In January of 2020, Canada’s military was deployed to help with an unfolding disaster, a really bad blizzard in Newfoundland. Not quite a global pandemic, but when you’re snowed into your house with no power and little food or stuck in your car on a rural road in a blizzard, potentially just as dangerous. And at the time, obviously, that one deployment didn’t seem like a huge deal to most Canadians. This is, after all, what Canada’s military does when there’s a weather related catastrophe. They show up, they help save lives, they help fix infrastructure, they help find missing people. All the good stuff that even people who generally dislike the military can support. Except even then, in January of 2020, military leaders were wary that our forces were stretched too thin. And you know what came next.
News Clip 1
…members of the Canadian Armed Forces are now deployed to a public long term care residence in Montreal…
Harjit Sajjan Clip
…and given the severity of the wildfire situation in Western Canada, we’re establishing a Ford operating location in Edmonton…
Marco Mendocino Clip
…we are working closely with the United States and other allies towards our shared objective of evacuating as many people as we can from Afghanistan…
News Clip 2
…the military’s new mission in Saskatchewan, the reinforcements on the way as COVID cases climb…
News Clip 3
…hundreds of Canadian Armed Forces personnel are being mobilized to assist BC with evacuation efforts and to help protect residents against floods and landslides…
Is Canada’s military built to handle everything that the current state of the world is throwing at it? No, it’s really not. What happens if that doesn’t change? As you might imagine, nothing good. And if more disasters keep coming, then people who didn’t have to, die. So are we going to deal with this finally or not?
I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings, this is The Big Story. Matt Gurney is a writer and commentator who wrote about our emergency preparedness or lack of it for The Line. Hey, Matt.
Hey. How are you doing?
I’m doing well. You’ve been sounding this alarm for quite some time.
Longer than I even like to admit. First of all, because I’m getting old, but also because to admit how long I’ve been writing about this is essentially to reveal to the entire world the total futility of what I’ve been doing here. I’m just showing the impotence of my efforts here. I was saying on Twitter the other day, and my tongue was a little bit in cheek, but only a little bit, seeing all the stuff you’ve been warning about start to come true is not nearly as satisfying as you might think in the abstract.
I can imagine. Why don’t you start then, by telling me, I think early last week as we kind of saw the floodwaters not receding and in fact rising all around BC, and it became clear that this was going to be a massive problem. What was going through your mind?
I think in this particular case, I have to just confess a blind spot or privilege right off the top. I think a lot of us in Eastern Canada were slow to realize how bad things in BC were, and I think I was probably more dialled in than most because of my interest in this. But I was slow to realize, and I actually think we’ll talk about this later because this is germane, but I think even authorities in BC were surprised by this. So my immediate reaction was kind of, whoa, okay, this seems like a big deal.
And then when I began to look into it, and when I began to realize how bad the damage was and the infrastructure issues, and also when I had an opportunity to reach out to friends and family in BC, I’ve got some cousins out there, I’ve got friends, people I’ve met along the way who are in different parts of BC. And I’m talking to some of them, and I’m realizing that it’s a lot worse than we even knew. Middle of last week, I did speak to someone in the BC government. They weren’t authorized to talk to the media, but basically I was able to kind of pin them down, and I said to them, do you guys even know the extent of the damage yet? And the response basically was like laughter. It’s like, no, we have no idea the extent of the damage, it’s going to be weeks before we know the full extent of the damage. That’s when I started to realize that this was a much, much bigger story than people realized.
And then last week, I had this really weird experience of having on my feed, on the one hand, getting tons of reports coming in from people who are stranded, people who don’t have food, diabetics who need insulin, dialysis patients who are cut off from dialysis machines, and they’ve got three or four days. It’s a countdown until they die. And my entire Twitter feed is celebrating Canada’s World Cup qualifying win over Mexico. And that was when I kind of realized, yikes, there is a big percentage of this country that is not clued in yet just how badly off many in BC are right now.
Now that it’s been a week, and I think everybody kind of realizes, first of all, how bad it was at its peak last week, but also that it’s not getting better anytime soon. How ready are we to help BC piece itself back together, connect people who have been sundered, everything that normally goes into a disaster management at this stage?
Yeah. And that’s actually a really interesting question. We kind of have to break this down a little bit into phases, right. Because Canada’s weaknesses, we can kind of very colloquially—and this is overly simplistic and real emergency crisis management experts would roll their eyes at me here—but let’s simplify this and say that you can break a disaster down into three categories.
There’s the first phase when it has just happened or is indeed still happening. There’s the intermediate phase when it is over or largely over, but we haven’t gotten on top of it yet. And then there’s the long term rebuilding stage. Canada is unusually well equipped for that third stage. We are a rich country. We’re a high tech country. We can mobilize economic and construction resources. We can go in and we can fix the roads. We can fix the bridges. We can do that. Other countries can’t take that for granted. Like a lot of developing countries don’t have the fiscal capacity to spend a ton of money on contractors to go fix a bridge.
Where we struggle and we struggle over and over, and it is a national failing at this point, is our ability to handle the first two phases. We are terrible at actually absorbing early warning and being ready for the disaster when it strikes. And then we have heroic people in this country, but we don’t have them at the scale necessary to handle that intermediate phase kind of after the moment of disaster, but before the long term recovery.
So I try to put, like, a positive spot on this. We will fix the damage. We can do that. But where we struggle is dealing with the disaster as it happens and in the immediate aftermath, we are just not equipped in this country. I don’t think we’re equipped militarily. I don’t think we’re equipped politically or institutionally. I’m also not convinced Canadians were equipped psychologically for this.
This is what I really wanted to get into with you, because, as I mentioned, off the top, this has been one of your beats, I guess, for a long time now. And you mentioned something in your column at The Line that I had purged from my memory. And it was a commentary that happened around January of 2020 from a fellow named Wayne Eyre. Can you take me back there? First of all, take all of us back there. What was going on at the time, and what did Mr. Eyre say?
Well, yes, this stuff is just sort of like taking all my nightmares and weaving them together into a tapestry of terror. But in early 2020, very early, I have the exact date written down here. It was on January 20, the General, Wayne Eyre, he was then the commanding general of the Canadian Army. He sort of had a sudden promotion since then because of the sexual misconduct scandal in the military wiping out a bunch of his superiors. But that’s a topic for another day.
So back in early 2020, General Eyre gave an interview to the Canadian press. And the point of the interview is that the military is too busy. We don’t have enough troops. We don’t have enough equipment to do all the things that we are being asked to do. The military needs downtime and it needs downtime for obviously human reasons. You got to rest your people. It needs downtime for equipment reasons. You’ve got to take care of stuff, particularly in a relatively lightly equipped military like the Canadian forces. We work our equipment very hard because we don’t have a ton. But critically, a military needs time off to train.
You can get a bunch of guys together at the local armoury gym and do basic physical training, do some hand to hand combat. You can do some textbook learning on the rules of war or military history or things like that, and that’s important. And that work continues. But you also need to get thousands of these guys together and do large scale exercises where they’re working on communication, when they’re mingling with other units, when they’re fixing equipment in the field as it breaks down. These are like Brigade level exercises, thousands of troops, and they are essential.
The general, in true Canadian fashion, reached for a hockey illusion here where he said, look, it’s not enough to train yourself as a hockey player to a really high level of athletic competency and to work on your skills. You got to learn to work as a team. And the same is true in the military. You can take a bunch of highly skilled players, but if you throw them on the ice for the first time in a game, they’re probably going to flail around. The same is true for military. The general warned of this, saying, we are too small and we’re overworked because our domestic deployments are going up. We are responding to more disasters. They are bigger disasters and they are lasting longer. That was what he warned about within Canada.
He warned about that on January 20, five days later, we had our first COVID 19 case confirmed in this country, and exactly what he had been warning about came to pass because we have called on the armed forces repeatedly for pandemic support during this. There have been times when the military has been very stretched of particularly medically trained personnel. We are very lucky it wasn’t worse in this country because we would have run out of people.
I’m going to play Devil’s advocate for 1 second, because military folks often complain that they’re not funded enough, not staffed enough, don’t have enough equipment. And that’s not unique to Canada’s military or anybody’s military, but objectively, how big and capable is Canada’s armed forces?
It’s a great question. There’s about 100,000 men and women in the Canadian armed forces that includes regular and reserve forces, and they are divided up, generally speaking, into the three service branches, Army, Air Force, Navy. It’s not quite that simple because there are troops who are again in medical specialty roles or in engineering support roles. But that sort of broadly summarizes the general state of the military.
We have an air force that’s responsible either for fighter jets, which can intercept other planes or bomb ground targets. The air Force is also responsible for transport, so they have transport planes. The Navy operates a fleet of ships ranging from fairly large capable warships to smaller patrol craft. And the army fields a mix of infantry, engineering, artillery and armoured units. So we do have the structure of a military that has many of the capabilities you’d expect. We’re definitely short some key capabilities. There are things that a modern military should be able to do that ours is not, and we should probably fix that. But in the big picture sense, we have a reasonably scaled and sized military, especially for our population size.
The problem for us, though, and what gets us into trouble in particular is that there’s no such thing as the right size of military, like there isn’t a formula that spits that out for you. Your military has to be properly sized to the missions that you are assigning it. And I think this is what the general was warning about with the army, we could get away with a military of 30,000 people if we didn’t ask very much of it. Canada has a small underfunded force with obsolete equipment in some roles, but for different reasons, we also work it very hard.
We can kind of do one of two things here, where we can underfund the military and then not ask too much of it, or we can fund it properly and then expect it to do more. We’re trying to get away with something where we’re going to underfund it, but we’re also going to ask it to do a lot, and this is what gets us in trouble. Some of this is a political choice. The government likes to sign up for these missions. Canada’s back, international presence, punching above our weight, blah, blah, blah.
There’s political importance for the government to be involved in some missions, but some of this stuff is just imposed on us. Like we have the world’s second largest landmass. We have the world’s longest coastline. It’s too bad that we don’t have a huge population, but we’re stuck with the coastline anyway. The other wild card, of course, is that we share half a continent with the world’s preeminent military power, and they are expecting us to do our fair share of the burden of just patrolling the continent.
I’m going to ask you for the next question, maybe to just put aside the international ambitions of our military, because I know that can be a divisive topic in terms of people who support or don’t support the work we’re doing in foreign countries. Just domestically, when we’re talking about military capability and equipment and staffing and funding, what is the actual impact of the levels to which the army is prepared on events happening on the ground in BC like this one right now?
Yeah. Keeping in mind you’re setting aside the overseas missions allow me to really quickly break down for you, and I’m going to slightly ignore your guidance there, but only very slightly.
The military basically has three main jobs. One of them is the one you told me to ignore, which is foreign missions. All right, fine. I’m going to mention it, but we’ll ignore it. The other one is domestic security from outside threats. So that means patrolling our coasts, patrolling our airspace, things like that. The third mission is the one we’re talking about here, which is supporting civil authority within Canada. And that includes everything from, God forbid, if there were a riot, for instance. I know that seems a little absurd, but the police could, when necessary, call on the armed forces when they require help that they cannot meet on their own.
It includes, obviously, as we’ve seen, pandemic support when we’ve used them in medical roles, but also in Ontario, we used them just as manpower in long term care homes. And it obviously includes as well, disaster relief.
One of the things that is not widely understood is that British Columbia, in normal times, has no army units assigned to it. It has none. There is no regular army presence in British Columbia.
Yeah, there is no regular army presence in British Columbia. There’s a naval base there at a Esquimalt, and there’s an Air Force presence, and there are some reservists who live in British Columbia. But there are no Canadian Army units regularly assigned to British Columbia. So when something like this happens, if you need to deploy troops, you can call up your local reservists who are in reserve units and get them organized. Assuming, of course, they’re able to actually travel within the province. Right now, if you’ve got a bunch of reservists living in Hope, BC, they’re not much good to you if you need them anywhere else.
The other thing the military needs to do is to fly in the equipment it needs. Right now, what really has been needed is manpower. So as long as we can get people in, we’re doing okay. And the military does have some transport planes that can do it with. We needed helicopters. We needed helicopters badly. Both for surveying the damage, for rescuing people and for supplying some outlying communities. There is an Air Force Squadron in British Columbia. It has five helicopters. And as you well know, British Columbia is an awfully big place. So part of what the Air Force has been doing is it’s been loading smaller helicopters into large transport planes in Eastern Canada and flying those the hell over the Rockies and getting them into British Columbia.
So the challenge, per se, though, is not what’s happening right now in British Columbia. It’s that we’re going to have to strip everything we can to deal with the problem in British Columbia. Right now, while we talk, Atlantic Canada is getting whipped by a really nasty storm. The good news is it doesn’t appear to be doing the kind of damage that we saw in BC, but that’s just good luck. That’s a quirk of fate. For the first time this morning, I know you and I don’t live too far apart, for the first time this morning, I had frost all over my car. Imagine what happens if three weeks from now, we have another ice storm like we did back in ’98 and everybody we need is over in BC.
I’ve mentioned those three missions that we do: foreign missions, homeland defence and aiding local governments. We have a military that is basically sized enough that it can do maybe two of those three jobs at the same time at a low level or one of them at a modest level, doing three of them at a low level, we couldn’t do. Doing two of them at a modest level, I don’t think we could do that either. And I’m not honestly sure if we could do any of them at a high level for any period of time, we would simply run out of people and equipment.
How did it get this way? You mentioned earlier that politics has something to do with it. Is this even a partisan issue? Because as far as I can tell, this has been going on through Liberal governments and conservative governments. Is anybody fighting the fight to fund our military properly? Is there any push to do that, or is this just kind of been one of the things that’s easy to ignore in Canada?
I mean, it’s weirdos like me who are doing it. And like I said at the outset, right? I mean, I don’t even like to dwell on how manifestly I have proven my own impotence here. I have had absolutely no success at this at all.
Why do you think that is, though?
Well, first, let me just say, I don’t think it’s partisan. I wish it was, because then we would have a path to a solution. If the problem was the Liberals or the Conservatives, well, then you just vote for the other guys. We’re kind of in a situation where the problem is all of them. And that takes us back to the question. I think there are two things that are happening at once and they’re related, but I think they are separate and we need to talk about them separately.
The first one is and I know that there are exceptions to this. I’m painting with a very broad brush. Canadians are spoiled. And what I mean by that is that we’ve come out of the Second World War and we have had, like, a 75 year, more than that now, winning streak of prosperity, of political stability, of favourable geography. And Canadians have been able to build a whole political culture around the assumption that the armed forces, which are expensive, I mean, running a military at least a reasonably equipped one is a very expensive thing to do, we have had as part of our political calculus, going honestly, going back to Confederation, that the superpower of the day would have our back.
First, it was the British when we were a British Dominion. Then it was the Americans kind of beginning at some point in the Second World War, we have been able to go, well, that’s tens of billions of dollars we don’t need to spend on this, and we will spend them on other things. And that’s great. The problem is that the Americans, in recent years, under Republican and Democratic presidents, are sending a really strong message to some of their allies out there. We’re done footing the bill. We’re just done with this. We’re not doing it anymore. There’s no domestic support left in America for America to pay the full freight of basically the Western Alliance. That is going to be one hell of a change to Canadians, because, again, we’re spoiled.
You don’t know what you don’t know. And I don’t know if Canadians realize. I mean, I would imagine a lot of people who listened to this podcast when I mentioned that BC has, like, five of these rescue helicopters. That’s probably going to surprise a lot of people.
It surprised me.
Yeah, because we’re a big country. We spend a lot on the military. A lot of that money gets sucked up in the usual levels of bureaucracy. But it doesn’t actually matter. Our entire concept of how much money we should be spending on the military has had generations of sort of setting in our minds, because we took the American security guarantee completely for granted. I think any Canadian who has been paying attention to what’s been happening in the United States and what the American presidents have been saying. If they’re being honest with themselves, they probably aren’t as confident in that security guarantee now as they might have been ten years ago.
The other issue, and it’s what we’ve alluded to here, it’s just politics. Every program in this country has an entrenched special interest. Canadians like their military, but they don’t think much of it. Like, if you look at any opinion poll, approval for the armed forces is always high. It’s an institution that Canadians hold in high regard. But then you poll Canadians, what program spending do you want to see? Do you want lower taxes? Do you want more daycare? Do you want more health care? If you actually look down the list, I haven’t even looked at one of these polls lately because we don’t do them that often, the military is such a rounding error in our thoughts. Increased defence spending is very low. This is something where, like I said, Canadians don’t know what they don’t know. They don’t appreciate how unusual the last 75 years have been historically speaking, and they have calibrated their expectations and their priorities accordingly.
Politics is downstream from culture. The politicians in both the major parties, the Liberals and the Conservatives recognize the fact that, yeah, probably we should have a more capable military, but there’s no votes there. There’s no votes there. Both parties would have differing domestic priorities. Neither of them would prioritize either the military specifically or emergency preparedness more generally. It is always the easiest thing to ignore, because in this country for 76 years, we’ve gotten away with reassuring ourselves the bad stuff really doesn’t happen here.
Isn’t this something that’s going to change one way or another anyway, though? I mean, either in pushing governments to fund our military and improve that capacity or in the way that you mentioned, which is flooding stays in BC, there’s a really bad storm in Atlantic Canada and an ice storm in Ontario and Quebec, and all of a sudden we realize we should have done this before and now there’s a lot of dead people.
Yeah, we have sort of chosen to largely ignore what’s happening abroad, but it’s worth mentioning as well that if you’ve been reading your European news lately, our NATO allies over there are very worried about what the Russians are doing on the Ukrainian frontier. There are Canadian troops in the Baltics as a part of a NATO deterrent force to hopefully convince the Russians not to do anything dumb. Canadian warships right now are taking part in exercises with allies in the Pacific because we don’t like the way China’s posturing near Taiwan. We are very busy now at home and abroad.
Look, I tend to agree with you. Experience makes a really fast teacher. I just sort of wish we would be able to avoid some harsh lessons and make good decisions because we’re an informed, educated people who plan prudently for the future. I’ve kind of given up hope that that will be the case. And I think we might end up needing our nose bloodied a few times before we end up making a better decision. I’m doing my best to try and do it the easy way. Like it’s funny, like I say to my kids sometimes, look, guys, you can go through life learning from all your own mistakes, or you can listen to your old man and learn from my mistakes. And believe me, I’m not having any more luck there than I am with convincing Canadians to spend more on the military.
It seems to be just part of human nature that sometimes you got to screw up to learn. And that’s why the column you referenced at the start, I wrote in The Line, the headline, I can’t quote it verbatim here, but I was pretty clear that only a whole lot of dead Canadians is going to knock us out of our complacency.
Last question. Do you think that that’s changing even slightly? I mean, one of the reasons we called you for this show is because this is a column and a sentiment that I’ve seen expressed more than just from you lately, which is not something I could have said for the last five to ten years. Like it does seem like what’s happened in BC on top of what happened in BC a couple of months ago, on top of the heat wave and the pandemic, it does seem like we’re waking up to the fact that this is a different era and maybe we’re not ready.
You know what? After 20 months of pandemic, my kind of enthusiasm and optimism tank is running a bit dry. I’ve seen the same columns you mean, I’ve written my pieces in The Line. I’ve written similar pieces in the National Post recently. It’s funny, before what happened in BC sort of became apparent in Eastern Canada, I had been writing about military procurement, totally absent all of this context. You know the way newspapers work, if you’re not writing right on the news, a column may be written a couple of days in advance. And I ended up having a column coming out right as the scale of the crisis in BC became known that I’d actually written a couple of days in advance. And the topic of the column is we are terrible at military procurement.
So I’ve been writing about this in my usual places for a long time, but I’ve seen articles very similar to the sort of thing that I’ve been saying pop up in the Star. I’ve seen them in the Globe Mail. I’ve seen them discussed in panel shows on the radio. I guess maybe this is cause for some optimism here, but here is one of the other problems, and it’s related to the emergency preparedness and military readiness in general. One of the overall issues we’re running into here is Canadian political and public leadership is very slow and maybe 90% of the time, having a government that errs more on the side of thoughtful contemplation, maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe it really is. Maybe not rushing to conclusions and getting into things quickly is a healthy part of the Canadian nature. 90% of the time, the other 10% of the time, it might get people killed.
So if we’re talking about missions abroad, Afghanistan style missions, China, Russia, concerns like this. If we’re talking about domestic preparedness for emergencies and things like that, the challenge we have is even if we had some national epiphany today, let’s assume this podcast does so much good that we convert 40 million Canadians to the cause, and we are seized with a burning desire to modernize and expand our armed forces and our emergency response plans generally, you know Canadian government. When would we actually reap the benefits of that? We would probably start to actually see meaningful improvements in our capability in 5, 10, 15 years.
And this is one of the things that scares me the most, crises now come at us fast. No one knew the shape BC was going to be in a week before it was. We had about three months of strategic warning about COVID. We had zero strategic warning about Afghanistan, right? Like one day in September, I wake up and I’m eating Cheerios, and by the end of the day, we’re in a ground war in Asia. Life comes at us fast, Canadian government policy and procurement works on decadal cycles. And this is one of the things we’re going to have to fix. But like we said before, not a partisan comment because this applies broadly, I don’t see any political willingness to deal with this here. We are in a fast changing world with a slow moving government. You don’t need to be passionate about these issues to have a sense where that could end up ending.
Matt, thank you for this. Thank you for sounding the alarm, even if nobody’s been listening to it for the last little while. Hopefully everyone is now.
Matt Gurney writing in The Line. That was The Big Story, for more from us, including many other cheerful episodes like this one, head to thebigstorypodcast.ca. Find us on Twitter at @TheBigStoryFPN. Talk to us via email email@example.com [click here!].
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I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings, thanks for listening, we’ll talk tomorrow.
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