Military under fire as thousands of troops face lost cost-of-living allowance
Members of the 5e Regiment d’artillerie legere du Canada board an aircraft heading for Latvia, in Quebec City, Wednesday, March 23, 2022. The Canadian Armed Forces is under fire for its plan to cut thousands of troops off a cost-of-living allowance without much notice. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jacques Boissinot
By Lee Berthiaume in Ottawa
The Canadian Armed Forces is under fire for its plan to cut thousands of troops off a cost-of-living allowance without much notice.
The military announced last week that about 7,700 Armed Forces members will no longer receive the top-up starting in July, when it will be replaced by a new housing benefit that commanders say will better assist those who need the most help.
Social media and online forums dedicated to military personnel have been crackling with dissatisfaction over the plan, including the abbreviated timeline. Some are also unhappy with a new 10 per cent pay increase over four years, retroactive to 2021.
Experts say the lack of notice speaks to larger problems around how the military treats its people, which they worry is sparking anger and frustration at a time when the Canadian Armed Forces is struggling with a recruitment and retention crisis.
“We’re pissing people off,” said retired lieutenant-general Guy Thibault, who previously served as vice-chief of the defence staff. “And this may be the final straw that pisses them off. It’s not really about compensation. It’s just that they’re not feeling valued.”
The decision to replace the military’s existing cost-of-living allowance with a new housing benefit follows a 14-year battle between the Department of National Defence and Treasury Board, the central department that controls federal spending.
Established in 2000 as a way to compensate members for the added costs of having to live and work in certain communities, the allowance rates were frozen in 2009 as defence and treasury officials fought over the program’s cost and parameters.
Canadian Forces College professor Alan Okros said members were led to believe that that when a deal was finally struck, it would finally raise rates and expand eligibility as troops living in some parts of the country did not qualify.
“There was a generalized tone and expectation of, ‘Look, we’re working on it. … We’re going to sort it all out,'” said Okros, who specializes in military personnel and culture. “There was this generalized expectation of, ‘It’s going to be much better.'”
Such expectations were predicated on the belief that the government would put more money into the pot to compensate troops for their service, particularly given that the Armed Forces is currently dealing with a recruitment and retention crisis.
That didn’t happen. Instead, the military says the new housing benefit is both more equitable and more efficient than the previous allowance as it is tied to salary, includes more geographic locations, and will cost about $30 million less per year.
Charlotte Duval-Lantoine, an expert on military culture at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute think tank, said some members who were receiving the cost-of-living allowance would have accounted for that money in their budgetary planning.
“This is the distinction that frustrates people the most, because some of them will not be eligible in this (new benefit) even though they’re struggling in terms of their cost of living,” she said. “There’s going to be a readjustment for people.”
The fact it is being taken away in a matter of months without any previous consultation or warning speaks to problems with how the chain of command treats and communicates with its troops, she added.
“It’s kind of emblematic of the way that we talk about personnel policy and how the military communicates (with) its personnel,” she said. “It’s always big announcements. And then we don’t hear about it for years on end. Then there’s a new announcement.”
The housing benefit has also come under scrutiny, with concerns about the actual rates being based on the cost of renting a two-bedroom apartment without consideration for family size. There’s also a seven-year cap on receiving the benefit in one location.
Members are also complaining that the new pay increase does not keep up with inflation.
The new benefit and pay increase have nonetheless sparked a bit of a debate over compensation for military personnel, with some arguing troops are relatively well paid and most Canadians are facing some sort of economic pressure.
“We’ve got a pretty well-paid force, not only against other allied forces or volunteer forces, but against the general population,” said Thibault, who is now chair of the Conference of Defence Associations Institute think tank.
“In terms of where we’re going with the economy, it’s not unique to the Canadian Forces. It’s a societal problem right now with interest rates, with inflation, with the economy, with housing.”
Rather, experts feel the reaction is more symptomatic of bigger problems as the Armed Forces faces growing demands while struggling with a shortage of personnel, old equipment, and efforts to radically overhaul its culture.
“Our government and Canadians, they seem to care for the Canadian Forces,” Thibault said. “But not care enough about them to make it a priority, or to address some of these longstanding problems.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 26, 2023.
Defence minister says Canada wants to share advanced military technology with allies
Minister of Defence Anita Anand responds to a question during a joint news conference with Polish Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of National Defence Mariusz Błaszczak at National Defence Headquarters, in Ottawa, Monday, May 8, 2023. Anand says Canada wants to share advanced technology with allies. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
The defence minister says Canada is interested in sharing more advanced defence technology with its allies as the focus of a trilateral military deal between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States starts to expand.
But Anita Anand would not directly say if Canada is making a formal bid to join the agreement known as AUKUS.
The deal was announced about 18 months ago as a security pact that would see the U.S. and Britain help Australia develop a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines in response to growing concerns about China.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said Canada isn’t interested in nuclear-powered submarines and dismissed concerns of critics who say Canada’s exclusion from the deal is evidence that other countries don’t believe it is taking the China threat seriously.
Anand says Canada is interested in co-operation with those allies on quantum computing, AI, and other technology despite being left out of AUKUS.
The countries involved in AUKUS have agreed to discuss sharing that kind of technology separate from the pact on nuclear submarines.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 8, 2023.
‘A perfect example of what not to do’: ex-U. S. envoy on PM’s reported NATO comments
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau leaves the NATO summit, in Madrid on Thursday, June 30, 2022. A former U.S. envoy to Ottawa says he’s concerned about what Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reportedly said about Canadian defence spending. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson
By James McCarten in Cleveland
A former U.S. envoy to Ottawa says he’s concerned about what Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reportedly said about Canadian defence spending.
David Jacobson, who served as Barack Obama’s ambassador from 2009 to 2013, says a recent Washington Post report could prove to be a setback for future U.S.-Canada relations.
The Post says Trudeau privately told NATO officials that Canada would never meet the military alliance’s spending target of two per cent of GDP.
Jacobson says the comments, if true, risk making it harder for the two countries to resolve future bilateral irritants.
And they could also undermine the faith of the American public in NATO by fuelling the perception that the U.S. shoulders the bulk of the military burden around the world.
Jacobson, who says he doesn’t know if the story is accurate, was speaking at the annual conference of the Canada-U. S. Law Institute.
“It’s one of those things that causes governments to lose confidence,” Jacobson told an audience of lawyers, trade experts and former diplomats at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.
“It’s a perfect example of what not to do in order to help solve some of the bilateral issues in both directions that are … legitimately very important to segments of the Canadian public and the American public.”
The report, published online Wednesday and then Thursday on the newspaper’s front page, was based on a document from a trove of Pentagon secrets leaked in recent weeks in an online chat forum for gamers.
Jack Teixeira, a 21-year-old IT specialist and member of the Massachusetts Air National Guard, was arrested last week and faces charges of violating the U.S. Espionage Act.
The Post said the unsigned, undated document, which The Canadian Press has not seen, mentions “widespread” military deficiencies in Canada that are causing friction with security partners and allies.
Jacobson acknowledged a long-standing truth in the politically polarized U.S.: that public support for military missions abroad is fragile, especially when American taxpayers are footing the bulk of the bill.
While NATO has long struggled to get many of its members to meet its two per cent spending target, military spending in the U.S. is about 3.3 per cent of a GDP 13 times that of Canada’s.
By comparison, the federal government in Ottawa currently spends about 1.4 per cent of GDP on defence.
“What will happen is that the American public is going to decide, ‘Why should we do this? Why should we defend the world?'” Jacobson said. It’s in the best interests of the U.S. to do it, he added.
“But at some point, people are going to say, ‘Well, we’ve got all these freeloaders’ — I hate to use that term — ‘we’ve got all these freeloaders and we’re not going to do it anymore.'”
It’s a turn of phrase that brings to mind former president Donald Trump, who frequently berated NATO allies for shortchanging the alliance — and who is running for president again next year.
The Post story did not elaborate nor detail Trudeau’s comments. But it does describe complaints from a number of allies about perceived shortfalls within the Canadian military.
NATO, for instance, is “concerned” that Canada hasn’t added to the ranks of its battle group in Latvia, part of a multinational deterrence mission in eastern Europe known as Operation Reassurance.
Turkey was “disappointed” by Canada’s apparent “refusal” to help transport aid after an earthquake earlier this year, while Haiti is “frustrated” by Canada’s reluctance to mount a security mission there, the Post reported.
“Widespread defence shortfalls hinder Canadian capabilities,” the Post quoted the document as saying, “while straining partner relationships and alliance contributions.”
Defence Minister Anita Anand rejected the premise of the Post story outright in an interview Wednesday, after a meeting with current U.S. ambassador David Cohen.
“We … discussed the upward trajectory of our defence spending,” Anand said, “and in fact how Canada continues to make foundational investments for the Canadian Armed Forces.”
The Liberal government has committed to nearly $40 billion on Norad modernization and North American defence, along with $8 billion in military spending announced in the 2022 budget, she added.
As for Latvia, Canada has launched an urgent, competitive procurement process to equip troops there with anti-tank, anti-drone and anti-air defence systems, Anand said.
The Post said the Forces warned in February that a major military operation was currently impossible, given the Latvia deployment and Canada’s ongoing military support for Ukraine in its war against Russia.
The U.S. has also been anxious to find someone to lead a multinational support mission in gang-ravaged Haiti, and officials have even name-checked Canada as a worthy option.
But Jacobson said his sense is that the question of Canada’s role in Haiti is less a bilateral disagreement than a serious question about capacity.
“One of the things I learned about military engagement is you can’t do everything. You never have enough bullets, you never have enough tanks, you never have enough soldiers to do all the things you want to do,” he said.
“You have even fewer tanks and soldiers and bullets if you’re spending 1.4 per cent of your GDP.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 21, 2023.
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