Vancouver, B.C. (CNSNews.com) - Despite high-level urgings from the United States and other NATO countries to spend more on security and defense, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien is making it clear he has no intention of bolstering the military.
When asked if he had changed his mind in the face of growing pressure, Chretien said, "Not fundamentally."
At the same time, Chretien dismissed concerns that more than 900 Canadian troops on combat duty in Afghanistan were airlifted to Asia, together with their Coyote armored reconnaissance vehicles, by U.S. military aircraft. Chretien told the media he would rather rent transport planes, if required, than buy them.
Chretien stands by a defense budget that remains at the same relative level it was during the Korean War. While military spending had climbed by 1993 to two percent of gross domestic product (GDP), the Liberal government cut it back to 1.2 percent of GDP on the basis of balancing the budget. Last year, the prime minister blamed armament industry "lobbyists" and Canadian military leaders for creating the illusion that Canada is not combat-ready.
This month, the Senate Committee on National Security and Defence requested an additional $2.5 billion for a national military widely viewed as having difficulty fulfilling its role in combating terrorism and international peacekeeping, but Chretien did not budge. The Liberals currently spend $7 billion annually on defense, a level below that of all but two NATO members. Even Belgium spends more.
Progressive Conservative leader Joe Clark said last week, "Anyone who knows anything about the Canadian military knows it is seriously ill-equipped. It was a major problem for Canadians sent to Afghanistan. It is a major problem for us to carry on any other kinds of obligations in the world."
Canada currently has 1,700 peacekeeping troops in Bosnia. Leon Benoit, a member of the opposition Canadian Alliance party and critic of the Chretien administration, said the level of participation cannot continue without more spending.
"We're over-committed already," Benoit said. "We can't possibly sustain it, so something has to give here."
The government wants the troops out of Bosnia within six months and Chretien said he hopes deployment in Afghanistan will wrap up by July.
The Vancouver Sun, in a March 5 editorial, attributed Chretien's entrenched position to the fact that military spending is not a vote getter for the dominant Liberal party. It also alluded to the Chretien government's failure to deal with the threat to Canadian sovereignty implied by military dependence on the U.S.
"Freeloading on our allies means that Canada won't have much of a say on world events, or even North America's security arrangements," the Sun editorial stated. "So Canada has a choice: It has to either stop belly-aching about the erosion of sovereignty, or pony up the money it takes to ensure it has a seat at the table."
"Canadian sovereignty is a joke - it's entirely symbolic," says Barry Cooper, a University of Calgary political scientist and military analyst for the Fraser Institute, a conservative body that critiques public policy.
Cooper says the government's reluctance to support the military is tied to the fact that the centrist Liberals are primarily focused on preventing the secession of the Province of Quebec. (French-speaking Quebec is considered a pacifist province.) Cooper also believes many residents of English-speaking Central Canada -- where most Canadians live -- feel the country is sovereign by reason of its imperial history.
"The government scrupulously plays the card, and the myth of Ontario (the most populous province), that we may have lost the American Revolution, but we are superior for having lost it. Loyalty (to Britain) is considered itself a virtue, and those people (Americans) broke their oath of allegiance. It's absolute drivel," Cooper said.
Many Canadians, particularly those on the left, also equate support for U.S. defense initiatives with a loss of sovereignty.
Last month, the U.S. Ambassador to Canada, Paul Cellucci, referred to this fact at a Canadian Defence Industries Association dinner when he said, "It seems a bit ironic that some see further defense cooperation with the U.S. as a threat to Canadian sovereignty, but the need to rely on other countries to provide lift to deploy Canadian forces as perfectly acceptable."
Cooper did point out that the Canadian Armed Forces are already "inter-operational" with those of the United States. Canadians have been training with Americans for years. A Canadian admiral recently commanded a joint battleship group in the Persian Gulf from a Canadian warship.
Cooper also reported that U.S. forces in Afghanistan welcomed the delivery of the General Motors-Canada-made Coyotes used to defend Kandahar airport. The U.S. itself had purchased only a few of the popular high-tech vehicles for use by its Marine Corps.
Polls show that since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, roughly 70 percent of Canadians support the idea of more military spending. Cooper predicted that more favorable news reports of Canadian action in Afghanistan would further bolster support.
In recent days, soldiers from the 3rd Battalion, Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, have been singled out for their forays into the eastern mountains of Afghanistan. "When the story is told about what the Patricias have done in Afghanistan, I think support will increase even more," Cooper said.