The Military

Protected by close alliances with the world’s dominant superpowers — first Britain, then America — Canada has not historically felt the need to develop much of a military for itself, and even today the country maintains one of the smallest armed forces in the western world. At about 50 000 strong, less than half a per cent of Canadians are currently enlisted soldiers, and among NATO members, only tiny Luxembourg spends less of its GDP on defence.

Nevertheless, the Canadian military remains a proud national symbol just the same, and Canadian troops have helped carry out Canadian foreign policy objectives all over the world in conflict, peacekeeping and nation-building capacities. The precise role and purpose of the Canadian armed forces in the 21st century remains a topic of considerable debate, however.

History of the Canadian Military

Vimy Ridge

During World War I (1914-1918) Canada lost over 3,000 troops securing the French territory of Vimy Ridge from German control, in one of the major battles of the Western Front. To this day, the battle remains one of Canada's most celebrated military moments of all time.

For much of Canada’s early history as a British colony, there was very little interest in creating a strong domestic military force. British troops still occupied much of Canada, after all, and everyone assumed they always would. In 1871, however, Britain and the United States signed the Treaty of Washington in order to secure a lasting peace between their nations, and in doing so the U.K. agreed to withdraw all imperial troops from North America. Suddenly, Canada was forced to pick up the slack.

The first true Canadian militia, known as the Royal Canadian Regiment, was established in 1883, but continued to be thought of mostly as an auxiliary support unit for British imperial forces, and was indeed used as such in the Boer War (1899-1902). When World War I (1914-1918) broke out, however, the Regiment proved quite insufficient to protect the motherland, and many more militias were quickly cobbled together, sending a total of over 400 000 Canadian fighting men to Europe.

Those same militias fought again in World War II (1939-1945), after Canada had become independent from British political control. By now, Canada’s soldiers were largely organized into the traditional structure of a national military, befitting a country that was now fully in charge of its own protection and self-defence.

The Structure of the Canadian Military

Like most countries, Canada’s military is divided into three specialized branches: the army, navy and air force. Unlike most countries, however, these branches are all unified into a single organization known as the Canadian Forces. The forces are in turn headed by a single commander known as the Chief of the Defence Staff, currently General Walter Natynczyk (b. 1958), who reports directly to the prime minister of Canada. Known as unification, this was a fairly controversial plan introduced in 1968 to help streamline the country’s small military in the most efficient and cost-effective way possible, and today results in measures such as joint training for new recruits, and senior officers who get promoted from one branch to another.

The Three Branches

Canadian Army logo The Canadian ArmyCanada’s traditional land force consists of around 19 500 regulars (full-time soldiers) plus another 16 000 in reserve (part-time) service. The oldest and largest branch of the Canadian armed forces, the army consists of 419 units, some of which trace their roots back to the old militia days.
Canadian Navy logo The Royal Canadian NavyFounded in 1911 to help Britain rule the waves, the Canadian Navy now consists of 8 500 regulars, 5 100 reserves and 33 warships. Although the Canadian Navy maintains active operations around the world in order to help assist the country’s land forces, in practice Canada’s sea forces serves mostly as a patrol and rescue force, similar to the Coast Guard of most nations.
Canadian Air Force logo The Royal Canadian Air Force – With Canada being such a gigantic country, a large air force has long been pushed as the most logical way to protect domestic security. The RCAF consists of 14 500 regulars and 2 600 reserves who are spread out in 10 bases across Canada. Most of the country’s 300 or so aircraft are U.S.-made.

When in service, members of these three branches operate together under four larger Operational Command units, each of which has a different realm of responsibility. Canada Command (CANCOM) is in charge of domestic security, the Canadian Expeditionary Force Command is in charge of overseas missions, Canadian Special Forces Command (CANSOFCOM) is the country’s elite special ops unit, and Canadian Operation Support Command provides auxiliary services such as surgeons, engineers and mechanics.

Lastly, there is also the North American Aerospace Defence Command, or NORAD, which, as it sounds, is a joint U.S.-Canadian operation to monitor and protect the security of North American airspace. A tribute to continental military cooperation that dates back to the Cold War (1945-1990), NORAD has several bases in both Canada and the United States, featuring members of both the Canadian Forces and the American Air Force under joint U.S.-Canadian command.

At the moment, Canada does not maintain any permanent military bases outside of Canada itself, though the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper (b. 1959) has shown interest in trying.

Issues and Controversy

Sea King

Canada's aging collection of Sea King helicopters are one of the most infamous symbols of the Canadian military's decay. Originally built in the 1960s, they are only now being phased out of service.

The Cold War was an era of unprecedented military expansion for the United States, which provoked a relatively stand-offish attitude towards foreign policy in Canada. Safe under the umbrella of American protection as guaranteed by the NORAD alliance, successive Ottawa administrations viewed their country’s armed forces as a luxurious irrelevance at best, and a costly waste of money at worst. Critical government attitudes towards military spending became particularly pronounced during the deficit-conscious budget-slashing 1990s, which, even today, some soldiers sneeringly describe as the “dark decade.” Lurid stories of Canadian soldiers wearing bright jungle-green uniforms on desert battlefields and decrepit air force helicopters that required two hours of repair for every hour they spent in the air became commonplace, prompting historian J.L. Granatstein (b. 1939) to author a national bestseller entitled Who Killed the Canadian Military? (2004).

The events of September 11, 2001, and the subsequent “War on Terror” that saw Canadian troops deployed to Afghanistan (and over 150 killed) is usually seen as a critical turning point in helping reverse Canada’s trend of military neglect, in favour of a new era in which the armed forces once again play a large role in Canadian foreign policy — and the public imagination. Under the present government of Prime Minister Harper, who has long made support for the military one of his leading political priorities, funding for the armed forces has increased, along with several high-profile purchases of jets, subs and destroyers.

Canadian troops in Afghanistan

Canada ended its combat mission in Afghanistan in 2010, but Canadian troops will remain stationed in the country until at least 2014, according to the Harper Administration.

The larger question of “what kind of military does Canada need” remains unresolved, however, and is ultimately closely tied with one’s opinions on the overall direction of Canadian foreign policy. Those who believe Canada should maintain an aggressive stance against foreign terrorists and rogue regimes will naturally see a strong, well-equipped military as one of the necessary components of giving Canada the capacity to act on its convictions. Those who would like to see the country play a lesser role in foreign conflicts, by contrast, and focus more on humanitarian causes and peacekeeping, will be more inclined to favour a smaller and leaner armed forces and be critical of excessive spending. To a large degree, this debate is one of the sharper left/right polarizations within the modern Canadian party system.

Links About the Canadian Military:

Quick Facts:

  • Canada is not a major military power and has only a small and mostly under-funded armed forces.
  • Canada's military rose in size and professionalism after the two world wars.
  • Canada's army, navy and air force are all centralized under a single command structure.
  • In recent years, there has been much controversy in Canada regarding how big or well-funded the country's military should be.