Mr. Speaker, I rise on behalf of the people of Okanagan—Coquihalla to speak to Bill S-18, an act to amend the National Defence Act. Of course this follows the government agenda as we have heard the parliamentary secretary speak about soft power. In this debate I want to make sure that we also do not lose sight of the fact that in order for soft power to work, we have to make sure that we maintain our military and have hard military assets available to use when needed.
Bill S-18 amends the National Defence Act by preventing the Canadian armed forces from deploying a person under the age of 18 to a theatre of hostilities. This is a personal thing for me and maybe for you too, Mr. Speaker. I joined the Canadian armed forces when I was 17 years old. I was an ordinary seaman in the Canadian navy. I think my hon. friend Mr. Speaker was an ordinary seaman as well. I enjoyed that experience in the Canadian armed forces and in particular in the navy.
Usually it takes about a year to train a 17 year old to a combat capable standard. In my case I think it was at least a year. The point I want to make is that my ship was deployed to Vietnam. In 1974 the HMCS Gatineau was on its way to oversee the removal of American troops as part of that UN mission. Unfortunately I was in Halifax on marine electrical training and had two weeks left on course so I was not able to go. When I came back to Esquimalt, from where my ship was being deployed, I had to go on another ship that was in refit, the HMCS Kootenay . I will never forget it.
It was a very depressing time in my life because in my eyes, at just 18 years of age, I was ready to go. I wanted to serve my country and be part of that. Therefore I have a special interest in this bill.
I want to make the point that the Canadian Alliance does support the spirit of the bill. We support the idea that it is unthinkable, especially now that I am 44, that we would agree to send a 17 year old into hostilities.
The intent of Bill S-18 is to strengthen Canada's position with respect to the optional protocol to the convention on the rights of children on the involvement of children in armed conflict which was finalized by the United Nations working group in January 2000. The optional protocol is intended to address issues of child soldiers, those children in less developed countries who are often sent into battle as soon as they are able to lift a weapon. Although I support the concept and the spirit of the bill, I wonder, and I think Canadians are probably asking themselves, how do we enforce this and make it work?
In 1994 I had the opportunity to travel with the special joint committee to Bosnia and Croatia. That was at the height of the war. The experience there was that entire villages were being attacked by militia groups and ethnic groups. Ethnic cleansing was going on. Oftentimes young men were taken out and they and their families were killed. Or the other circumstances were that the militia would come in, take the young men and tell them they were now in the army. That situation is one of fight or die. I just wonder if the government has really thought this one through.
It is interesting also that the government would introduce this bill in the dying days of this session of parliament. The designation S on the bill denotes that the bill is from the Senate; it is not from the House of Commons. The Senate is the place of sober second thought when it comes to looking at legislation. Senators are not really there to write legislation and introduce it for us to debate, but here we are tonight. I simply make the observation that if the government had as its number one priority only to allow people who were 18 years old and over to go into an area of conflict, probably the Minister of National Defence would have introduced the bill.
The parliamentary secretary also mentioned that approximately 1,000 16 and 17 year olds join the Canadian armed forces through the reserve or the regular force. I know he cannot answer a question, but I want him to think about this issue. If we have limited resources in the Canadian armed forces, which everyone knows we do, why would we put our efforts into training 16 and 17 year olds for combat missions?
The parliamentary secretary did point out that they are trained in the medical fields, they are trained as mechanics and they are trained in all kinds of support positions. The fact is those support positions go into combat. Let us look at our history in Croatia and Bosnia. During the battle of the Medak pocket in Croatia, the worst firefight that Canadian soldiers have witnessed since the Korean war, 50% of those people were reservists.
We have limited resources. This bill has been introduced through the back door, through the Senate. The government has a history since 1993 of cutting defence expenditures and reducing the number of personnel. I really wonder, and Canadians do too, if this is really a priority of the federal Liberal government.
It is really motherhood and apple pie, is it not? Would we rather see our 16 and 17 year old in schools or going off to Bosnia, Croatia, Kosovo or somewhere else? Of course every member in this House is going to support this initiative. Sure we are.
The hair stands up on the back of my neck when I see a government that has a history since 1993 of not supporting our Canadian armed forces. Now it is supporting a bill to ensure that people cannot get into the armed forces if they have a desire to. Enough said on that issue.
That we are talking about youth and the Canadian armed forces gives me the wonderful opportunity to tell Canadians about one of the most fantastic programs Canada has. It is the cadet program.
The aims of the Canadian cadet program are to develop in youth the attributes of good citizenship and leadership, to promote physical fitness and to stimulate the interest of Canadian youth in the land, sea and air elements of the Canadian armed forces. It is a unique program. No other country in the world has a program like it. It is a partnership between the Department of National Defence and civilian organizations, such as the Air Cadet League of Canada, the Sea Cadet League of Canada, the Navy League of Canada and the Army League of Canada.
As a matter of fact, for five years I had the distinct privilege of being a commanding officer and I started a cadet program in my hometown of Summerland, British Columbia. That organization was an air cadet corps and had the privilege of being sponsored by the Kiwanis Club of Summerland. Currently I am trying to start a sea cadet corps in Penticton, another town in my riding. Another civilian organization, the Army, Navy, Air Force Association of Penticton has said it will financially support the sea cadets in Penticton.
The cadet program is a fabulous way for Canadian youth to get experience about the Canadian armed forces. It is not a way to recruit young people into the armed forces. It is very separate from that. It has a very distinct and different approach to how it attracts young people between the ages of 12 and 19.
These cadets participate in mandatory weekly training. There are 1,140 sea, army and air cadet squadrons for coast to coast to coast. This means that there are over 54,000 cadets in Canada. Each squadron is led by a group of officers who are usually but not always employed in other professions. I was in the advertising profession, but for five years I worked part time as a commanding officer of an air cadet squadron.
Here is another area where I think the government is failing Canadians. This is a fabulous program. The government should be putting more money and resources into cadet training. It should also be looking very closely at the issue of these officers. There are some 4,500 cadet instructors-cadre officers in Canada. In fact the parliamentary secretary can check this, but I am sure it will be found that out of the officer corps in the Canadian armed forces there are more officers in this segment of the armed forces than any other.
It is quite a responsibility to step up to the plate and be a real supporter of youth projects in this way. They are responsible for safety, supervision, administration and the training of cadets.
I wanted to bring this issue forward because there are so very few times that we have an opportunity to talk about the cadet program and that wonderful interaction between the Canadian armed forces and the youth of the country. It is very important.
I mentioned earlier that the Liberal government had failed the Canadian armed forces since it took office in 1993. While Bill S-18 protects our youth by not subjecting them to combat situations, the Liberal government has failed to protect those over 18 in the Canadian armed forces and reserves through its shameful treatment and inadequate funding of the Canadian armed forces.
The defence budget cuts is a prime example. We can look at that over the last seven years. The Liberal government has pursued a defence policy that has stripped the Canadian armed forces of much of its combat capability. The Liberal government slashed defence spending 24% to just over $9 billion, far below that which was recommended by the special joint committee. Less money, less personnel, less equipment, less training, and ultimately less combat capability.
The government side will argue that there was an increase in defence spending in the last budget, but the fact is all that defence increase did was maintain the status quo. The people at national defence headquarters were talking about putting some of our brand new frigates alongside, shutting them down, taking the crew off and sending them home. They were talking about reducing the size of the army and reducing the size of the reserves. All the increase in the last budget did for the Canadian armed forces was to maintain the status quo.
The Canadian armed forces needs an injection of about $2 billion to meet some of its current objectives. The Conference of Defence Associations said that the Canadian army was only combat capable at the company level, which is about 150 troops. That is very serious.
Another problem we are facing is rust out of our equipment in the Canadian armed forces. Last year the auditor general determined that equipment requirements of the Canadian Armed Forces exceeded the planned budget by $4.5 billion. We only have to look at the situation with the replacement of the Sea King helicopter.
In fact today in the House a report was tabled by the Standing Committee on National Defence and Veterans Affairs. One of the recommendations is that government finalize its procurement strategy and proceed immediately to tender a contract for the replacement of the Sea King helicopter.
I am proud of that report because it was a unanimous report. It was agreed to by all members of the committee on which I sit as vice-chair. It is very important, but let us look at the government's record. Its white paper in 1994 promised and made it policy in 1994 that the Sea King helicopter would be replaced by the year 2000.
From my recollection we are now six months into the year 2000 and to date not even the statement of requirements for the new Sea King helicopter has been issued to the industry that needs to look at it. It must compete for the tender. It probably has 12 to 18 months work just on the contract alone before it gets to actually delivering a Sea King. It will take some three years just to do that.
The government has revised its white paper commitment to the Canadian people. It now says that it will be 2005 before it will be able to meet its commitment to replace the Sea King. All the while young Canadians are flying those machines. It is no joke when we hear the people who train the Sea King helicopter pilots say that the rule of thumb is only to fly them as high as one wants to fall. That is not funny. That is a desperate situation that has been created by the Liberal government.
By the year 2005 those machines will be over 40 years old. The Sea Kings are just one example. The chief of defence staff issued his annual report. There are three pages of priorities for replacing equipment. It just goes on and on.
I know I only have 40 minutes tonight. I do not want to take up the whole time because other members want to speak to the issue, but it is an important enough issue that we must talk about it.
The Canadian armed forces is also faced with the new changing world of technology and what is called the integrated battlefield as we face the costs related to the revolution of military affairs, the RMA. The Canadian armed forces must do it. Otherwise it will be left behind.
We do not operate as a single force when we go into Kosovo or other theatres of operation. We go in as part of an international group usually through NATO or the UN. We must be interoperable. We must make sure we can talk to the people. We must make sure that we have the best equipment.
This is one of the points we heard reported on in Kosovo with our CF-18 pilots. They did a great job. They did the best job they could with the equipment they had, but let us face it. The onboard computers in our CF-18s have been compared to a Commodore 64 computer. Did any member ever have a Commodore 64? It is old stuff. The CF-18s did not have night vision.
We put our fine pilots in peril each and every time we send them on a mission. Yes, they did a great job, but that is not the point. If we are to send young people out on dangerous missions, we had better give them the best possible equipment we can. We in the House have an obligation to ensure that happens.
Another area is the national missile defence program. The Liberals are waffling on this issue. It is vital for Canada to support the establishment of an effective NMD system for North America.
It is required for three reasons. The first is to maintain the effectiveness of NORAD, one of our very important bilateral defence agreements with our closest ally, the U.S.A. The second is to counter ballistic missile threats from rogue states armed with weapons of mass destruction. The international community has recognized that ballistic missiles are now a threat to North America. The third is to ensure that Canadian companies can benefit from future contracts to develop and improve this system.
Some would argue that the missile defence system will break the 1972 ABM treaty. I would submit that ballistic missiles are as much a threat to Russians as they are to Americans. The Americans have said on several occasions that technology would be shared. The cold war is over. There is no reason these type of things cannot be shared. It is not star wars. The deployment of such a system would not destabilize a strategic balance between the United States and Russia. The Liberal government is failing to protect Canada's vital interest in ensuring the continued effectiveness of NORAD.
Another reason it is very important is that 90% of all Canadians live within 500 kilometres of the U.S. border. If the United States says that ballistic missiles are a threat to U.S. security, they are also, by extension, a threat to Canadians and Canadian security. We must be a part of that agreement.
I know hon. members across the way are wanting to go home tonight and I know that this is very important meaty stuff. I have but a few more pages to relay to the government before we close off and I know other members want to speak.
Let us talk about the reserves. In Service of the Nation: Canada's Citizen Soldiers for the 21st Century is more commonly known as the Fraser report just released last week. Speaker Fraser used to sit in the House of Commons. He is a very well respected person on military and environmental matters and an honorary colonel of one of the units in British Columbia.
Mr. Fraser states that the militia is currently at less than 60% of the strength that was directed by the Liberal government in the 1994 white paper. It is less than 60% of the strength that was promised by the Liberal government to Canadians in its 1994 defence white paper. The Liberals proposed 23,000 by 1999, of which 18,500 were militia. The militia is the army reserves. Now the numbers equal less than 14,500 in the militia, far lower than what was promised by the government.
Of all Canada's allies, excluding Iceland and Luxembourg, Canada has the smallest reserve force. Most of our allies maintain reserve forces several times that of their regular forces. I will give the House some examples. Belgium, with a population of 10 million, has a regular force of 41,000 and a reserve force of 152,000 people. Canada, with a population of 30 million, has a regular force of 58,000 and a reserve force of 32,000. That number includes the supplementary ready reserve list, people long retired from military service who once a year go in for a medical and make sure their uniforms still fit.
That is pretty pathetic, especially when we consider that if Canada were ever forced into a situation where it would have to mobilize its troops and respond to an international crisis with a large number of trained combat capable soldiers, we would not be able to do it. Canada has a four point mobilization plan, but it could not get past point number two in the four point plan. No concrete mobilization plan has been put together by the government.
In conclusion, while Bill S-18 protects our youth by not subjecting them to combat situations, from an international point of view it is impossible to enforce. What is truly embarrassing and a real shame is the fact that the Liberal government has failed to protect those over 18 in the Canadian armed forces and reserves through its treatment of inadequate funding of the Canadian armed forces.