December 13, 2004

A vicious-circle case study

Hugh Winsor makes a typical Ottawa-insiderish column out of Wolf Blitzer's "surely you have some troops left" comment to Paul Martin last week (subscription required). If you believe Hugh, the army's recruiting crisis is all about National Defence not acting on the wonkish report previous defence minister John McCallum commissioned to look at the department's bureaucratic inefficiencies.

It may certainly be a factor, but there's another, bigger one most Canadians don't know about. Liberal election promises be damned, the size of the Canadian military is still falling, as recruitment fails to keep up with retention. Greater investment in recruiting than has been attempted in decades has barely kept up with the loss rate. Ideas that we could increase the size by 3-5,000 and thereby "restore our place in the world" are proving hollower and hollower. And there's some pretty simple demographic reasons for that: the largest being our systematic barring of most Canadians from actually joining.

In the wake of Sept. 11, the Canadian government tightened up security by halting all military enrolment of non-citizens, including all landed immigrants. Citizens who do not have ten years of continuous residence (including those who, say, take a year off to travel or study abroad) are subjected to an additional level of security screening that can push enrolment for them over a year after the initial job application, in combination with all the other hoops to jump through. I suspect most people can come up with an attractive alternative lifeplan, given that much time to stew it over.

Canadian military recruiters have traditionally drawn from two populations... out-of-work young males in resource-industry-dependent parts of Canada (Capers, Newfies), and recent immigrants looking to integrate. Economic development programs have largely obviated the attraction of that earlier, more indirect form of government relocation support, and the ban on immigrants and near-ban on recent travellers has brought recruitment in traditionally strong locations like the Greater Toronto Area to near-zero levels. Hence the problem: in addition to pure numbers, the effective exclusion of those of ethnicity (basically limiting your cohort to out-of-work 18 year-old male citizens whose family has been here since they were at least eight) has also contributed to the unrepresentative whiteness of the organization, as well.

Ironically, the majority of Canadians who died at Vimy Ridge and other World War One battles were first-generation... this being a country of immigrants and all. In today's army none of them could have served. Only in Canada would citizens who become Rhodes Scholars or backpack to Paris become effectively ineligible for military service. If you ever run into your Member of Parliament, you might want to ask why that is, and why he/she doesn't feel like changing it.

(By the way, any security argument is ludicrous. We're talking military jobs with no security-clearance, like infantrymen. Being given any actual military responsibility for classified information takes its own, separate and extremely protracted -- think years, not months -- security-check process, post-enrolment. This really is just bureaucratic stupidity, as far as I can tell, applying the same standards to military recruitment that now apply to federal civil servants... which I suppose means Winsor is right.)

It should go without saying that most countries with serious military obligations -- Britain, France, the United States -- do the exact opposite: encouraging even complete non-citizens to enlist, as a road to eventual naturalization, paying their debt to the society they wish to someday join at the front end. We're more enlightened here, I guess. Immigrants have no obligations when they arrive, and thereafter can do anything in Canada except fight for it.

And why did I call this a vicious circle? Because even though Winsor is right that there is now a huge lack of competent trainers due to our shrunken military's overseas commitments (basically a huge hole between the ranks of corporal and lieutenant, to be specific) and so the other shoe to drop is we couldn't train a new influx of troops even if we somehow got one, it should be obvious there is absolutely no way to ever grow out of our problems ever if there's no growth in applicants. We won't get significant army growth in the next five years, anyway, but this policy is helping to push that day even farther and farther away.

Posted by BruceR at 11:00 AM