When it comes to her navy, Canada seems to speak loudly but carries a small stick: a navy which is getting smaller each decade. In 1960, Canada fielded 48 destroyer/frigate warships; today there are 12, a 75 per cent reduction. If this rate continues, by 2030 there will only be eight surface combatants in Canada’s navy.
That said, there are those that argue that the current government National Shipbuilding Strategy will deliver 15 new Canadian Surface Combatants and two Joint Support Ships, an issue and a promise that has yet to mature. In 2018, the Canadian government debt was equivalent to 89.7 per cent of her GDP. In 1990, the last time a major surface fleet reduction occurred, down to 16 from 20 major warships, the Canadian government debt was 80 per cent of GDP and growing – a situation that forced the government to cut and to reduce spending. At some point now or in the future, a government will need to cut and reduce spending. Traditionally these cuts have been absorbed mainly by the National Defence budget, the impact which can be seen in part in the reduction of Canada’s navy. Governments have taken this route as they believe such cuts do not and have never incurred political risk.
A poll conducted in 2018 indicated that 65 per cent of Canadians do not know much about their navy. The results of this poll would indicate that Canada’s navy does not belong to Canadians but is just another unseen part of government. This overall attitude by Canadians has allowed successive governments to neglect the navy to the point where the navy has shrunk to the about the size of the Bangladeshi navy. Not bad for a nation with the second longest coastline and the largest Economic Exclusion Zone in the world. Why? Perhaps the fact that less than 20 per cent of Canadians live and/or work near any of Canada’s three ocean areas is a contributing factor. Another factor is that successive federal governments have not made defence and security a national priority, thus allowing the nation’s navy to continually shrink. Thomas Jefferson once said, “An informed citizenry is the only true repository of the public will.”Canadian governments, reflecting on the poll results noted above, have failed to educate Canadians about their navy and their national sovereignty and security by buying votes with all-consuming and unsustainable social programs, only focusing on national security in a crisis or when pressed by our allies when the Canadian government wants something.
Samuel Huntington once asked of the USN, “What function do you perform which obligates society to assume responsibility for your maintenance?” This question is key to understanding Canadians’ general ambivalence about their navy and successive governments allowing it to shrink without a national uproar. To answer the question and to educate Canadians requires a focus on naval and maritime education in order to facilitate the growth of knowledge and understanding of the importance of the oceans and the navy to the welfare and the security of all Canadians. Regrettably, unlike some countries, Canada does not have an academic institution or a think tank that focuses on naval and maritime issues. Thus, there has developed, in Canada, an apathy to the economic and security importance of the oceans to the well-being of Canadians. Reversing this trend will be a major undertaking by those that believe in the navy and understand the importance of the oceans to Canada. It will not be easy; it will take resources, dedicated Canadians and time. There will be setbacks and frustrations. There will be institutional lethargy and intolerance. But success will be a nation that no longer ignores the oceans or Canada’s place in an oceanic world.
Captain(N) Ian Parker (Retired) is Director Naval Affairs for the Naval Association of Canada.