Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland hinted Wednesday that the upcoming federal budget could contain new money for the Canadian Armed Forces, as Canada faces pressure to invest more into its military following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Speaking to reporters in Berlin, Freeland said one of the reasons she is accompanying Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on his four-country European tour this week is to consult with allies and others in the region ahead of the budget’s release.
"The geopolitical situation has just changed tremendously, the geopolitical and geo-economic situation,” Freeland said in reference to Russia’s attack on Ukraine, which has caused shock waves across Europe and the world.
“And it's very important and valuable for me as we finalize the budget to have some firsthand conversations about exactly the changes on the ground. And certainly, defence spending is something we have to look at carefully."
Freeland, who described Russia’s invasion as a pivotal moment for Canada and the world, also said the government is taking into account the “economic consequences” of the war, which has coincided with skyrocketing inflation and energy prices.
Trudeau earlier this week opened the door to Canada investing more in its military, though the prime minister stopped short of any specific commitments.
That stood in stark contrast to Germany and some other European allies who have responded to the invasion of Ukraine by ending their long-standing opposition to meeting NATO’s target of spending two per cent of their GDP on defence.
While all NATO allies agreed in 2014 to spend two per cent of their GDP on defence within the next decade, Canada has lagged behind most of its allies by consistently spending far less than that.
Canada spent about 1.39 per cent of its GDP on the military last year, according to NATO. And despite promising $535 billion in new military spending over 20 years, the Liberals’ 2017 defence strategy did not include a plan to reach the two per cent target.
Successive Canadian governments have argued that dollars alone aren’t a sufficient measure of this country’s contributions to the NATO military alliance, and that its deployment of troops and equipment should count for more.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told a defence conference in Ottawa on Wednesday that Canada is contributing to NATO in many different ways.
That includes leading a multinational NATO battlegroup in Latvia and, following Russia's attack on Ukraine, committing an additional warship, aircraft and troops to the alliance's defensive efforts in eastern Europe.
But Stoltenberg was also clear that he would like to see all NATO allies do even more — including Canada.
“I call on all allies to step up,” he said. “I welcome the message from Prime Minister Trudeau that in light of Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, Canada will also then assess the need for further increases in defence spending.”
One area where the government is expected to add money is the modernization of North America’s main defensive systems, including the string of 1980s-era radars in Canada’s Far North known as the North Warning System.
The government has said upgrading the North American Aerospace Defence Command, as the entire system is known, is a priority and many experts are expecting movement on that front, particularly with Russia threatening nuclear war.
Andrea Charron, an associate professor and director of the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at the University of Manitoba, said Canada and the U.S. face a daunting task when it comes to a modernized, unified front against threats to North America.
A truly integrated continental defence framework would require breaking down long-standing bureaucratic and military silos and barriers both within and between the two countries, a willingness to confront deep-seated concerns about sovereignty and independence, and a great deal of money, among other things, Charron said.
“It is no longer a case of Canada just being a laggard, or contributing just enough and that this will satisfy our U.S. partners, or that North America is never a target of attack,” she said while appearing on a panel at the Conference of Defence Associations Institute event after Stoltenberg.
“North America is under considerable risk, has been for some time and will continue to be. And a North America at risk is a liability for NATO and its partners, unless we contribute significantly to continental defence.”
Lindsay Rodman, a former Marine Corps judge advocate and Obama administration adviser who serves as a fellow in residence at the University of Ottawa’s Centre for International Policy Studies, sounded less certain that Canada will be forced to spend more.
“I think Canada will probably feel peer pressure; there will be increased defence expenditure on the European continent from our NATO allies and Canada may feel left out if there’s less of a contribution from Canada,” Rodman said.
“Even so, I think that American rhetoric about our allies ponying up and contributing will probably dissipate a little bit — if we see some folks picking up the mantle a little bit, and that may allow Canada to … perhaps not get close to two per cent, but still remain a valued contributor to the NATO alliance.”
Stoltenberg also revealed that NATO defence ministers will be discussing the alliance’s long-term plan for the Baltics and eastern Europe, including whether permanent forces are required to guard against and deter a broader Russian attack.
A final decision on any proposal, he added, won’t come until leaders meet in Madrid at the end of June.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 9, 2022.
— with files from James McCarten in Washington, D.C.
Mike Blanchfield and Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press