Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is leading to concerns about the vulnerability of Canada’s far north and world events are accelerating the need to rebuild the nation’s military, the chief of the defence staff said.
“We can’t afford for it to take forever,” Gen. Wayne Eyre said at the Ottawa Conference on Security and Defence on Thursday. “Indeed, we’re looking at ways of accelerating it, of taking bold measures.”
He said he’s thinking about the long game as he works on reconstituting the forces, and pointed to the need for capabilities for decades to come in Canada’s North. Eyre said Russia has already been further militarizing its northern region by reoccupying abandoned Cold War bases.
“So they have already gone there. What lessons can we learn from how they have put capabilities in the north?” Eyre said.
“As we’re taking a look at what is happening in Ukraine, we’re also having a very close look at what else Russia is doing in the world, and the far north is a key area of concern.”
He said it’s “not inconceivable” that Canada’s sovereignty in the north could be challenged at some point. “Because as we’ve seen with Ukraine, the rules-based international order can rapidly change,” he said.
Eyre described the war in Ukraine as “only the most obvious source of stress” on that order.
“I think it’s crucial to note that China has been watching and learning, everything from operational lessons on the ground to how we, as the international community, responds to it,” he said.
“Autocratic states, great and small, are working flat out to undermine what was once assumed to be the hard-won consensus toward liberal democracy.”
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Eyre took over as chief of the defence staff last year as the Canadian military was embroiled in a sexual misconduct crisis, with a number of current and former senior leaders under investigation. He referred to 2021 as a “train wreck … I was very happy to see that in the rear-view mirror.”
He said the top priority for the reconstitution of the Canadian Armed Forces is people, which will involve “energizing the recruiting system” to get the military’s numbers “rapidly back up,” and addressing retention.
It will also include ongoing efforts to change the military’s culture, of which toxic elements were exposed during the sexual misconduct crisis. “If we don’t keep pace with the changing demographics, the changing face of Canada, we are going to be irrelevant,” he said.
The military will also be analyzing operations and tackling modernization as it rebuilds, he said. “Because we know we are no longer as secure, no longer as insular, here in North America and in Canada as we once were,” Eyre said, adding this will require continued investments in new military domains of space and cyber.
Eyre had just returned from visiting Canadian troops stationed in Europe with Defence Minister Anita Anand, including troops stationed in eastern Europe as part of NATO deterrence missions. He said morale is high.
He said the war is not going as Russian President Vladimir Putin intended — that Putin “overestimated” his military’s capabilities while he “underestimated” those of the Ukrainians, a number of whom have been trained by Canadian troops.
Putin sought to “create and exploit gaps and seams” in the NATO alliance, but only succeeded in doing the opposite, Eyre said.
“This naked aggression has given the alliance new energy and our allies are united like they have not been for some time,” he said.
“Our troops over there are focused and when you look them in the eye and talk about their mission, you can see the passion, the dedication, the professionalism. They know why they are there.”
Jacques Gallant is a Toronto-based reporter covering politics for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @JacquesGallant
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