Mr. Speaker, I am glad to have this opportunity to speak to the motion before us today. As I have said numerous times since becoming Minister of National Defence, my respect for the Canadian military has never stopped growing, and with that respect has come a growing determination to do what is right for them and for our country.
In July, I had the opportunity to meet some of our troops in Afghanistan. I was able to see not only the difficult and dangerous conditions in which they perform their duties, but also the great pride that they derive from their numerous accomplishments. I am convinced that no member of this House has doubts about the quality of our armed forces. I think that we all want to take the appropriate measures for them.
Let us remember that the government announced its intentions to prepare defence for the future in the recent Speech from the Throne. The government has committed to set out a long term direction on international and defence policy, “a policy that reflects our values and interests and ensures that Canada's military is equipped to fulfill the demands placed upon it”.
The motion before us today refers to the overstretching of our military personnel. I am well aware that over the past decade the Canadian Forces have been called upon with increasing frequency both at home and abroad. At the same time their overseas missions increased, their personnel numbers decreased. That is why I have stated publicly that the recent pace of operations is not sustainable. It means too much time away from home for too many of our men and women in uniform, with negative implications for morale, family life and general well-being. It is also translates into personnel retention problems. I recognize this, my predecessor recognized this, the leadership of the Canadian Forces recognizes this and we are doing something about it.
For example, we decided not to rotate more ground troops into Afghanistan when the battle group returned from Kandahar. Recently we have drawn down our forces in Bosnia from 1,500 to about 1,300 so our contribution there is still considerable.
Some critics have suggested that by not replacing the battle group in Afghanistan we have reneged on our commitment to the campaign against terrorism. Nothing could be further from the truth. On the navy side, 11 of our ships have been deployed to the Arabian Gulf and Arabian Sea in total, and two of them remain in theatre conducting maritime and leadership interdiction operations. Only last Thursday, one of our ships intercepted a vessel which contained five patrol boats heading for Iraq. Not a bad day's work.
Meanwhile, the air force has deployed Hercules aircraft for strategic and tactical airlift, as well as the Auroras for surveillance operations.
So far, the troops that we have deployed during this campaign total over 4,500 men and women from the army, navy and air force. The anti-terrorist campaign has an impact on our active military personnel closer to home and Canadian Forces members continue to rigorously defend Canada's airspace, through our NORAD commitment.
Allow me to state that the Canadian Forces continue to excel at fulfilling their commitments in Canada, whether this involves providing assistance following a natural disaster, conducting search and rescue missions, or patrolling our territorial waters.
We are in the final stages of an agreement with our American neighbours that will better position us to respond to major crises, such as terrorist attacks or natural disasters within North America. Specifically, we are in the final stages of negotiating a joint binational planning group that will set up plans and protocols that could be used in times of crisis. This planning group will allow us to share intelligence and contingency plans and clearly identify how to access the resources necessary to respond quickly.
We are not suggesting that we create new command and control structure or assign permanent new forces to these tasks. This new arrangement is all about protecting lives, our lives and the lives of our neighbours to the south. It is about protecting our shared interest.
I feel there is no doubt whatsoever that the Canadian Forces continue to honour their commitments both in Canada and elsewhere.
Returning to the matter of our high operational tempo, I repeat that the government has recognized the problem and is in the process of solving it at this time.
Reducing our operational tempo is one part of the solution, but continued investment in enhancing the quality of life for our military personnel and their families is another. We have made considerable progress in that area.
We have, for instance, set up five operational trauma and stress support centres to assist members of the Canadian Forces and family members to cope with stress-related problems and illnesses arising out of military operations.
We have also undertaken a study of the impact of frequent deployments on the military. The study findings will help us to design policies and programs to alleviate the effects of repeated deployments.
In the meantime, we have issued temporary guidelines stipulating that military personnel returning from a deployment overseas or to an isolated region should not be sent on another such posting for 18 months.
In May 2001 the operational stress injuries social support project was launched in partnership with Veterans Affairs Canada. Its purpose is to develop and establish social support programs for members, veterans and their families who are affected by operational stress injuries and to provide education and training within the Canadian Forces to promote understanding and acceptance of such injuries.
Project staff are working on a national peer support network for members, veterans and their families. They are also working with our military and civilian health care professionals on the validation of educational packages and pre-deployment training modules. They have been given a mandate to work on changing attitudes and perceptions toward operational stress injuries.
These initiatives, together with other quality of life improvements implemented by my predecessor, represent concrete actions taken to invest in our people and their well-being.
We took a new step when the 800 soldiers returned from Afghanistan. They spent a few days in Guam along the way. This was a novel approach that is leading edge. My British counterpart, for example, has asked for information about how we conducted these operations to minimize transit stress related disorders.
While all of this is positive, the problem lies in the fact that some of these improvements in quality of life, which I congratulate my predecessor for implementing, were in part funded from the capital budget. While no one should question the value of the quality of life improvements, clearly we cannot mortgage our future by reducing our capital budget. We need funding for both.
To those who suggest we should spend our money on people but not on equipment, let me remind the House that when we send our men and women in uniform into harm's way, we have a duty to ensure they are well equipped. We have a responsibility to equip them for success.
Will we need more funding? The answer to this will likely still be “yes”. I have been completely frank in admitting that the Department of National Defence and the Canadian Forces are experiencing major financial constraints.
At the same time, it must be kept in mind that the government has increased its allocations for defence. And the amount is considerable: over $5 billion more between 2001-02 and 2006-07.
It is my job to see that these additional resources are used in the best way to ensure value for money.
This is the reason I feel it is important for us to examine all potential savings and to invest wisely in the capacity to face the future.
In the interests of the security of Canadian citizens, we must seek to reallocate resources from sectors that are no longer essential to those that will be required in future. We will also ensure that the Canadian Forces become a more modern and more sustainable institution.
I encourage members of the House to avoid dramatic overstatements and fearmongering. Painting the current state of the Canadian Forces in dramatic and even apocalyptic terms is unproductive at best. I hope I have made it clear to the House that as Minister of National Defence I am well aware of the challenges we face in this department. I am committed to working with all parliamentarians and my government colleagues to find solutions to those challenges.
If I take issue with the dramatic way in which the current state of the Canadian Forces is portrayed, including by members of the opposition, it is because this portrayal fails to recognize the tremendous accomplishments of the Canadian Forces in recent years.
There are many good news stories about the Canadian Forces. Let us ensure they are not overlooked by an obsessive focus on the challenges. From Bosnia, East Timor, Sierra Leone, Ethiopia, Eritrea to Afghanistan, the Canadian Forces continue to go where they are needed. They continue to demonstrate the strong sense of duty, courage and professionalism for which they have gained international renown.
I consider it an honour and a privilege to serve as Minister of National Defence. I believe that with the position comes a duty to the people of Canada and to the men and women of the Canadian Forces who dedicate themselves to defending this country. That duty is to ensure that the Canadian Forces remain the multipurpose combat capable force we need to defend Canada and North America, and to make a significant contribution to international peace and security. It is a duty I fully intend to uphold.