The Canadian Military

Protected by close alliances with the world’s dominant superpowers — first Britain, then America — Canada has not historically felt the need to develop a particularly large military for itself. At about 50,000 strong, less than half a per cent of Canadians are currently enlisted in their country’s armed forces, and among NATO members, only tiny Luxembourg spends less of its GDP on defence.

Nevertheless, the Canadian military remains a proud national symbol just the same. For more than a century, Canadian troops have helped carry out Canadian foreign policy objectives all over the world — whether through combat or peacekeeping — and gratitude for military service is an ingrained part of Canadian culture. The defining challenge of the Canadian armed forces has always been finding a unique and useful function to fill, however, and that struggle continues to this day.

History of the Canadian Military

For much of Canada’s early history as a British colony, there was little interest in creating a strong domestic military force. British troops still occupied much of Canada, and everyone assumed they always would. This ended in 1871, when Britain and the United States signed the Treaty of Washington as part of an effort to secure lasting peace and trust between the two former rivals. As part of the deal, the U.K. agreed to withdraw all imperial troops from North America. Suddenly, Canada was forced to carry the burden of its own self-defense.

The first Canadian militia, known as the Royal Canadian Regiment, was established in 1883 with a mandate to both protect the homeland and defend British interests abroad, which it did in the South African War (1899-1902), Canada’s first overseas conflict. It was followed in 1910 by the creation of the Royal Canadian Navy. When Britain demanded colonial support for its war against Germany in World War I (1914-1918), many new Canadian militias were quickly cobbled together in response, and a total of more than 425,000 Canadian soldiers were eventually sent to Europe, in what was called the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF).

After the war, Canadian secured foreign policy independence from Britain, but the militias were quickly sent back to Europe once Canada decided (independently!) to back the British side in World War II (1939-1945). It was during the war that Canada’s armed forces finally became organized more like a traditional military, and in 1942 the Canadian Army was officially founded. The army underwent more restructuring in the 1950s and 1960s, eventually culminating in the creation of a single unified Canadian military known as the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) in 1968.

Structure of the Canadian Military

Like the militaries of most countries, the Canadian Armed Forces are divided into three specialized branches: the Canadian Army, the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN), and the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF). Unlike most countries, however, these branches are all unified under a single leadership structure headed by a single commander known as the Chief of the Defence Staff, currently General J.H. Vance (b. 1964), who reports directly to the prime minister of Canada. Known as unification, the idea of combining all branches of the military under a single hierarchy was part of a controversial plan to help streamline the country’s small military in the most efficient and cost-effective way possible. Today, it results in phenomena such as joint training for new recruits, and commanding officers who are promoted from one branch to another.

The Three Branches

The Canadian Army

Canada’s traditional land force consists of around 123,00 regulars (full-time soldiers) plus another 17,000 in reserve (part-time) service. The oldest and largest branch of the Canadian armed forces, the army consists of 419 units, some of which trace their roots back to the old militia days.

The Royal Canadian Air Force

Given Canada is such a gigantic country, maintaining a large air force has long been considered the most logical way to ensure domestic security. The RCAF consists of 13,000 regulars and 2,400 reserves who are spread out in 10 bases across Canada. Most of the country’s 300 or so aircraft are U.S.-made.

The Royal Canadian Navy

The Canadian Navy now consists of 8,300 regulars, 4,600 reserves and 29 warships. Although the Canadian Navy maintains active operations around the world to help assist the country’s land forces, in practice Canada’s sea forces serves mostly as a patrol and rescue force, similar to the Coast Guard of most nations.

Divisions and Units

When in service, members of the three branches of the Canadian Forces operate together under three larger Operational Command units, each of which exists to tackle a different realm of responsibility. The main one, the Canadian Joint Operations Command (CJOC), is responsible for domestic security and overseas missions, while the Canadian Special Forces Command (CANSOFCOM) is the country’s elite special ops unit, and the Canadian Forces Intelligence Command (CFINTCOM) does reconnaissance and mapping missions.

Distinct from Canada’s main military hierarchy is the North American Aerospace Defence Command, or NORAD, which is a joint U.S.-Canadian program to monitor and protect the security of North American airspace. A testament to continental military cooperation that dates back to the Cold War (1945-1990), NORAD has several bases in both Canada and the United States, featuring members of both the Canadian Forces and the American Air Force under joint U.S.-Canadian command.

Canada does not maintain any permanent military bases outside of Canada itself.

Canadian troops in Afghanistan's Panjwa'i District, 2010.
Sgt Daren Kraus/DND-MDN Canada

Contemporary Debates and Controversies

The Cold War was an era of unprecedented military expansion for the United States, which provoked a relatively stand-offish attitude towards military policy in Canada. Safe under the umbrella of American protection as guaranteed by the NORAD alliance, successive Ottawa administrations viewed their country’s armed forces as a low priority at best, and a waste of money at worst. Sceptical government attitudes towards military spending became particularly pronounced during the deficit-conscious, budget-slashing 1990s, which, even today, some soldiers sneeringly describe as the “dark decade.” Lurid media stories of Canadian soldiers wearing bright jungle-green uniforms on desert battlefields and decrepit air force helicopters that required two hours of repair for every hour they spent in the air became familiar clichés.

The events of September 11, 2001 and the subsequent “War on Terror” that saw Canadian troops deployed to fight against Islamist terrorist groups in Afghanistan (2002-2011), is usually seen as helping reverse a trend of military ambivalence in favour of a new era in which the armed forces once again played a large role in Canadian foreign policy — and the public imagination. For a time, the Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper (b. 1959, served 2006-2015) emphasized a commitment to increased military funding, but once the Afghanistan conflict ended the armed forces once again became viewed as a costly expenditure worth cutting to ensure balanced budgets.

The question of what kind of military Canada needs — and how much it should it cost — is ultimately bound to one’s opinion on the larger purpose of Canadian foreign policy. Those who believe Canada should maintain an aggressive stance against foreign terrorists and rogue states will naturally see a strong, well-equipped military as one of the necessary components of giving Canada the capacity to act on its convictions. Those who would like to see the country play a lesser role in international conflicts, by contrast, and focus more on humanitarian causes and peacekeeping, will be more inclined to favour a smaller and leaner armed forces and be critical of military spending. To a large degree, this debate is one of the sharper left/right polarizations within the modern Canadian party system.