It has been two years since the release of the Trudeau government’s Strong, Secure, Engaged – Canada’s Defence Policy, which included new spending and procurement plans, targets for recruiting women and minorities to the Canadian Forces, support for military families, and a review of Canada’s commitments to NORAD and NATO going forward. Before the Bell gathered a panel of industry and government stakeholders in Ottawa on May 28 to check in on where Canada stands in relation to the report. The discussion, which included Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan, focused largely on Canada’s controversial defence procurement system.
But first, Ihor Korbabicz, executive director of Abacus Data, presented some exclusive Sixth Estate/Abacus Data polling on what Canadians feel about our country’s role abroad. The survey found that the majority of respondents think that Canada should have a role in mediating international conflicts – with 24 percent believing that should be a major role and 47 percent saying it should play “some role”.
“There is both an expectation and a perception that we are currently able to fulfil the commitments that Canadians expect us to play internationally,” said Korbabibcz.
As well, some 46 percent of Canadians feel that the military procurement system is “fair enough,” while there was greater scepticism among the public with regards to whether the government is ensuring that the military has the tools and resources it needs to succeed, and in particular around its care for veterans.
“Alliances with the United States and NATO provide you with access to certain products that are being developed within the EU, within the NATO framework or the United States, and that equipment that they’re developing is some of the best in the world and you have access to that, but you’re not a large market,” said Goldfeder. “The industrial benefits policy has to be balanced with what your status is within the global defence industries.”
Chris Pogue, president of MDA Government Programs, said that the capability that Canada needs to build in domestic operations is similar for international missions, which includes space-based or aircraft-based sensors.
“The world needs a little bit more Canada in it, and the international file is very important and something we should never forget,” said Pogue.
Jennifer Stewart, president and founder of Syntax Strategic, said that when it comes to Canada’s defence policy with the Americans, most Canadians don’t understand that there hasn’t been a real change in our relationship with the Americans despite the tweets from president Donald Trump.
“If you’re communicating to general Canadians, they think [the relationship] is completely tumultuous based on Trump and some of his statements – that’s the challenge,” said Stewart. “The bureaucracy may be the same, so there’s the stability. People feel there is a difference, and that’s a problem. If there truly isn’t, how do you communicate that the relationship is still strong?”
During the policy segment with host Catherine Clark, Mark Halinaty, president and CEO of Thales Canada, observed that defence procurement is not easy — a point illustrated in the multiple procurement complications of the past decade, from the beleagured F-35 program under the Harper government to the recent shipbuilding contract kerfuffle — and that the timelines involved impact industry because companies spend a lot of money on bids that then get reset as government tries to find a “right” solution. That lag is exacerbated by innovations in technology.
“On the plus side, the Canadian government has a program called the Ideas Program, which is very flexible and encouraging in terms of evaluating innovation,” said Halinaty. “I’m waiting to see how it translates into procurement in the long term, but it’s certainly encouraging to see that kind of approach, recognizing that these new technologies need to be handled differently.”
Defence Minister Sajjan said that there needs to be a better understanding about what defence procurement actually means domestically and internationally, which was why they consulted broadly as part of their defence policy review.
“One thing I learned from the Canadian industry was that it was easier to do business outside of Canada than inside, so how do we fix that?” said Sajjan. “There was also a falsehood from the past that you have to buy outside of Canada to get quality, when in fact there is tremendous quality here with our defence industry – but previous governments have not invested well into defence.”
Sajjan added that the government has been working to change the procurement timelines based on technology to make it faster, and that the defence investment plan would help industry acquire more predictability.
Christyn Cianfarani, president and CEO of the Canadian Association of Defence and Security Industries, said that because of the unique relationship between Canada and the United States, the Canadian defence industry is considered almost a part of the American industry when it comes to technology.
“It’s our primary market,” said Cianfarani. “We make stuff that goes into their fighter planes, obviously space, and cyber. The opportunity is really tremendous because of our geography. We also have some world-leading technology, so we’re a country that is sought-after in terms of our technology from an export perspective. In a managed market, sixty percent of our revenues comes from the international market space.”
Elinor Sloan, professor of international relations at Carleton University and board member of the Canadian Defence Associations Institute, said that Canada’s role in the world changed after the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014, which was reflected in the new defence policy.
“We’ve changed our approach so that we’re no longer going into countries and trying to resolve problems, like the big mission that we saw in Afghanistan,” said Sloan. “Rather, we’re focusing on defence capacity building – helping others help themselves. We’ve got trainers in Iraq, and also in Lebanon and Jordan, to help those countries build up their own security forces so that they can take care of the security within their own borders.”
Watch the full edition here.