit, the plan does look at the increasing threat of climate change and related disasters, and it has been accompanied by a substantial long-term budget increase .

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The concern is that it may actually be too ambitious, and the funding hike, though a much-needed boost from years of stagnation, may not go far enough to meet the vision.

This is where the concern about an identity crisis comes in.

Defence Minister Anita Anand.
Defence Minister Anita Anand. Photo by Blair Gable/Reuters/File

As an example, it’s unclear what more Canada can meaningfully contribute to Ukraine , apart from a training force already there, should Russian aggression escalate.

As another example, while Ottawa has pledged to restore Canada’s peacekeeping tradition, the follow-through has been questionable at best.

Yes, Canada recently pledged $85 million to peacekeeping efforts, which is generous compared with other countries, but the money is mainly for a UN fund to enable peace talks and conflict resolution.

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Noticeably absent from the announcement was any commitment to make good on a 2017 promise to create a 200-soldier quick reaction force.

“At the current time our commitment is with that $85 million and I am heavily engaged with Gen. (Wayne) Eyre and our broader government … on broader commitments,” Anand said.

Part of the government’s reasoning for the flip-flop is that the world has changed since the 2017 promise was made. However, it’s curious that they aren’t expressing the same attitude with the entire Strong, Secure, Engaged strategy, which came out the same year.

In that vein, given the events of the past couple of years, I sense the government may need to re-examine the plan, and tighten priorities with an eye toward a more robust domestic disaster response.

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(Edmonton’s base, by the way, seems a likely place to benefit from any investments in this area, given its location, size and existing expertise.)

If so, it seems wise to look at widening recruitment efforts, including reaching out to people, including women, who may not have been previously attracted to the Armed Forces in great numbers.

The problem is that reports of sexual harassment and abuse in the military haven’t exactly created the impression of a welcoming environment for women and other marginalized groups.

Anand has thankfully moved quickly on a number of overdue reforms, including the transfer of military sexual misconduct cases to the civilian justice system, but this is still the kind of scandal that tends to leave a stain for years.

This has been a bit of a wide-ranging column, but the bottom line here is that Edmontonians — and I assume all Canadians — want to continue to be proud of our military.

To ensure that happens, the Forces need and deserve a more locked-down identity. That means our country needs to be honest about its priorities and the support required to excel, rather than flailing at an overreaching agenda that tries to please everyone with half measures.

kgerein@postmedia.com

twitter.com/keithgerein

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