The defence policy statement released this week was noteworthy for supporters of Canada’s reserve forces for at least two reasons.
Not only was it the first statement of defence policy since the Second World War to make more than a passing reference to part-time service, but it proposes to expand that cost-effective capability. Sadly, while this is so very welcome, the resources allocated to achieve it are totally absent for the next two critical years.
The statement earmarks no new funding for the reserves until 2019, after the next election of course, and by that time with no new money the long slide in effective strength that has plagued reserve units since Canada’s withdrawal from Afghanistan will have destroyed some units — something the German Army failed to do in two world wars.
Indeed, this year most Army Reserve units have been allocated budgets that are 10 to 20% smaller than last year’s.
The long night of suffering experienced by reserve units, especially those of the Army Reserve, resulted from years of over centralization of personnel and training policies that robbed units of one of their greatest assets, namely the flexibility to apply local solutions to the myriad problems of attracting, enrolling, training and retaining young Canadian citizen soldiers.
There has never been a problem of interest on the part of citizen soldiers but there certainly was a lack of empathy by their full-time masters. The Afghanistan experience started to change that as the Regular Army found it could not sustain the mission without substantial augmentation. For most of the years Canada was in Afghanistan up to 20% of all personnel deployed were reservists.
Building on this experience and with political encouragement the senior leadership of the Canadian Armed Forces initiated plans to reverse the decline in the Primary Reserve. In October 2015 the then newly appointed Chief of the Defence Staff, Gen. Jon Vance, signed an implementation instruction calling for an increase of 1,500 Primary Reservists and ordered a revamp of suffocating centralized policies to better suit citizen soldiers and their Navy and Air Force equivalents.
The potential to prosper was further boosted by a new Commander Canadian Army, Lt.-Gen. Paul Wynnyk, who is on record as saying that the Army Reserve is one of his two top priorities, the other being the NATO mission in Latvia.
While promises of change were made many times in the past, Wynnyk has actually delivered, beginning with the return on the 1st of April of authority to recruit and enroll to Army Reserve units. Many of the other good things promised, such as full summer employment, are also the result of his understanding of the issues and his determination to provide workable solutions.
But without more money the Army Reserve will remain under strength and today is short over 4,000 trained soldiers. To achieve the goals it has set for the Primary Reserve the Government must provide more money now. Otherwise this policy statement will be as unhelpful to reservists as the others of the last 75 years.
Retired lieutenant-colonel John Selkirk, a former infantry officer, served over 20 years in the regular army, 12 years in the army reserve and nine years as an honorary lieutenant-colonel and honorary colonel. He is currently executive director of Reserves 2000, a national alliance of Canadians dedicated to furthering the army reserve and citizen soldiers.