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Setting the Right Course

Canada is standing at the international crossroads, undecided. Having no apparent direction in the world, does it really matter which road we choose?


January 25, 2011
By Paul Dixon

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Canada is standing at the international crossroads, undecided. Having no apparent direction in the world, does it really matter which road we choose? Martin Shadwick of York University was recently quoted by Reuters as saying, “Canadian governments have battled, bungled or procrastinated their way through the treacherous shoals of defense procurement since Confederation.” The quotation leads off a story reporting that federal Auditor-General Sheila Fraser will be turning her attention to the purchase agreements for the CH-148 Cyclone and CH-147F Chinook helicopters.

Thirty years ago, aircraft in the Canadian Forces inventory averaged 16 years of operation. Today, that has risen to more than 25 years. Many of our senior air force officers have less service than the aircraft they are responsible for, while many of our pilots are younger than the aircraft they fly. Thirty years ago, the CF had twice as many people in uniform as there are today; army, navy and air force.

In the wake of the Second World War, Canadians basked in the glow of our self-perceived position in the world. There were 12 squadrons of RCAF Sabres stationed in Europe, and Lester Pearson, the recipient of the 1957 Nobel Peace Prize, established the framework that would see tens of thousands of Canadian blue berets fan out across the globe in the decades to follow.

Today, having learned little from history, we find ourselves still looking backwards instead of looking ahead in a world that continues to evolve. Robert Fowler, in a recent address to the Vancouver Institute, suggested that Canadians have an overly rosy vision of how we think the world perceives us. Among other roles during his 38-year career in public service, Fowler was the foreign policy advisor to three prime ministers; Deputy Minister of National Defence; Canada’s longest-serving Ambassador to the United Nations; and our representative on the UN Security Council in 1999 and 2000. While serving as a UN special envoy in Africa during 2008-09, he was kidnapped and held hostage by a faction of al-Qaida for 130 days. From his unique perspective, he suggests that few outside of this country share our view that “the world needs more Canada.”

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In some ways, as a nation, we’ve not been able to get past the cancellation of the Avro Arrow. It’s our Terry Malloy moment, when Marlon Brando turned to Rod Steiger in the backseat of the taxi and wailed, “I coulda been a contender, I coulda been somebody.” The Arrow was doomed for several reasons. John Diefenbaker’s Conservatives defeated the Liberals on a promise to “rein in rampant Liberal spending,” (sound familiar?) with the Arrow at the top of the list. But the backbreaker was Sputnik, which was launched on the same day the first Arrow flew. Missiles trumped aircraft from that moment forth. We may have built the better mousetrap, but no one cared.

So, the auditor-general will now put the Cyclone and Chinook deals under the microscope. This, of course, was announced before the revelation that we are now the proud owners of a brood of Mi-17s as well. We had Chinooks at one time, but gave them up in the belief that one rotary platform, the Griffon, could fulfil all functions. Turns out it couldn’t. We actually do have those Cyclones, they’re just disguised as submarines: the story there being that when the “wily fox” Jean Chretien went to call on the newly elected Tony Blair at 10 Downing to impart some wisdom, he had the boots put to him by the Brits over Canada’s backing out of the EH-101 project, thereby saddling the United Kingdom and Italy with the full-project costs. The Brits got even by inducing Chretien to announce shortly afterwards that Canada would buy four submarines that the Royal Navy had given up on. Considering the cancellation penalty on the EH-101, the price of the subs and the ongoing costs (five years in) to make these subs operational, and we could have parked the Sea King a long time ago.

There’s little doubt the people in our military do an incredible job with the tools they are given. The problem is we are not giving them the tools to do the job of the future, because we can’t decide what the job is. Arctic sovereignty? That takes planes and people. 24/7 SAR capability? That takes planes and people. National and international disaster response? That takes planes and people. It also takes time, commitment and vision.

Standing at the crossroads, in a world that seems an inch deep and a mile wide, our elected leaders seem to make their decisions based on doing whatever it takes to get elected. Loudon Wainwright saw that coming in a song some 40 years ago – “crossing the highway late last night, shoulda looked left and shoulda looked right . . .”


Paul Dixon is a freelance photojournalist living in North Vancouver.


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