With the dangerous mission to Afghanistan, Canadians’ awareness of the military has undergone a profound resurgence at a time when our two leading political parties have both made major com- mitments to renewing the strength of the Canadian Forces. As recently as the 1990s, the Forces were largely regarded by the federal government as a money drain and by large por- tions of the general public as an out-of-date, ineffective and perhaps even irrelevant institution. The national economic recovery, effective public pressure by pro-military enthusi- asts and an increase in pride in Canada’s place in the world have changed all of this.
A recent poll by the Innovative Research Group found that two-thirds of Canadians agree that for the country to play a significant role in world affairs, it needs an effective military. During the last election campaign, after the Martin Liberal government promised to spend an additional $13 billion over the next 20 years to revitalize the Canadian Forces, the Conservatives pledged to spend almost $2 billion more. And while the Liberals expected to add 5,000 regular and 3,000 reserve personnel, the Conservatives have creat- ed a target of 15,000 total. Both parties seem to believe that ”œpeople,” as former Defence Minister Bill Graham put it, ”œremain the greatest strength of Canada’s military.” The less partisan Standing Senate Committee on National Security and Defence has agreed. It recently released a report arguing that the budget for the Department of National Defence should be increased even more to somewhere between $25 billion and $35 billion (the Liberal proposal should eventu- ally result in a budget of about $22 billion and the Conservatives’ proposal, $24 billion), allowing for between 15,000 and 20,000 additional personnel.
There must be significant expansion, say the experts, and there will be, reply the politicians. But how? Buying new equipment, modernizing military tactics and reforming inefficient bureaucracies can be accomplished rel- atively easily, but even in an era when youth unemploy- ment is dangerously high, recruiting new personnel has been much more difficult. In fact, judging by current trends, without major changes in the approach to recruiting Canadian youth, the proposed increases will not be met. In April 2002 Auditor General Sheila Fraser issued a damning report of the state of the recruitment and retention abilities of the Department of National Defence. Although she found that efforts were being made to improve the recruiting process, to increase wages and bene- fits, and to make the Forces more open and accessible to previously underrep- resented groups such as women and ethnic minorities, the results had not come quickly enough. The navy still needed people with technical skills, she noted, the army still needed engi- neers, the air force still needed pilots and the entire Armed Forces still need- ed additional medical personnel.
Nearly four years later, with even more money available, the results remain disappointing. The Forces are still understaffed and, in spite of some incremental improvements (par- ticularly among better educated recruits), there are few signs of long-term positive develop- ments. Put simply, even if the general public, the so-called experts and the political elite have increased their commit- ment to the Canadian military, the country’s youth ”” the pres- ent and future of the Armed Forces ”” have not, and without them, there can be little hope.
Critics might suggest that the lack of interest among youth in the military is symptomatic of a general decline in the commitment of this new generation of Canadians to their country as an influential armed power on the world stage. Young people, the argument goes, lack a real sense of Canada’s military past. Since only three provinces require that students take modern Canadian histo- ry in high school, most youth have a limited understanding of how their country evolved in the twentieth cen- tury. They don’t know, for example, about Canada’s military accomplish- ments in the world wars and in Korea. They are only vaguely aware of early successes in peacekeeping and peace support. And they have, as a recent poll by the Dominion Institute has suggest- ed, less and less interest in honouring the country’s surviving veterans. Without these memories, it becomes difficult to develop national pride, and without such pride there are fewer rea- sons for today’s youth to volunteer to risk their lives overseas.
Generally speaking, critics have allocated blame for this scenario in two different directions. Some have noted in anger that the auditor gener- al’s reports dating all the way back to 1990 had predicted a long-term per- sonnel crisis. They therefore blame the military, and the Department of National Defence, for failing to deal with the crisis early enough and effec- tively. The world has changed, they argue. Security is no longer the exclu- sive domain of officers and generals.
Youth who want to make a difference do not see the military as the best way to do so. And by failing to reinvent themselves effectively, the Armed Forces have not done enough to con- vince them otherwise.
Others focus on education. If Canadian youth knew more about the nation’s history, they sug- gest, interest in the military would increase. Young Canadians would feel a greater commitment to the future of their country and would understand that we are, and have always been, a military people. If today’s youth were taught to appreciate the sacrifices made by previous generations of Canadians to preserve their freedom and freedom around the world, they would feel a duty to do the same for future generations.
Unfortunately, to move the mili- tary forward will take more than just better recruitment and more history. Both criticisms are fair, but addressing one of them exclusive of the other will not solve the problem. There is no doubt that the world and the meaning of security have changed dramatically since the end of the Cold War. Indeed, security must now be understood as more than just military might, and to convince Canadian youth to join the military will require a modern, progressive and far-reaching approach to national duty and global citi- zenship. The military will have to make itself more relevant in the eyes of the country’s future leaders, and a more rewarding form of service than it is con- sidered today. It is also true that young Canadians do not know enough about their country’s past. And in those rare instances when they are presented with the Canadian story in school, too much of it is delivered ineffectively and does not result in real learning and appreciation. We have to teach more history, and we have to do it more effectively.
Nevertheless, even if the Department of National Defence continues to modernize its recruitment strategies (for example, it has increased its budget for advertising by over 500 percent since 2000), and even if future young Canadians are taught more history, there are reasons to believe that the Forces will still struggle to attract sufficient numbers of Canadian youth. No matter how effec- tive the recruiters, nothing can replace the impact of a veteran’s presence in the home. Apart from some recent immi- grants, the current generation of Canadian youth is among the first to have almost no direct links to veterans of previous wars. The soldiers who fought in Europe in the Second World War and in Asia in the Korean War might well have told their children stories of their experiences, but today’s parents don’t have those stories to tell. It is difficult to imagine that war can be real to most young Canadians. Unless they have trav- elled through failed or failing states over- seas, the closest they likely will have come to genuine danger will be, at worst, a book or film in school or maybe an hour-long visit from a veteran to a school assembly that they may or may not have attended. Try as they might, it will be dif- ficult, if not impossible, for National Defence recruiters to recreate in this country the military culture and sense of duty to which previous generations of young Canadians were exposed.
Teaching more history, and even teaching it more effectively, will also go only so far. Young Canadians today learn differently. Technological advances have made it possible for them to read less, to concentrate for shorter periods of time and to rely more on experiential forms of learn- ing. Books and films on Canada’s wartime experience will affect some youth, but not as many as they used to. And no matter how well taught, fewer of today’s youth will be inspired by a typical classroom experience to go out and join the military. If they are not fighting themselves, and they do not know anyone who has fought to preserve Canada’s security, no matter what they are told in school, they will have great difficulty understanding what military service even means, let alone appreciating its value.
This problem is obviously not exclusive to Canada. In Sweden, the solution is what is called full con- scription. Under the Swedish military system, in the event of an emergency or a war, anyone living in the country between the ages of 16 and 70 is obli- gated to help ensure its security. Men between the ages of 18 and 24 must go further by enrolling in the military and reporting to a training unit if they are accepted for service. For women, the decision to participate is optional, but if they pass a special admissions test, their obligations become the same as their male col- leagues’. Sweden averages about 8,500 conscripts per year in a country of 9 million people, less than one-third the population of Canada.
Such a solution is not at all realis- tic for Canada, nor will it ever be. Conscription has a history of creating national divisions along linguistic and ethnic lines, as in both world wars, that is unlikely to ever be forgotten. The current approach of the Canadian Forces, which favours better educated recruits (the average recruiting age has increased by close to a decade), is also unlikely to be entirely helpful in the long run. Today’s youth need to be exposed to the military (in a positive manner) at as early an age as possible if they are to develop any durable sense of affinity and attraction to it. Furthermore, the traditional approach to recruitment as a whole, focusing directly on the youth themselves, is out of date. It reflects a technique that might have worked in previous gener- ations, when knowledge of history was better and when a sense of the coun- try’s military tradition was more evi- dent, but as the auditor general’s reports have shown, it has not worked more recently and will not work in the near future.
Promoting the military today requires a two-track strategy. In an era when security is understood so broadly, and at a time when the Canadian Forces have worked excep- tionally hard to redefine themselves as professionals, recruiters must focus more explicitly on the social benefits of military service. Young people today might, at least at first glance, be less interested in dying for their country, but they are certainly interested in developing leadership skills. In an age of increased global volunteerism, they believe strongly in the idea of ”œservice before self.” Even though many do not vote, they do have pride in their coun- try. Concepts such as duty, loyalty, integrity and courage do resonate with them. They believe in bilingualism and in working with those in need, and they want to ”œunderstand the inherent violence of armed conflict” so that they can stop it. These are all values discussed in the Department of National Defence’s Duty with Honour: The Profession of Arms in Canada, but how many young Canadians know that? Young Canadians generally don’t know that the military employs doc- tors, engineers, technicians and strate- gic analysts. They are largely unaware of the paid opportunities for profes- sional and educational development, and they don’t realize that service in the military need not be for life. If the Canadian Forces hope to attract today’s youth, they must show them- selves in the broadest and most pro- gressive light possible.
They must also be practical. Military recruiters arriving on a university campus in full uniform are open targets for criticism from so- called ”œpeace activists,” among others. As a result, trips to schools and uni- versities preach only to the converted, alienating the ambivalent and further upsetting the critics. Recruiters should instead target high school guidance counsellors and university and college career centres. Ambitious Canadian teenagers who are worried about hav- ing to work while obtaining a univer- sity degree should routinely be informed of the Regular Officer Training Plan, which not only pays the tuition of military recruits but also covers their books and provides them with a salary that includes a pay-living differential for those who attend school in more expensive cities. Summers are spent being paid a rea- sonable wage to develop what future employers will interpret as leadership skills, the ability to work as a member of a team and second-language facili- ty. Upon graduation, recruits do indeed owe five years of service, but during this time they receive what is increasingly becoming a competitive salary, are provided with full benefits and are given opportunities for further self-improvement. Unlike many of their colleagues, university graduates in the ROTP do not have to spend their final year of school worrying about finding a job after graduation. Furthermore, while these graduates train, the Canadian Forces contribute yearly to what is called a Personnel Enhancement Program, which pro- vides funding for officers who seek to improve their qualifications in antici- pation of the transition back to the civilian population. Pursuing further higher education is also encouraged, and rewarded with increased pay and responsibility. A similar plan exists for college students and opportunities are also available for those interested in careers in trades.
The old military culture in Canada is fast becoming obsolete. Being a member of the Canadian Forces no longer commands the pride and respect that it would have in previous generations. We must create a new form of this culture in Canada, and to do so the defence department must integrate the values it holds that res- onate with young Canadians more directly into its marketing strategies. It must spread its message through peo- ple who don’t wear uniforms and don’t automatically provoke what can often be misleading and damaging images and ideas.
At a time when Canadians have developed a more sophisticated appre- ciation of the importance of a strong and capable military than they have in at least a generation, it is crucial that increased government spending not result in failure and disappointment. New equipment and greater focus are important, but if we lack the people to carry out the missions, the Canadian Forces will have no future. And with- out them, Canada has much less of a place in the world. The action must begin now. There is no longer any time to waste.