Facing foreign conflicts, domestic disasters, Canada's top soldier worries about readiness

Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Wayne Eyre, shown in Ottawa in May, says with demands on Canada's military increasing both at home and abroad, he's concerned about equipment and personnel shortages. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Wayne Eyre, shown in Ottawa in May, says with demands on Canada's military increasing both at home and abroad, he's concerned about equipment and personnel shortages. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Wayne Eyre says he's worried about the Canadian Armed Forces' readiness as it faces pressure both from the conflict in Ukraine and the need to respond to natural disasters at home.

In an interview on Rosemary Barton Live on Sunday, Eyre said the two issues represented "strong demands on both sides" and, given issues with equipment and personnel shortages, he was "concerned about our overall readiness."

"Our national prosperity is underpinned by our ability to defend the rules-based international order. But our national prosperity is also underpinned by our ability to fight these disasters at home," he said.

"I'm concerned about our ability to respond at scale at [the] speed required. And so we're working on addressing elements of our readiness, whether it's people, whether it's training, whether it's equipment ... everything else that makes us able to respond with the right size and the right speed."

Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Canada has sent substantial quantities of military equipment to help the Ukrainian armed forces, much of it coming from stockpiles meant for the Canadian military. Additionally, the military has raised concerns about its ability to recruit new members — influenced by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and sexual misconduct scandals — and is facing personnel shortages.

WATCH | Top soldier discusses pressures of disaster relief, foreign conflicts: 

Defence Minister Anita Anand said in an interview on Rosemary Barton Live last week that all NATO countries need to strike a balance between shipping weapons to the front lines in Ukraine and making sure Canada's own forces are well-enough equipped to be able to respond.

"This is front and centre on my mind," she said.

Asked whether he was concerned about the replenishment of the forces' equipment, Eyre replied on Sunday: "I sure do."

"We need to replace our existing stocks with a sense of urgency, and we need to continue to support Ukraine with that same sense of urgency," Eyre said.

Ukraine has repeatedly said it needs all the weapons it can get to fight off the Russian attack, as Ukrainian forces recapture some territory in the country's east and south. In an interview on Rosemary Barton Live airing Sunday, Yuriy Sak, an adviser to Ukraine's defence minister, reiterated the need for equipment.

"Regardless of how much we receive, we need more. But we understand that our allies at the moment understand our needs very well. And this is why the domestic defence industry, enterprises and plants, they are now beginning to be geared toward the future needs of the Ukrainian army."

A dedicated disaster relief force?

Eyre also responded on Sunday to the question of whether Canada should create a dedicated disaster relief force, a key question in the wake of post-tropical storm Fiona. About 700 CAF members are currently on the ground helping with cleanup in several Atlantic provinces, Eyre confirmed.

He said the CAF would always be the "ultimate insurance policy" in case of disaster, but he noted that "with the increasing frequency and intensity of natural disasters, there's more capacity that's required."

Vaughan Merchant/The Canadian Press
Vaughan Merchant/The Canadian Press

Members of the military told MPs earlier this week that the forces were having trouble meeting recruitment goals and were short as many as 10,000 people.

The chief of the defence staff suggested that giving municipal and provincial governments additional resources would allow them to more effectively respond to natural disasters on their own — but even with that, Eyre said he anticipates the military would still be involved in providing relief as disasters become more frequent and severe.

In interviews on CBC Radio's The House, which aired on Saturday, experts were split on the need for a separate force. Retired lieutenant-general Guy Thibault, former vice-chief of the defence staff and current chair of the Conference of Defence Associations Institute, agreed with the need to boost the capacity to respond at lower levels of government.

Peter Kikkert, assistant professor of public policy and governance at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S., argued in favour of a permanent, paid civilian workforce that could be trained in a variety of adaptation and response needs.

LISTEN | The need for a dedicated disaster relief force:

"That kind of permanent paid workforce, I think that would attract a lot of people who maybe would like to kind of serve in this kind of domestic entity but are not interested in the other kind of responsibilities that come with joining the armed forces," he said.

Anand said earlier this week that while the CAF is being called on more frequently, "our ability to co-ordinate with provincial and local organizations is becoming increasingly effective and efficient, and at this time the system is working well."

Eyre also said the military would soon be putting out a revised policy for COVID-19 vaccinations. The military has the last remaining federal vaccine mandate after the government suspended other mandates this summer.