Who supported the Canadian Armed Forces more: Pierre Trudeau or Stephen Harper?

by Robert Smol

IF THERE IS ONE PERCEPTION of Canada’s military that both the left and right can agree on, it would be that our military is bigger, better equipped and more operationally active under Harper. Whether it’s to dote on or denigrate our current prime minister, we all seem to accept Harper’s exuberant public affairs love-in with everything military as proof that our military has indeed grown stronger under our current Conservative government.

Released in May 2008, the Canada First Defence Strategy is the Harper government’s comprehensive plan to ensure the Canadian Armed Forces will have the people, equipment, and support they need to meet the nation’s long-term domestic and international security challenges. (jason ransom, government of canada)

Released in May 2008, the Canada First Defence Strategy is the Harper government’s comprehensive plan to ensure the Canadian Armed Forces will have the people, equipment, and support they need to meet the nation’s long-term domestic and international security challenges. (jason ransom, government of canada)

RECENT LIBERAL LEADERS, on the other hand, are widely perceived as lacklustre at best when it comes to supporting our men and women in uniform. And nowhere does that “enemy of the military” legacy strike stronger than in our collective memory than with Pierre Trudeau.

If you served, as I did, while Trudeau was in power you just accepted that Trudeau was the “enemy of the military.” Was it not Trudeau who was responsible for starving the Canadian military of funds and equipment and reducing the size of our Armed Forces to unaccepted levels? Was it not Trudeau who maintained unacceptably low levels of troops deployed overseas? Was it not Trudeau who did not procure sufficient material to support out troops?

But dare we dispense with perception and, instead, look at historical facts, a very different perception of the military under Trudeau emerges. In spite of the occasional military cuts he was so derisively credited with, Trudeau actually exceeded Harper’s current record in terms of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) defence spending, military size, procurement, deployments overseas, casualty rate, and nuclear defence.

Let’s begin with who was actually ready to take a bullet for Canada.

RELUCTANTLY STANDING ON GUARD FOR CANADA?

Steven Harper, in spite of his incessant rhetoric in support of the military, never served a day in uniform. Pierre Trudeau, as a young healthy man in the 1940s, was conscripted into the Canadian Army Reserve under the National Resources Mobilization Act. Though Trudeau’s brief, rudimentary and part-time service was as far from heroic as one might have imagined, it was military service nonetheless and would have made Trudeau a military veteran today. Harper never has — and never will — earn this right.

ARE WE REALLY COMMITTING MORE OF OUR FINANCIAL RESOURCES TO THE MILITARY?

In the 1970s and 1980s, we were consistently told that our military was being financially starved by Trudeau’s government. Back then, the point of reference for Trudeau’s critics always seemed to be his government’s GDP spending on defence, which seldom exceeded 2 per cent. Granted, during Trudeau’s first two terms in office GDP spending on defence declined from 2.5 per cent in 1968 to what we thought was an “all-time low” of 1.6 per cent in 1979, rising again in the 1980s to just under 2 per cent in 1984.

But, looking objectively at the data, if the Trudeau government of the 1970s and 1980s was “uncommitted” to providing financial support to the Canadian Armed Forces, then Prime Minister Harper is a true financial deadbeat. Since Harper took office in 2006, GDP spending on defence has never exceeded 1.4 per cent, which is actually lower than even the alleged “all-time low” under Trudeau. Based on data provided by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, GDP spending on Canada’s military in 2012 stood at around 1.14 per cent of the country’s GDP.

WHO HAD THE BIGGER MILITARY WITH A BIGGER FOOTPRINT IN THE WORLD ?

Today, the size of our combined regular force stands at 68,250 members. But, like the bone-thin anorexic who thinks they are still fat, the common perception today is that we have a “big military.” Perhaps some might argue that having a military less than half the population of Kingston, Ontario, is more than enough to defend the second-largest country in the world. So be it. But how does the size of today’s regular military, which under Harper varied from 62,703 (in 2006) to 68,703 (in 2011) compare to that under Trudeau?

Liberal dynasty in the making: Pierre Elliott Trudeau, John Turner, Jean Chrétien and Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson together following Cabinet changes in April 1967. Each of these men would leave their mark in Canadian history. (duncan  cameron, library and archives canada, pa-117107)

Liberal dynasty in the making: Pierre Elliott Trudeau, John Turner, Jean Chrétien and Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson together following Cabinet changes in April 1967. Each of these men would leave their mark in Canadian history. (duncan  cameron, library and archives canada, pa-117107)

When Trudeau came to power in 1968 the Canadian Forces stood at 101,600, declining to what was then perceived as a “pathetically low” 77,000 in 1976. But what Conservatives and the military community then considered a savage suppression of Canada’s military strength, was actually 8,297 more men and women in uniform than the “peak” size of the Canadian Forces under Harper’s Conservatives. Furthermore, as with defence spending, the size of Canada’s military gradually grew during Trudeau’s last term in the early 1980s to just under 83,000 or 14,750 more than our Canadian Armed Forces of today.

Perhaps now it should not come as a surprise that, under Trudeau, the Canadian Armed Forces had a much more sub­stantial military presence in the world — both within NATO and on peacekeeping missions.

In terms of our commitment to NATO, the worst our numeric presence ever got under Trudeau was in 1972, when we had 2,800 troops committed to NATO postings overseas (not including air force personnel deployed to Europe). Of course, when the period of détente died and the Cold War got hotter, that number increased and, by the time Trudeau left office, we had 6,700 military personnel committed to NATO.

Compare this to Harper, whose efforts to bolster NATO with Canadian Armed Forces personnel peaked in 2011 when 3,214 personnel were deployed overseas. In 2012, our commitment to NATO reached a low of 886 troops — or 1,914 troops less than the alleged darkest days under Trudeau.

Also, consider the fact that while Trudeau frequently had more combat troops and air squadrons committed to NATO, he also had far more Canadian soldiers deployed on peacekeeping missions, primarily in the Middle East. Under Harper we have never seen more than 274 troops deployed in any one year on peacekeeping missions. Trudeau’s commitment to peacekeeping varied from 467 in 1972 to a high of 1,963 peacekeeping troops deployed overseas in 1979.

TRUDEAU’S ARMY: A VERY DEADLY PLACE TO SERVE

If there is one area of defence where Harper has received unfair negative publicity, it is in the area of military casualties. During the war in Afghanistan, both the media and the public became sensitized to the fact that Canadian military personnel were getting killed, leaving the impression that military fatalities were somehow a new reality for today’s military.

But as those of us who served in the Canadian Armed Forces in the 1970s and 1980s know full well, the military under Trudeau was anything but a casualty-free zone.

It may come as a total surprise to many, but while the alleged peace-loving Trudeau was in power a total of 328 Canadian military personnel were killed in the line of duty. That is 135 more than the total number of casualties under Harper’s Conservatives.

Back then our troops were getting killed in Cyprus, Egypt, Syria, Africa, Europe and while training here in Canada. Indeed, it was on August 9, 1974, under Pierre Trudeau’s watch, that the Canadian Forces experienced its largest single day loss when nine Canadian military peacekeepers were killed by the Syrian army.

In fact, last year marked another “low” for Harper’s military legacy, one we can all celebrate. In 2012 the Canadian Armed Forces, for the first time ever, lost only one person. Granted, that is still one too many! But the fact remains that the Harper government has managed to bring our military casualty rate down to a level that the patron saint of the Liberal party could never remotely achieve while in power.

WHO WAS READY TO FIRE NUKES IN DEFENCE OF CANADA?

Largely erased from our collective historical memory today is the fact that during the Pearson/Trudeau dynasty from 1963 to 1984 Canada had a restricted tactical nuclear weapons capability. Although actual custody and control of the nuclear warheads remained in the hands of U.S, military, the Liberal governments of Pearson and Trudeau had units of the Canadian military deployed to fire nuclear weapons should a threat to Canadian air space arise. These included two CIM-10 BOMARC surface-to-air interceptor missile sites in Ontario and Quebec, with each carrying a 1.5 kiloton W25 nuclear warhead, as well as one army surface-to-surface missile battery that could fire W35 nuclear weapons.

And while Trudeau had the above units dismantled in 1972 (mainly because their counterparts in the U.S. were set to be dismantled as well), he did allow the Air Force to hold onto the AR-2 Genie air-to-air rockets, which also had the 1.5 kt W-25 nuclear warhead. This weapon remained in service here in Canada until 1984 — the year Trudeau left office. So it was only under Trudeau’s successors, namely Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, that Canada could honestly say it had ridded itself of nuclear weapons.

In spite of Harper’s bellicose military rhetoric on the idea of Canada’s military ever carrying nuclear weapons again, on loan from the U.S. or otherwise, as we once did under the Pearson/ Trudeau governments is so far removed from our shrunken military-capability mindset that it is not even considered for debate.

PROCUREMENT PERCEPTION AND REALITY

We also love to scoff at Trudeau for his alleged lack of commit­ment in providing new equipment for the navy and air force.

Admittedly, on the air force side, the Harper government has made some progress with the acquisition of 15 CH-147 Chinooks, 17 CC-130 Super Hercules and 4 C-117 Globemaster III aircraft for Canada’s Royal Canadian Air Force. As recently reported, there is talk of scaling back the planned yet long-delayed purchase of 28 C-148 Cyclone helicopters for the RCAF.

A group of children gather in front of Montreal’s Quebec Provincial Police headquarters to see armed soldiers and an Iroquois helicopter policing the area against terrorists during the 1970 October Crisis after the War Measures Act was instated. The suspension of civil liberties in Quebec was politically controversial. When the crisis was over, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau pledged to refine and limit the application of the Act in internal crises, but by the time of the defeat of the final Trudeau government in 1984, the Act had not been modified. Not until 1988 was the War Measures Act repealed and replaced by the Emergencies Act, which created more limited and specific powers for the government to deal with security emergencies. (lac/pa-129838)

A group of children gather in front of Montreal’s Quebec Provincial Police headquarters to see armed soldiers and an Iroquois helicopter policing the area against terrorists during the 1970 October Crisis after the War Measures Act was instated. The suspension of civil liberties in Quebec was politically controversial. When the crisis was over, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau pledged to refine and limit the application of the
Act in internal crises, but by the time of the defeat of the final Trudeau government in 1984, the Act had not been modified. Not until 1988 was the War Measures Act repealed and replaced by the Emergencies Act, which created more limited and specific powers for the government to deal with security emergencies. (lac/pa-129838)

But just how impressive is this track record when compared to Trudeau, whose government procured 138 then top-of-the-line CF-18 fighter aircraft in the early 1980s? This is more than double the number of fighter jets that the Harper government tried, and failed, to purchase with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter debacle. But it does not stop there.

A decade before the CF-18 order was executed, the Liberals also procured 135 CF-116 light attack strike and reconnaissance fighters, which were in operation from the late 1960s to 1995. The Trudeau Liberals can also be credited with the design and building of the 18 CP-140 Aurora maritime patrol aircraft that became operational in 1980 and which are still in use.

Today, Canada’s entire blue water fleet of 12 frigates and three destroyers were either launched while Trudeau was in power, or had their budget and building program approved by Trudeau. But as the navy Trudeau built now rapidly ages, just how much of an improvement has Harper made?

After six years in office, the only new naval shipbuilding projects Harper’s government has been able to finally launch includes a much-delayed contract for three joint support ships (JSS) as well as a contract for seven Arctic offshore patrol vessels (AOP). To date, there is no firm contract to build replacements for the frigates and destroyers that were launched or were designed and contracted under Trudeau’s watch. In addition, Canada’s existing fleet of 12 minesweepers are being retired under Harper.

So, almost 30 years after Trudeau’s retirement from politics, and 13 years after his passing, the Royal Canadian Navy con­tinues to sail primarily with ships from the Trudeau era.

PERCEPTION IS EVERYTHING

So why is it important that we continue to make comparisons like this today? The reason is that politics is about perception — and the perception that Harper’s Conservatives have so successfully managed to create is that they are the only true and understanding “friend” of the military. This mistaken perception has been tacitly enabled by this country’s centre and left, who often refuse to realize that a viable defence posture can and should be part of their political platform.

If we blindly accept the mistaken belief that, under the Conservatives, we have supported and developed a stronger military, Canadians on all sides of the political spectrum will be far more accepting of any proposed defence cuts, believing that there actually is fat to cut.

There isn’t.

Pierre Elliott Trudeau, who never felt he needed to pander to the military to make himself look strong, may not be turning in his grave. But surely his legacy might well start screaming for a reality check.