Saturday, November 20, 2021

An Agenda For Canada’s New Defence Minister

I wrote the following for an outlet that is now going through some editorial turnover, so I decided to put it here instead.  

The Canadian Armed Forces and the Department of National Defence have always been a mostly thankless responsibility for ministers of national defence. While Anita Anand’s experiences as a law professor with expertise in corporate governance and as minister of procurement has prepared her better than perhaps any other potential candidate for the position, this doesn’t change the magnitude of her task. Anand is tackling the most challenging job in Justin Trudeau’s government. It is not just that a sexual misconduct problem has tainted more than a few senior officers. There is also an abuse of power crisis fed by the military’s belief that civilians should have little role in managing the Canadian Armed Forces.

General Jon Vance’s behavior, both personal and professional, revealed contempt for civilian control of the armed forces.  He engaged in a decades-long affair while hitting on even more junior subordinates.  Operation Honour, which was supposed to address the sexual misconduct crisis in the CAF, actually contradicted key recommendations of the Deschamps Report, which the civilian leadership had promised to implement.  Notably, Vance put into the Chief of Personnel position an office, Vice Admiral Hadyn Edmundson, who had been credibly accused of rape.  Deputy Minister Jody Thomas reported in a podcast last spring that Vance told her to stay out of the way when it came to dealing with the military’s sexual misconduct file.

Strengthening civilian control of the armed forces is job one for Anand.  While the crisis in the CAF can’t be solved by replacing a few people here and there, some important personnel decisions will not just set the tone but be an important first step in reinforcing civilian control of the military.  Admiral Art McDonald, on leave from his position as chief of the defence staff, needs to be gone yesterday. McDonald stepped aside in February when news of an investigation into his alleged sexual misconduct was made public. In August, the Canadian Forces Provost Marshal said the investigation “did not reveal evidence to support the laying of charges under either the Code of Service Discipline or the Criminal Code of Canada.” McDonald’s subsequent letter to top military officials claiming exoneration and arguing for his immediate return to duty was insubordinate to the government whose job it is to make such decisions. By forcing McDonald to retire, Anand would be reminding the Canadian Armed Forces that no one is entitled to a senior post and that civilians are supreme in the chain of command. 

The next decision is whether to make General Wayne Eyre chief of the defence staff, removing the “acting” from his title, or moving on from him. That decision depends on the relationship Anand is developing with Eyre and whether there is a better candidate ready to serve in this position. Again, this decision is not just about one person but setting the tone for Canadian civil-military dynamics.

Harder decisions await Anand. The Deschamps and Fish reports [Explain what these were, and link if possible] argued there need to be more independent processes to adjudicate accusations of sexual misconduct. The former was in response to stories about sexual misconduct in the CAF; the latter is part of a regular review of the military justice system. The problem is that no organization can be completely independent, as it must report to someone.  Should these “independent” actors report to Parliament? Probably not, since parliamentarians do not think their job is to oversee the armed forces.[1] We might have more faith in the minister of the national defence to monitor such agencies if the last one, Harjit Sajjan, now minister of international development, hadn’t made such a hash of managing the sexual misconduct scandal these past few years. Perhaps the answer is to build  review agencies like those responsible for the intelligence community: the National Security and Intelligence Review Agency [NSIRA] and National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians [NSICOP].

Changing the culture of the Department of National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces is going to be tougher than figuring out how to connect some independent agencies to accountability mechanisms. In most advanced democracies, military officials tend to believe they are the sole experts on the management of violence and should therefore enjoy significant autonomy. Civilian intervention is seen as micromanagement. This mindset must be challenged. Members of the Canadian Armed Forces cannot simply say they are the professionals who can get the job done after failing so badly to address their sexual misconduct/abuse of power crisis.

Changing this mindset will require changing military education at all of levels from cadets to the Royal Military College to the Canadian Forces College. Ultimately, the new Professional Conduct and Culture Command, set up by General Eyre to change the culture of the CAF, will need to reform what it means to be a professional military officer, reinforcing subordination to civilian control, increasing transparency, and reducing entitlement. 

On the bright side, the hardest component of the job for most ministers of national defence is usually procurement, and this is an area in which Anand is already quite experienced. Her previous job as minister of procurement puts her in a strong position to deal with this troublesome part of the portfolio. Her handling of the vaccinate procurement has gotten many raves with Canada leading most of its peers in first and second doses.  Because she has experience with high stakes, controversial procurement projects, she is in a better position than most ministers of national defence when it comes to making decisions like those about fighter jets.  The remaining part of the job — making big decisions about military deployments — will probably not be so difficult in the near future, as it is unlikely the armed forces will be asked to do another Kandahar. Instead, the focus will mostly be on maintaining the current set of missions — leading the NATO battlegroup in Latvia, training in Iraq and Ukraine, domestic emergency operations.

Minister of National Defence Anand has the most challenging portfolio of any minister today. That military leadership has thoroughly discredited itself should give her some room to maneuver but she will no doubt encounter tough headwinds all the same. She must push through them. The credibility of the Canadian military and the sanctity of civilian control over it depends on her success.


[1] I am finishing a research project where I have interviewed several members of parliament and senators, and they repeatedly say that their job is to hold the Minister of National Defence to account, not to oversee the CAF.

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