Saving the Canadian Army Reserve

Mathew Preston
January 26, 2020
Since the late Roman Empire, when legions could not move until distant functionaries approved budgets for food and other essentials, bureaucrats pursuing selfish agendas have sometimes done more damage than enemy action. Canada’s politicized national defence administration is a modern example of this phenomenon, and the concerted attempt to destroy the Canadian Forces Reserves as a meaningful organization surely ranks among the more damaging cases. Mathew Preston, through his review of C.P. Champion’s Relentless Struggle, illuminates the stirring campaign of those who fought to keep our Reserves alive.

Saving the Canadian Army Reserve

Mathew Preston
January 26, 2020
Since the late Roman Empire, when legions could not move until distant functionaries approved budgets for food and other essentials, bureaucrats pursuing selfish agendas have sometimes done more damage than enemy action. Canada’s politicized national defence administration is a modern example of this phenomenon, and the concerted attempt to destroy the Canadian Forces Reserves as a meaningful organization surely ranks among the more damaging cases. Mathew Preston, through his review of C.P. Champion’s Relentless Struggle, illuminates the stirring campaign of those who fought to keep our Reserves alive.
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Those who express concern about the “Deep State” are accustomed to derision or worse. It is not a conspiracy theory to point out that what were once quaintly known as “public servants” have a strange habit in nearly all Western countries of derailing democratically-backed policies – and Canada is no exception. The examples are too numerous to deny. To be sure, many bureaucrats still faithfully follow the orders of their ministers, regardless of their personal politics. And to believe unelected officials will collude to actively thwart the will of elected legislators is engaging in conspiracy theorizing.

And yet, despite the odour of paranoia and extremism given off by such thinking, and the typically steep burden of proof accompanying such accusations, some conspiracy theories seem fed by fact. When civilians do this, it is an atrocious abuse of power. When the military does it, the effects can threaten our national security. When members of both get together in a mutual quest, it is dangerous to democracy itself. 

In a new book, Relentless Struggle: Saving the Army Reserve 1995-2019, C.P. Champion tells the story of Reserves 2000. It was a group of concerned citizens of sufficient stature and influence, many of them Honorary Colonels (HCols) of Army Reserve units who, throughout what became known as the “decade of darkness”, thwarted plans by senior officers and civilian officials based mainly in National Defence Headquarters (NDHQ) to amalgamate, shrink and de-fund the Canadian Forces Reserves. “This book is about a group of Canadians who came together to stop a recurring tendency in the upper ranks of the Canadian Armed Forces to weaken and…cripple Canada’s Army Reserve,” Champion writes.

The attacks on the part-time force came against the explicit wishes of successive Ministers of National Defence, even against the policy of the prime minister himself. They were sustained for years and they were very nearly successful. How they were stopped forms Champion’s inspiring account of indefatigable effort and undaunted courage by people of high principle. “Time and again Reserves 2000 prevented the regular forces from effectively destroying the reserves,” Champion writes. “Time and again they brought a new minister…to appreciate the perils of listening only to NDHQ, which had almost no corporate memory.” As an aside, Relentless Struggle also provides a case study on Canada’s own deep state.

The Reserves are important, especially with Canada’s regular army getting ever-smaller and, generally, less capable. In Afghanistan reservists at times formed up to 20 percent of Canada’s deployed soldiers. They were deployed on prior missions as well. One officer who commanded Reservists in Bosnia, including in actual heavy combat in the Medak Pocket, said that Reservists were “often the most capable and members of those units.” Champion avoids operational specifics on that mission or Afghanistan; Relentless Struggle isn’t a book of war stories. Instead he cites writers such as Christie Blatchford, who covered the topic and who in 2016 hinted at the issue of civil servants ignoring orders and trying to kill the reserves.

In addition to his or her practical usefulness, the citizen-soldier – shopkeeper by vocation, warrior by obligation, as the saying goes – is a crucial link between Canadians and their armed forces, and collectively the Reserves form a pillar of civilian-military relations. They also cost far less and, Champion argues, with sufficient training can be just as effective as Regular Force troops when deployed. Most important, according to Champion and Reserves 2000 members, the Reserves provide the basis upon which any mass mobilization of Canadian military force would take place.

“Shopkeeper by day, warrior by night”: Reservists formed up to 20 percent of Canada’s deployed troops in Afghanistan.

Relentless Struggle is the story of Reserves 2000’s sustained campaign to maintain the nation’s ability to mobilize, and to oppose numerous attempts to cut or amalgamate Reserve units. It’s the story of bureaucrats and officers ignoring political direction. It’s the story of internal departmental politics superseding national security. And it’s the story of how, through lack of planning and the drastic underfunding of our military, Canada remained unprepared for a real conflict.

Since the 1980s, NDHQ had refused even to maintain a national mobilization plan. Despite being disparaged by many at NDHQ and in the Regular Force as representing Second World War thinking, the former Reservists and HCols stuck to their belief that mobilization was an insurance policy against worst-case scenarios and a deterrent against adversaries. And the only way to effectively mobilize the nation, they were certain, was by using the Reserves as the base.

Broadly speaking, the idea is this: in a large-scale conflict, the Regular Force units deploy. For Canada, this means deploying far overseas, for that is where our wars have always been fought. The reserve regiments, meanwhile, ensure the nation itself isn’t left entirely undefended, while also training the new recruits required to scale up that initial force, preferably into an Army Corps of about 40,000-50,000 soldiers (as Canada deployed in both world wars).

That has always been a tall order, though Canada somehow managed, putting nearly 1 million into uniform in the Second World War (when the entire country numbered only 12 million). Given the breathtaking shrinkage of regular and reserve forces, it’s an even more daunting task nowadays. Canada now fields an entire Regular Force Army of just 23,000 personnel and 17,000 Reservists. Of those 23,000, fewer than half would be front-line, gun-toting troops.

Preston - Inset 3 (above)
A fighting corps of up to 50,000: WWII Canadian Soldiers helping liberate Holland (above) and wounded Canadians awaiting evacuation from Juno Beach (below).
A fighting corps of up to 50,000: WWII Canadian Soldiers helping liberate Holland (above) and wounded Canadians awaiting evacuation from Juno Beach (below).

This number is dramatically lower than in the past, as this C2C Journal article discusses. Until the late 1980s, Canada kept 10,000 soldiers permanently stationed in Germany for NATO. NDHQ staff, however, refused to believe historical numbers would ever be needed again. In their minds, the Reserves’ best contribution was to send individuals to augment the Regular Force on deployments to peacekeeping missions. Peacekeeping dominated Canada’s military policy throughout the 1990s and until 9-11 shattered the reverie.

The defence establishment’s refusal to develop mobilization plans was coupled with another scheme potentially fatal to the Reserves: amalgamation. The Department of National Defence envisioned saving money by cutting dozens of the approximately 140 Reserve units, closing armouries in smaller cities and towns across Canada. This was, without exception, in the face of contrary ministerial orders.

Ottawa’s continual failure to understand Canada as a geographically diverse nation, where local control is important, is another phenomenon Champion depicts that is seen throughout Canadian politics. That this means some things simply won’t operate at peak efficiency but are still worth keeping is almost always lost on someone sitting in an NDHQ office on Ottawa’s Colonel By Drive.

To save money, DND closed Reserve facilities such as Hillside Armoury in Westmount, Montreal, later sold to a developer.

Amalgamation became the catalyst for the formation of Reserves 2000 in late 1994 by James Forsyth, Major-General (ret’d) Reginald Lewis, 35 Honorary Colonels and other concerned veterans and active reservists. NDHQ continued to push its agenda despite that rarest of Canadian political animals: multi-partisan consensus. Thanks largely to the intense letter-writing and personal lobbying by Reserves 2000, MPs from the Liberals, Reform Party, the PC remnants, and even the NDP and Bloc Quebecois advocated increasing the size and funding of the Reserves. Every MP who had an armoury in or near their constituency opposed amalgamation.

Of course, the Liberals bore significant responsibility for the problem to begin with, as the pittance they provided to the Canadian Forces during the 90s put the Regular Forces in an ever-tighter spot. This was right after the end of the Cold War, and Western nations that had been heavily burdened in facing down the Soviet empire now enjoyed their “Peace Dividend”, slashing defence spending.

But so did countries that hadn’t spent much on defence all along, Canada among them. During the Chrétien-Martin era, defence budget cuts merely in 1994-1998 totalled 23 percent (and vastly more if accounting for the steep inflation rate afflicting military equipment). No wonder the 90s became known as the “decade of darkness”. As that occurred, skimming money from the Reserves was often simply the Regular Force’s way of trying to maintain a professional army.

“Decade of darkness”: Between 1994 and 1998, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and finance minister Paul Martin cut defence spending by 23 percent.

While the Liberals stuck to their widely supported no-amalgamation policy, it was ignored by officers and civil servants alike. So were the concurrent ministerial orders to formulate mobilization plans – a largely theoretical and inexpensive undertaking. Champion avoids naming the lower-level officials and officers who continued to write amalgamation plans or otherwise advance the scheme. His individual criticism is restricted to figures whose views and actions were public. He also avoids slamming Honorary Colonels who did not support Reserves 2000, although some can be inferred by referring to documents cited in footnotes. Champion’s primary mission appears to be exposing systemic failures brought on by a bad internal culture.

At the same time, the Liberals’ obsession with UN peacekeeping missions (some of which were large, complex and lengthy, such as in the former Yugoslavia) kept operational tempo high, burning out man and machine. Champion acknowledges that NDHQ was under massive budgetary pressure. Defence officials weren’t just doing more with less; they were asked to do the impossible with virtually nothing. In 1998, Canada was spending the same $9.2 billion per year on defence as the Netherlands, a much smaller country by population and, above all, geography, with much narrower defence requirements.

That still doesn’t excuse some of the actions and attitudes by senior officers that Champion describes. As late as 2015, when then Minister of National Defence Jason Kenney received his mandate letter from Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Tom Lawson, the Chief of the Defence Staff, refused even to acknowledge the Reserves-focused elements to be government policy. Kenney was stonewalled as he tried to turn his mandate into policy and, according to Champion, Harper related that his most bitter fight with the civil service was over the Reserves.

Reservists saw real fighting in Yugoslavia and formed Canada’s forces in Afghanistan

Harper merely wanted to allow units to include battle honours won back to the War of 1812 if the modern Reserves unit could prove a credible link to the fighting unit in question. This was a pillar of unit morale, but NDHQ officials apparently considered the practise unconscionable. Champion cites other examples and, were it not for Reserves 2000’s using its extensive network to discover what was going on inside NDHQ, the officers and bureaucrats would likely have gotten away with it.

Champion’s book illustrates broader problems endemic in Ottawa. First and foremost, he convincingly shows a bureaucracy that thinks and acts as if it knows better than the electorate. More broadly and equally disturbing, he portrays a country that constantly fails to think seriously about the future, including its national security. He also covers smaller but important issues that will be familiar to defence policy watchers, such as national defence plans shaped by available funding levels instead of national strategic goals and desired outcomes. This is a potentially fatal flaw should Canada ever have to go to war for real.

It would be easy to regard Champion’s book as an unreflective celebration of the Militia (the army or ground forces component of Canada’s Reserves) and a purveyor of the “Militia myth”. This is the idea that Canada’s wars have always been won by the citizen-soldier despite the bungling of professionals who were too few and poorly trained to do the real work. Part of this myth is that the Regular Force will always look down on a Militia that believes it won two world wars but still has an “inferiority complex”, as Rick Hillier describes in his memoir A Soldier First.

Fighting with defence bureaucrats: Strong friends of Canada’s soldiers, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Defence Minister Jason Kenney arriving in Baghdad, Iraq in 2015.

Champion avoids this trap while taking on the counter-narrative, a “professional myth” that is also a relic of the world wars. This is the superiority complex of Regular Force soldiers who presume they’ve kept the country safe while the citizen-soldier has proved useless. “This anti-traditionalist snobbery distracted the senior brass from taking militia problems seriously,” Champion charges. Thankfully, as time moved on, those attitudes have eased.

While most other Militia defenders focus, somewhat understandably, on the political struggle for survival, Champion’s horizons are broader, discussing operational, tactical, and strategic issues and how the Reserves fill roles within them. He describes the importance of a local presence for the Canadian Forces, not only for public relations but because maintaining the support of a nation’s people in times of war is crucial to victory and, God forbid, might one day be again. Champion also discusses the strategic imperatives of mass mobilization, but without alarming the reader by claiming an imminent need. He merely calls it an “insurance policy”, something no serious nation can go without if it is to remain secure. His summation: the Reserves are “social and strategic assets”.

His time on Kenney’s staff in 2015 might have tempted Champion to pack his book with personal experiences and opinions then formed. But it takes up just the number of pages it deserves in this 495-page book. Champion instead performs credible scholarship and excellent journalism; the research and interviews are extensive and liberally footnoted. Relentless Struggle is genuine and credible history.

The eventual turnaround in the Reserves’ fortunes proved remarkable. With Canada’s long military commitment to Afghanistan furnishing the catalyst, the strong personalities leading the charge on the Reserves’ behalf enabled them to become a stronger, more respected and larger force. Among the critical reforms was separately reported budgeting, initiated by Minister Kenney and continued by new Chief of the Defence Staff Jonathan Vance. A 2016 Auditor-General’s report on the Primary Reserve also shocked much of official Ottawa.

Vice-Chief and former Army Commander Paul Wynnyk finally, through sheer force of will, authorized local units to look after their own recruitment and significantly sped up the onboarding process for new Reservists. Liberal Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, a former reservist, has kept his department on-task. A seemingly small but powerful mechanism was creating something known as the “Chief of the Defence Staff Direction”. This meant that a Minister was issuing official orders, not mere policy suggestions, forcing NDHQ denizens to comply or be guilty of insubordination.

A former Reservist, Liberal Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan has continued supporting a stronger Reserve force.

Relentless Struggle also stands in eloquent opposition to the innumerable historians (or historicists) who only see large, impersonal, societal forces determining events. Individuals with strong wills and unique personalities drive this story and, without them, the Army Reserve would have been devastated. Instead, by 2019 Reserves 2000 had achieved many of its goals. The most important were: a separately reported budget protected from the Regular Force; local recruitment; and a commitment to grow the Reserves and provide full-time summer employment for Reservists who wanted it.

The movement wasn’t completely successful. Some regiments lost their fight against amalgamation and augmentation (rather than whole-unit deployment) became the name of the Reserve game during the war in Afghanistan. Mobilization plans remain a pipedream. Nor did the Reserves get a separate chain of command.

But Champion’s history shows that had Reserves 2000 not fought the good fight – throughout the 1990s especially – the Reserves might not even exist today. The Canadian Forces were not ready for Afghanistan but they would have found the deployment downright impossible had the Reserves been as degraded and shrunken as had seemed likely. As Champion notes, “The right way to assess Reserves 2000’s accomplishments is to ask what would have happened without their interventions.”

Canada’s military as of last year still included 128 Reserve units based in 117 communities from coast to coast, totalling approximately 17,000 citizen-soldiers. “Our Army Reserve appears to be back in business,” Champion quotes a delighted John Selkirk, the current Reserves 2000 executive director, declaring in 2018. “We are, at long last, on the long road to recovery.”

Preston - Inset 9 (above)
Road to recovery: If not for the efforts of Reserves 2000, these Army Reserve Units might not be here today, conducting extensive training to prepare for combat and non-combat operations.
Road to recovery: If not for the efforts of Reserves 2000, these Army Reserve Units might not be here today, conducting extensive training to prepare for combat and non-combat operations.

Reserves 2000’s efforts represent a signal achievement and a largely oblivious nation owes these volunteer political warriors a huge debt of gratitude. Reserves 2000 continues to operate. Selkirk spoke in front of a parliamentary committee last February. The organization was active during the 2019 election, attempting through op-eds to make sure defence issues were considered.

Champion’s work provides lessons beyond Canada’s insular world of defence policy, for politicians, staffers, or anyone trying to influence the public or politically influencers. Any lobbyist or public affairs consultant would love to run a campaign as successfully as Reserves 2000’s. As an organization it proved not only principled and dogged but adaptable when old contacts, methods or arguments needed changing as governments, ministers and policy changed. Above all, for anyone interested in Canadian national defence, Relentless Struggle will prove enlightening.

Mathew Preston is an Alberta-based writer who holds a Master in Strategic Studies from the Centre for Military, Security and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary and previously worked as a defence consultant in Ottawa.

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