Lieutenant General Andrew Leslie’s comprehensive Report On Transformations 2011 raised speculation that much needed and fundamental changes are in the offing. Enthusiasts for Leslie’s recommendations, however, ought to be cautious. Canadian defence bureaucrats are rarely keen on studies and reports that they did not invent and do not control completely.

A new Queen’s University study, Let Sleeping Dogs Lie: The Influence of External Studies and Reports on National Defence Policy – 2000 to 2006, examines this dynamic. It suggests that General Leslie’s study will be hastily reviewed, subjected to “more detailed studies,” and then quietly set aside.
The process is not new to those familiar with the allergic reaction studies critical of governments’ defence policies produce among ministers and Department of National Defence public servants, but until now the process has never been revealed in all its reactionary vehemence.

The Queen’s research project examined how ministers of national defence (MND), officials in DND, and Canadian Forces (CF) officers in National Defence Headquarters (NDHQ) reacted to 15 defence policy research papers produced by the Senate of Canada, the House of Commons, interested non-governmental organizations, and academia over the period 2000-2006.

The authors reviewed over 3500 pages of insider documents provided under the Access to Information Act. The files contained confidential “briefing notes” and “talking notes” prepared for ministers by officials and CF officers; combative emails between officials loyal to ministers’ interests and officers loyal to the CF; and other related correspondence. The researchers had access to public affairs documents, most designed to protect ministers from such studies “if pressed” in the House of Commons or by the media. Ministers were always advised to state: “I very much welcome the study released by [blank]. It will provide a valuable contribution to our future policy development.”

The Queen’s research on these external defence studies reveals the reality of a decidedly unwelcoming bureaucracy determined to “tell ministers only the truth they wish to hear.” Studies and reports, including those from Parliament, that even suggest some other truths, were, without fail, dismissed, negated, and condemned by senior public servants. There is no evidence that any report was ever reviewed personally by any minister of national defence.

Reports and studies, even those supported by inside NDHQ information, were routinely snubbed by officials. Senate reports were ignored. House of Commons studies were routinely dismissed in assessments prepared by junior officials. Senior defence academics, such as Jack Granatstein and Professor David Bercuson, were belittled by officials who characterized them as scholars who “profess an in-depth knowledge of defence policy…[but their] facts and recommendations indicate otherwise.”

Ironically, a spokesman for Minister of National Defence Peter MacKay attempted to dismiss the new Queen’s study (that he had not read) by declaring: “What I can tell you is the Department of National Defence has a robust outreach section which engages with numerous academics on issues affecting Canada’s security…” even as the minister’s officials – following MacKay’s directions – busy themselves closing down the longstanding, DND supported Security and Defence Forum, the so-called “robust outreach” connection to Canadian universities.

What prompts senior public servants to react at all to some studies while ignoring most others? A former senior DND public affairs officer provided the answer: “Whenever one of these reports arrives in NDHQ we look at the dog. If the dog sleeps on, we simply file the report. If the dog wakes up, we put it back to sleep as quietly and as quickly as we can. If the dog howls, we have a problem and then I take care of it myself. The media is the dog.”

LGen Leslie’s Transformation study sat unattended in NDHQ for weeks until it was leaked to the media in August. Even then, officials generally ignored the matter and waited for “the dog” to lose interest and nod off. When, however, the study and LGen Leslie refused to go away, officials issued the usual statement for Peter MacKay: “This report will inform our approach to the Government’s Deficit Reduction Action Plan [and]…help define necessary organizational changes to prepare the Canadian Forces for the next decade.”

In other words, it will be filed away with the other deadletter studies and reports and NDHQ will return to business as usual.

Dr. Douglas Bland is the former chair of the Defence Studies Program at the School of Policy Studies, Queen’s University. He co-authored Let Sleeping Dogs Lie: The Influence of External Studies and Reports on National Defence Policy – 2000 to 2006 with Richard Shimooka, senior researcher associate with Defence Studies at Queen’s.