"It's not his fault," were Dr. David Bercuson's final words as he introduced David Pratt, Liberal Member of Parliament for Nepean-Carleton and chair of the Standing Committee on National Defence and Veterans' Affairs. Bercuson was referring to the current state of Canada's military, bemoaned by many as one rapidly falling into disrepair.
Last week, Pratt spoke about the subject at the University of Calgary in a lecture entitled "Managing Canada's Defence."
Pratt became Chair of SCNDVA, a committee of 16 MPs, in November, 2000 after being elected to a second term in Parliament. Immediately, the committee members set out to "immerse themselves in the defence culture," taking a base-to-base journey that led them from Trenton to Yellowknife to Esquimalt, then to Germany and Bosnia, meeting and living with members of Canada's armed forces. The committee was greeted with skepticism wherever it went and has since issued a report with 90 recommendations to improve the living situation of those serving in the armed forces.
"The government responded with roughly $300 million in improvements to the quality of life," said Pratt.
That was the first step toward making Canada's military relevant.
"It was the people that were suffering most," Pratt pointed out. "We had to address the people issues before we even began talking about equipment."
SCNDVA's interim report recommended increasing the defence budget, training military reserves for homeland defence, enhancing our response capability to nuclear and biological warfare, and improving strategic airlift capabilities. The December 2001 budget "accepted a number of our recommendations," said Pratt.
SCNDVA's final report in May, 2002 addressed the operational readiness of the Canadian Armed Forces. The committee's main recommendation was to increase defence spending from 1.1 per cent to 1.5 per cent of the GDP over three years.
"Canada has lagged at the bottom of the NATO defence spending list, and we are suffering as a result of that," said Pratt. "[The increase] will allow us to play a more significant role with our allies."
Pratt has the difficult job of securing funding for the military in an environment that has lost much of its concern for international security.
"We've gotten to the point where our focus has shifted so dramatically toward domestic issues that defence has been forgotten," he said.
Budget cuts since 1994-95 affected every government department. According to Pratt, the defence budget was reduced by 23 per cent.
"That was a huge dent in the funding base of the Canadian Armed Forces," he explained. "It eliminated our wiggle room as far as the budget was concerned. There was no opportunity for flexibility."
Since 1948, Pratt said, the Canadian military has participated in 70 overseas missions. Despite drastic financial cuts over the last 10-15 years, two thirds of those missions have come since 1989-90.
"The security environment has become more demanding," he stated, citing recent Canadian involvement in East Timor, Bosnia, Sierra Leone and Operation Apollo in Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf.
Pratt said the challenge for SCNDVA and the Minister of Defence has been to "make the case to the government that spending on defence now is an insurance plan for the future, as well as a way of earning respect from our allies."
"We have a reputation as something of an international freeloader as far as security is concerned," he said.
Pratt himself was surprised at how much the Canadian government did contribute to Operation Apollo.
"All of that falls back on the shoulders of the men and women of the Canadian Armed Forces," he explained. "We didn't have enough back up to maintain or sustain that commitment."
Recalling Canada's role as a NATO founder, Pratt pointed out that we were once at the forefront of collective security but that we are moving toward a neo-isolationist position" with our recent approach to defence issues.
Canadians have seen themselves as valuable contributors to international peacekeeping, and also as being safe in our corner of the globe, but that is no longer the case.
"It puts some national myths in some jeopardy," said Pratt. "The planet isn't getting any safer."
One of the dangers of military cutbacks is that it is difficult to return to the previous state once those cuts have occurred.
"If we start losing capabilities in particular areas, it's very expensive to get them back... [For example] if we don't get supply ships for our navy, we could end up with a navy that is reduced to coastal patrol."