The State of Canadian Civil-Military Relations

In October 1962, President John F. Kennedy was embroiled in a heated debate with his Cabinet and other principal advisors over what the United States’ response to the Cuban Missile Crisis should be. The options boiled down to whether or not to pursue further diplomacy with the Soviet Union or to launch a pre-emptive strike on Cuba. Of those arguing for airstrikes or an invasion of Cuba, the most forceful were Kennedy’s military advisors. The Joint Chiefs of Staff unanimously supported a combination of airstrikes and an invasion of Cuba. Ultimately, Kennedy chose to overrule the bellicose advice of the Joint Chiefs and resolved the situation peacefully. Scholars of civil-military relations frequently cite this as an instance of successful civilian control over the military. However, in Canada, the Cuban Missile Crisis represented a very different example of civil-military relations.

While the Americans grappled over how best to respond to the Soviets, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker’s Cabinet debated whether or not to stand with the Americans in their initial escalation. As a part of NORAD, the U.S. expected Canada would ready its military to an alert-status in tandem with the U.S. military’s move to DEFCON 3. Shockingly, Diefenbaker denied the request of Defence Minister Douglas Harkness to ready RCAF fighter squadrons and put Royal Canadian Navy ships to sea. Diefenbaker’s rationale largely stemmed from personal animosity and distrust for Kennedy as well as a political view of anti-Americanism in general.

Backed up by the majority of the Cabinet, Diefenbaker overruled Harkness, and the Canadian military dithered for the initial period of the crisis. What followed was, thankfully, a historical anomaly. Harkness, acting under strong support from the military, quietly ordered Canadian forces to alert status, contravening Diefenbaker’s decision to withhold the alert order.

Thus, despite the lack of an order from the Prime Minister, the RCAF had taxied CF-101 fighters to the runway to wait on stand-by; the RCN deployed ships out of Halifax to begin tracking Soviet submarines headed toward Cuba; and soldiers on leave were called back to their bases.

Eventually Diefenbaker acquiesced to Harkness’ request once the crisis escalated further. Harkness would later write that he never told Diefenbaker he had already given the order. The peaceful resolution to the crisis meant there was no direct consequence of Canada’s hesitancy, but there was clear damage done to Canada-U.S. relations. More important, the Cuban Missile Crisis for Canada remains an example of civil-military breakdown. Where the U.S. maintained civilian control of the military in the face of a dire crisis, Canada’s authorization process broke down in what was a less severe crisis. Although there are many factors that are used to qualify “good” civil-military relations, one of the most important is a rigid chain of command. In essence, without a clear authorization process that stems from civilians to the military, not much else matters. Canada’s actions during the Cuban Missile Crisis were aptly described by military historian Jack Granatstein as “a complete failure in civil-military relations.”

Since then, Canadian civil-military relations hasn’t deteriorated to similar situations involving the circumventing of Prime Minister’s orders. There have, however, been acrimonious moments ranging from unification, to contentious White Papers, to handling the aftermath of scandals (ex. Somalia Affair). Despite these hurdles, there has been no serious challenge to civilian control of the military in Canada. But with the possibility of turnover in government imminent, it is worth exploring the possibility the civil-military relations could become more strained and what factors would lead to such tension.

The first is the recent appointment of General Jonathan Vance to the role of Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS). Much of the civil-military balance is dependent on the relative political strength of both top civilian and military leaders. For example, in the United States, Colin Powell is considered one of the most powerful Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs in modern time because of his political acumen. The Canadian equivalent is considered to be the outspoken Rick Hillier.

Although it remains to be seen exactly what kind of CDS General Vance will be, his impressive background in combat and reputation as a “soldier’s general” suggest he will be more Hillier-like than his two predecessors. However, David Pugliese reported that, inside the National Defence headquarters and the Conservative government Vance is seen as a team player, noting that he has been quick to publically defend the Government’s record on Libya and Afghanistan. That said, it is hard to see Vance remain silent in the face of more cuts from a re-elected Conservative Government.

Second, should a new political party take control of government this Fall, General Vance could be viewed skeptically by the incoming government because he was appointed by Prime Minister Harper. Although this would be unfair to Vance — as there is no indication he would not perform his duty faithfully irrespective of political party — his past statements in defence of the Conservative Government would not help to endear himself to a Liberal or NDP government. A changeover in government has caused problems for top military leaders before.

The aforementioned Colin Powell served the last eight months of his tenure as chairman under Bill Clinton; Powell later wrote in his memoirs that he felt alienated and distrusted by the Clinton Administration. Similarly, Chairman Hugh Shelton served the last eight months as chairman under the George W. Bush Administration. Shelton was viewed suspiciously by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld during this time, who felt that Shelton and the rest of the military brass wielded too much influence during the Clinton years. Canadian examples of this kind of turnover are far less pronounced. Rick Hillier, who was appointed by Paul Martin, frequently ruffled the feathers of the Conservative Government with his high-profile presence in the media. While there are cases of such a transition going smoothly, a hold-over CDS in a new government could spell turmoil.

Finally, should the NDP take power, there exists a question of how the military would respond to a government with divergent views on defence and foreign policy. Vance, whose background is in operations, would find little to do in this respect. The NDP has promised to end the current mission in Iraq and Syria and show little proclivity toward future operations — short of enforcing a U.N. Security Council Resolution or Article V of NATO. David Perry, a Canadian defence analyst, has argued Vance’s operational background could be ill-suited for a NDP or Liberal government.

Regardless of which leader takes up residence in 24 Sussex Drive next year, there exists the possibility of a contentious civil-military relationship in the future. It is unclear how exactly Vance will respond to further austere defence budgets or a new administration, but his background suggests he would be less compliant in the face of serious disagreements.

Fortunately, Canadian civil-military relations has a record of firm civilian control; cases like the Cuban Missile Crisis are rare. Although the combination of a strong-willed CDS and a new government may be an invitation for struggle, such a struggle might allow for reinvigoration of Canadian defence policy as a serious political issue — something Canada is in desperate need of.

Author: Eric de Roos

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2 Comments

  1. Just to keep things in perspective Hillier was the worst CDS we ever had. His advice to Martin that the CF was up to taking over Kandahar Province and that it would be “robust peace support” was delusional at best. While at that he also undermined Gordon O’Connor the MND. As CLS he advised the army didn’t need tanks and chose to keep regular units under seriously strength in order to have lots of command slots.

    Vance’s “combat” experience was command of a failed mission during which he continually assured us the Taliban were at the “tipping point”. It turned out Canada was at the tipping point not the enemy.

    What we need in the CDS is someone who’ll keep his opinions to the MND and PM and won’t condone the inevitable leaks that will pour out of DND as we decide what fighter to buy and how much of the NSBP to cancel.

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    • In reply and contrast to F.T. Ward’s statement above about Rick Hillier, I seriously wonder if this guy ever served in the military? Hillier was by the best CDS we ever have had, before or after. He put the troops first, the measurement of a good leader. Not sure what measurement stick Ward is using ..

      Jim Parker

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