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Military Cultural Changes on Our Horizon

Members of 5 Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group run to their position during an attack on the defensive position during Exercise LION INTRÉPIDE in the areas of 2nd Canadian Division Support Base, in Valcartier, Quebec, on 9 November 2022. Photo: Private Kareen Brochu-Harvey, Valcartier Imaging Section, Canadian Armed Forces

Planning and preparing for future threats is the responsibility of Canada’s security and defence community. In speeches to Waterloo-based think tank Centre for International Governance Innovation in 2021, Canada’s National Security and Intelligence Advisor, the Director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, and the Chief of the Communications Security Establishment described a multi-polar threat characterized by rivals jockeying for position.

Global disorder, China’s rise, and an aggressively assertive Russia are already creating a more complex and competitive national security environment for our and like-minded governments to manage. Add to that the entanglement of destabilizing dynamics from climate change, large-scale human displacement, biodiversity loss, and economic and supply chain disruptions that are likely to flow from the interplay of all these developments on the fringe of our core business and we have a number of so-called “wicked problems” looming on our horizon for which we will need the best and brightest.

The Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) will need all hands-on deck to contribute as a Defence Team of soldiers, sailors, aviators, operators, and public servants. We also need to engage the full potential of Canadians who align in our fighting spirit to rise up as the most effective defence for Canada.

Our job is to ensure that the CAF and the Department of National Defence are prepared for an ever-evolving threat environment, while also responding to Requests for Federal Assistance from provinces and territories, be it to help recover from natural disasters or deliver COVID-19 surge capacity.  Beyond well trained individuals and good leadership enabled by modern equipment, a healthy culture remains the main ingredient to an effective and operationally ready defence.

As many of you no doubt already appreciates, the CAF is constantly working on its readiness. Here is what we are doing.

Service before self

We are appealing to those Canadians who want to contribute to something greater than themselves. Western democracies have been increasingly under threat in recent years while authoritarian adversaries attempt to exploit fissures in our societies and create divisions. Admittedly, these below-the-threshold and hybrid operations would not be able to take root without some legitimacy to the grievances they amplify and distort to the benefit of their own agendas. This is why it’s critically important that Canada maintains strong, healthy, and honourable defence and security institutions. Not only is it the right thing to do, but it helps to protect us from exploitation by our adversaries.

Members of the Canadian Armed Forces proudly serve with distinction on operations at home and abroad. The path forward on this trajectory relies on continuous improvement, making the most of our long-established learning culture. Historically our institution has valued competence above all else. While skill will always be critically important, we recognize that character and integrity are equally so – that they are not givens but rather a vital part of our selection criteria and training. The culture evolution underway within DND/CAF will strengthen the institution overall and better reflect what is meant by service before self by ensuring the institution continues to rest on a solid foundation.

Identity

The underlying assumption in our recruitment for the last century has been that every member is a warrior first and a specialist in their trade second. As a guiding principle this is fine. In practice, this has translated into a psychometric admissions test, the Canadian Forces Aptitude Test, that is culturally biased in its design and a one-size-fits-all physical fitness test. The definition of warrior ultimately needs to expand beyond the historical meaning to include different types of warriors, such as those needed for electronic warfare, cyber, and information operations to name but a few. This one-size-fits-all approach is being re-examined.

Leadership

Great leaders value the opinions and contributions of others, apply emotional intelligence in decision making, balance confidence with humility, and deliberately create conditions where members of the team can succeed. A comprehensive approach to evolve our culture across all levels is underway. It is a top down, bottom up and horizontal approach that cuts across all commands. It requires regular reflection, assessment, and attentive leadership to ensure the flexibility required to learn, improve, and evolve in real time. The CAF/DND offers world-class leadership development, and we will continue to adapt our approaches to increase effectiveness as a learning organization made up of emotionally intelligent, thoughtful, resourceful, resilient and ready people.  

Teamwork

Operationally effective teams trust each other, express mutual respect, and balance individual expression with the need to work together toward a common goal. Trust is that intangible currency that determines the quality of your relationship with another person. Psychological safety is the extent to which you trust that you can be your authentic self with those around you. Psychologically safe environments allow people to fully engage by speaking freely and openly in teams focused on a mutually agreed outcome.

To create such a foundation for a high-performance workplace, military leaders must first seek to understand before acting. Between October 2021 and March 2022, we listened to more than 9,000 Defence Team members for over 430 hours, including 53 cultural dialogues with members with lived experience, veterans, and equity seeking groups. Culture change is a whole-of-defence endeavour and the feedback of Defence Team members matters. This feedback, along with external reviews and subject matter expert inputs, is proving instrumental in informing a DND/CAF culture evolution framework and strategy that is currently under development. This dialogue is ongoing.

Departures

The Canadian military is facing its highest attrition rate in 15 years while the Canadian economy is struggling to fill jobs. Canada ended 2022 with another blockbuster employment report with over 104,000 new private-sector jobs created in December – representing an important expansion in the supply side of the economy. Last year, Canada’s population grew by nearly 500,000, employment rose by close to 400,000, and the labour force expanded by almost 200,000.

We face an increasingly competitive labour market and we’re already starting 2023 knowing that we will need more than a decade to get the numbers of soldiers, sailors, aviators, and operators back up to needed levels. The vacancies are most acute in military health-related jobs, which is not surprising given the nation-wide shortage and challenges in this field. We also have a few trades that have dropped to “critical staffing” levels.

The exodus started long before the pandemic or the sexual misconduct crisis and has since picked up pace due to many factors outside of our control, like baby boomers exiting the workforce. We continue to work on our posture as an employer of choice, such as current work to improve support to families with affordable housing. And our fight for talent will include other supports to members and their families. We know how important this is.

Recruitment

A year ago, a poll of more than 3,000 Canadians in preparation for the 100th anniversary of the Royal Canadian Air Force yielded some sobering numbers: 58 percent of respondents said they were not at all likely to join the RCAF and another 21 percent said they were not very likely to join. The same trend carried through for the Army: 57 percent not at all likely to join and 22 percent not very likely. It was even worse of the Royal Canadian Navy: 61 percent not at all likely to join and 22 percent not very likely. It didn’t explore our hiring needs to defend Canadian interests in cyber space and near-orbital space.

Chief Military Personnel’s team is forging a new approach to understanding our attrition, in particular unhealthy attrition, and doing targeted retention as part of its Retention Strategy, not to mention its Total Health and Wellness Strategy.

Once Canadians become aware of these, and other reforms both planned and underway, we are confident that more will consider the CAF as a career option. In the meantime, we need a whole-of-society effort to raise awareness of the benefits that come from service to one’s country and help us bring the Defence Team back to where it needs to be to meet current and emerging threats.

How the CAF is preparing

The CAF is developing a reconstitution plan intended to unfold over the next decade to bring in people fit for purpose so occupations vital to the Defence Team’s effectiveness are filled at proper levels. We have around 10,000 unfilled positions right now, and it is projected to get worse before it gets better. These shortages are affecting our current ability to respond around the world. Our polling in 2022 showed many potential CAF recruits were deterred by the idea of moving away from family and/or moving frequently. We heard you and we’re working on it.

What worked in the past will not be what makes us successful in the future. We are at a time where a shift is required in the “how’’ we conduct ourselves, “how’’ we exercise leadership, and how” we understand power and authority. Above all else, our Defence Team is a human organization. This shift is required to leverage the full potential of our people so we remain a force Canadians can rely on to protect their interests at home and abroad.

Call to Action

The CAF that I joined proved to me that it can adapt and transform. I enlisted three years before all military occupations opened up to women and by the time my education was done, I was commissioned into the Canadian Military Engineers just one year after combat roles like these admitted women. The CAF will continue adapting and transforming because the citizens it serves demand it and our times require it.

If we are to succeed in our mission of defending Canada’s tolerant, inclusive, and participative democracy, we need to reconstitute our Defence Team into an organization that draws on all groups of Canadians who fit the purposes we need them to perform. I experienced a major CAF transformation when I joined, and my team and I intend to design and deliver another transformation that will shore up the defences of the core values the bind us all as Canadians. We need you to spread the word that the CAF of today and tomorrow is open to all Canadians who are interested in joining. We need your active support in what is a whole-of-society initiative.

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