Canada: Jean Charest says Canada 'unprepared' for conflict, pitches major investments in defence

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Conservative leadership candidate Jean Charest said Monday a government led by him would spend much more money on Canada's armed forces and promised cash to buy new equipment and establish two new military bases in the Arctic.

Charest — who made the announcement while touring Nova Scotia, a province that is home to a large number of military personnel and veterans — said Canada has been underfunding the armed forces for too long and Russia's invasion of Ukraine has underscored just how "unprepared" the country really is.

"[Prime Minister Justin] Trudeau's indifference and inaction in support of the Canadian Armed Forces has made it harder to retain qualified personnel, harder to recruit, tougher to train, and impossible for Canada to meet its obligations to its allies globally. Our allies have taken notice and are choosing to leave us out of important security arrangements," Charest said, referring to the AUKUS military pact signed by Australia, the U.S. and the United Kingdom last year.

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To get Canada back in the mix, Charest said he'd boost military spending to 2 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) as "quickly as it can be responsibly done." GDP is a metric used to measure the size of a country's entire economy.

Under the current Liberal government, military spending was about 1.36 per cent of GDP in 2021, according to NATO figures — well below what the country spent during the Cold War.

In the 1960s, Canada's military spending amounted to roughly 4 per cent of GDP. It was around 2 per cent in the 1980s before it dropped dramatically during a period of austerity and budget cuts in the 1990s.

All NATO members, including Canada, have committed to spending 2 per cent of national GDP on the military. But Canada, like some other countries, has done little to actually hit that target.

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Minister of Finance Chrystia Freeland, left, and Minister of National Defence Anita Anand arrive at a press conference in Ottawa on Thursday, March 3, 2022. © Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press Minister of Finance Chrystia Freeland, left, and Minister of National Defence Anita Anand arrive at a press conference in Ottawa on Thursday, March 3, 2022.

With the war in Ukraine raging, Defence Minister Anita Anand signalled recently Canada will commit more money to the military in this week's federal budget. To hit the NATO target, Canada's defence budget would have to increase from the planned $32 billion spending target to roughly $58 billion.

Charest said that, if he becomes prime minister, he'd direct some of the promised new spending to establishing two new military bases in the Arctic — including a deepwater port — and purchase two armed icebreakers to shore up Canada's presence in the region. He said he'd work with the U.S. to modernize NORAD defensive and early warning systems and "explore" the possibility of upgrading the submarine fleet to do a better job of defending all three of Canada's coasts.

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The Liberal government restarted the fighter jet procurement process when it first assumed office in 2015, something Charest said was "irresponsible."

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While Trudeau initially ran for office opposed to buying Lockheed Martin's F-35 fighter planes, the government now appears poised to sign a deal for those aircraft, which are already used by the U.S. and other NATO allies.

Charest said the seven-year-long process to buy these jets has been too slow. He said a government led by him would "streamline bureaucratic processes" and "speed up competitions" to accelerate future purchases and avoid costly delays.

In addition to ongoing procurement issues, the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) has also struggled to recruit new members in recent years.

There's money on the books to bring the fighting force up to 71,500 regular members and 30,000 reservists but the CAF is well off that mark. At last count, there were only about 65,000 regular force members.

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Charest said he'd strive to make the CAF a more welcoming work environment by tackling the sexual misconduct that has plagued the military in recent years, dragging down efforts to recruit more women.

The former Quebec premier said Trudeau has overseen a "dysfunctional and unacceptable deterioration" in the CAF and the military has become a place where "female, minority and LGBTQ+ have experienced systemic and unfair obstacles while participating in what should be safe and merit-based environments."

He said he'd also try to woo back recently retired CAF members with unspecified incentives and force Canada's colleges and universities to allow military recruiters to set up recruitment centres on their campuses.

As for Canada's veterans, Charest promised a return to the pre-2006 Pension Act benefits that were available to disabled and injured veterans. The rollout of a new benefits and pensions regime has been an ongoing source of consternation for former CAF members injured on duty.

He also promised new benefits for veterans with a minimum of five years regular force service or reservists who were in the CAF for at least seven years. He said those benefits could include access to low-cost mortgages, loans for veterans who want to start or expand a business and education grants for those who want to study in another field.

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