Put armed forces close to Canadians

Lawrence Solomon
National Post
January 13, 2006

The Liberal ad attacking Canada’s military was off the mark in many ways, and not just in being a political gaffe. The Conservative plan to re-equip the military and base some armed forces near cities makes great good sense. Men and materiel will often be best deployed from urban areas, whether at home or abroad. The Armed Forces themselves would benefit in a move from country to city and, most of all, the cause of Canadian confederation would strengthen.

Vancouver could be devastated if the long-feared great earthquake ever hits. We have seen great floods inundate cities such as Winnipeg and great ice-storms paralyze cities such as Montreal. Edmonton has had its tornado and Toronto its hurricane. Natural disasters can hit anywhere but when they hit cities – as we saw when Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans – the potential for mayhem and great loss of life surges.

Cities are also uniquely vulnerable to immense man-made disaster: Toronto could require a full evacuation if a great meltdown strikes its nearby nuclear reactors. Any of our cities could be laid low by a major terrorist attack. Placing military responders and their equipment where they are likeliest to be able to do much good in little time makes evident sense – if the Conservatives’ approach can be faulted, it should be for a too-modest redeployment to cities.

The benefits of basing armed forces in or near cities extends beyond an ability to meet emergency needs. Canada has been diminished by political decisions to deny our traditions as a muscular military nation – at the end of the Second World War, we boasted the world’s second-largest navy – and to strip ourselves of any ability to defend ourselves, making us a de facto U.S. dependent. The Liberal ad men could countenance an ad demeaning our Armed Forces because the military is, in truth, held in low esteem by many Canadians, its role not understood, its presence not wanted.

This low esteem is no accident. Our military leaders, cowed by their political leaders, do not take their case to the public, let alone present honest appraisals of their needs to Parliament (south of the border, U.S. law requires senior military commanders to be candid with Congress). And with military bases out of sight, the problem is out of mind. The broad Canadian public is kept in ignorance.

Place many new bases near cities and the needs of the military community become better known, as tradesmen and other non-military personnel visit the bases to work and as military personnel visit cities to play. Soldiers will seem less apart from the rest of us, let alone as sinister influences, as the attack ad would have it. More importantly, civilians will begin to identify positively with the military, seeing its benefits and able to see themselves in uniform.

The military has a looming personnel crisis, as the Auditor-General and others have repeatedly warned. Many are leaving the military in search of a better quality of life. Much of the force is nearing retirement age. So few applicants present themselves that the military now accepts almost everyone who applies.

The military has become severely understaffed and is likely to stay so as long as it is held in low-public esteem, despite boosted advertising budgets for recruitment.

The best reason of all to site military bases near or within cities is precisely what the Liberal ad abhorred – to have a military presence in cities, one substantial enough to change the culture. Canada is all but bereft of authentic federal symbols and truly needed federal institutions. Former flagships that were created or endured for partisan political reasons – the post office, Air Canada, Petro-Canada – have melted away with advances in trade and technologies, and the same will occur with other politically driven federal institutions such as medicare and the CRTC.

The military is different. It is not a concoction of one political party or another, existing primarily to justify its re-election prospects. The military is a fundament of any nation that wants to remain one.

The military is a truly authentic Canadian institution that has an unquestionable right and a duty to fly the Canadian flag. Soldiers should be seen in our cities, to remind us of the service they perform and the price of remaining sovereign, and as a selfless federal symbol of our nationhood, as an enduring force that binds a far-flung nation together.

Lawrence Solomon, author of the forthcoming book Toronto Sprawls, is executive director of Urban Renaissance Institute and Consumer Policy Institute, divisions of Energy Probe Research Foundation.; www.urban.probeinternational.org.

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