Canada's massive military budget is off the table in federal election

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Among many substantive issues not discussed during campaign 2011 is the $23 billion Canada now spends on war, a massive investment that all three major federal parties will maintain if elected.

Add in the ongoing costs of the Afghanistan war plus undisclosed funding for Canada's bombardment of Libya (well over 200 aerial bombing runs and aerial "sorties" to date), and the $23 billion figure may run higher.

To put this in perspective, slightly more than $63 million a day is spent on Canada's war machine. That's the daily equivalent of 420 affordable housing units or 3,000 four-year full-tuition grants for university students. Over the course of a month, that's 13,000 affordable housing units and 90,000 students going to university without massive debt load.

It is in this context that politicians preaching fiscal restraint and support for burdened families continue proffering blind allegiance to a well-funded institution whose leadership, past and present, has always been clear: in the words of former General Rick Hillier, their role is to kill people.

While many young people join the military because they believe they're contributing to society (in addition to those who simply need the income or an education), there are other ways for them to live out those aspirations without having to pick up a gun and face the choice of killing or being killed.

But those other choices are not part of the dominant parties' platforms. (By contrast, the Green Party would reduce war spending to the then historically high 2005 levels, the Bloc has criticized high war spending but is not specific in its plans, and the Communist Party would reduce military spending by 75 per cent).

In the case of the NDP, it's likely that many supporters are unaware of their party's willingness to choose guns over butter. After all, the NDP is traditionally seen as the place where anti-war activists park their vote, and the strongest anti-war statements usually come from its MPs, who often speak at peace rallies. But most NDP MPs have long accepted the framework of ever increasing amounts of war funding.

Why focus on the NDP when they are the party that appears closest to social movements? The answer would hopefully be self-evident, inasmuch as the party relies on them for election workers and funding, yet appears to ignore them by developing policy that's aimed at some mythic "middle of the road Canada."

This is not news to anyone who has followed the party's growing acceptance of militarism, especially under Jack Layton's leadership.

The NDP endorsed a 2002 Parliamentary Committee's call for increasing military spending a full 50 per cent (which would mean $28 billion per year by the end of 2010, and we're almost there). That was the same year NDP MPs began joining their colleagues in a unique indoctrination program called the Canadian Forces Parliamentary Program, which "embeds" MPs in war training exercises where, according to a report in Canadian Parliamentary Review, they "learn how the equipment works, they train with the troops, and they deploy with their units on operations. Parliamentarians are integrated into the unit by wearing the same uniform, living on bases, eating in messes, using CF facilities and equipment."

In May 2005, the NDP supported the Paul Martin 2005 Liberal budget. Hailed as Canada's "First NDP budget," it sported the largest military spending increase in 20 years, making Canada's war budget higher than at any time since the end of World War II.

When the infamous NDP-Liberal-Bloc coalition came together in December 2008, the issue of withdrawal from Afghanistan was suddenly "off the table." And as NATO generals recently called for increased bombing of Libya despite rising civilian casualties, there was silence from the campaign trail.

Shortly after my concerns were posted on Jack Layton's Facebook page, I received a phone call from the NDP's Ottawa-based "war room," a thoroughly insulting moniker to anyone who has actually experienced the horror of war as civilian or soldier (why not a "torture room" or a "pillage room" to make further light of those subjects?). A campaign worker, to his credit, wanted to dialogue, but noted that if Jack Layton were to discuss military cuts, he would be hurt in mainstream media coverage and by the perceptions of "average Canadians."

While this line did not surprise me -- it is used by every political party facing the choice of taking a principled stand or following backroom advisers wholly insulated from the electorate -- it certainly is not in sync with this spring's Leger Marketing report that revealed almost 60 per cent of those polled declared "Canada should take a peace dividend and cut back on military spending to focus on other more pressing social issues at home." Despite a decade of endless military propaganda, "Red Friday" support the troops rallies, yellow ribbons, and a seriously weak Canadian peace movement, such numbers are remarkable.

Those numbers have not changed substantively in over a decade: a 2000 Maclean's poll found 75 per cent of Canadians chose housing over updating the military, with only 19 per cent favouring the latter. This followed the military's mythic "decade of darkness," the Chretien years of massive social program cuts that barely touched military spending, which never dipped below $10 billion. Indeed, the mid-1990s saw reports on military warehouses overflowing with weaponry, and between 1980 and 2000, Canada invested over a quarter of a trillion dollars in war.

As Canadian bombers prepared to unleash their fury on Yugoslavia in 1999, the Globe and Mail reported that "The Canadian Forces can hurl more raw firepower at a potential enemy today than they could during the Persian Gulf War... Since the gulf war, all three services have increased their 'combat capability' (the wherewithal to inflict heavy damage on the enemy), said Major-General Kenneth Pennie, director-general of strategic planning for the Canadian Forces. The equipment includes new frigates for the navy, armoured vehicles for the army and high-tech 'smart' bombs for the air force. Given the improved accuracy, Gen. Pennie said, 'we find that some conventional weapons can be more useful than nuclear weapons.'"

At that time, homelessness had recently been declared a national emergency, and while then Liberal war minister Art Eggleton was asked how Canada could afford the bombing of Yugoslavia, he replied "It's obviously something that the government of Canada will cover." Yet a week later, the Toronto Star reported "(Federal minister responsible for homelessness) Bradshaw's spokesperson said yesterday there are no plans to put more money into affordable housing."

This is a problem with historic roots: there's always money for war, regardless of how bare the cupboard might be. The refusal to challenge a Canadian institution and ask fundamental questions about why it is needed, and how it fails to contribute to a civil society, is frustrating to say the least.

And so, despite the perception of the NDP as a natural choice for voters concerned about peace, the NDP simply proposes moving the chess pieces around without asking why we're still playing the same old deadly game. Indeed, we are reassured that the NDP opposes the F-35 fighter jets. Fair enough. But that money would instead be spent on the navy's warships, the same ones on which numerous NDP MPs have found themselves embedded over the past decade.

While this sounds like a benign alternative, it ignores the fact that Canadian warships have contributed more misery than the Canadian bombings missions of the past 25 years. Indeed, during the 1990s, Canada's navy spent over $1 billion in the enforcement of devastating sanctions that killed over 1.5 million Iraqi people. In the 2003 invasion of Iraq that myth-makers have tried to convince us Canada was not involved in, the Canadian Navy played a key role in escorting the U.S. warships launching cruise missiles and bombing runs. There are few clearer examples of aiding and abetting the murder of Iraqis than this.

Canadian warships are also dangerous. The HMCS Fredericton, for example, the "Stalker of the Seas," boasts weapons which fire 4,500 rounds of ammunition a minute, Harpoon missiles that can "deliver" a 227 kg warhead to a range in excess of 130 km and a Bofors gun, "capable of firing 2.4 kg shells at a rate of 220 rounds/min at a range of more than 17 km." Not most people's idea of peaceful conflict resolution.

But pointing out such things fails to burst the NDP's bubble. They would put the military to work on "peacekeeping" and humanitarian relief, helping after disasters, and flood cleanup. But those are all civilian functions that one need not have training in the art of killing to perform.

"We need to support our military," my local NDP candidate pleads, a phrase used ad nauseum that reduces one of Canada's best-funded federal programs to the status of a fragile flower whose petals could fall off at any moment. Can we not look forward to the day when "need to support" is used in support of daycare, women's programs, education, an end to poverty?

While space does not allow an exploration of the myth of Canada's potential for peacekeeping -- something which was always a cleverly disguised bit of cover for the west's Cold War aims -- it is important to point out as well that the NDP's proposal to use the military to do the work that used to be handled in conflict zones by NGOs makes the latter's work all the more difficult, since it blurs the distinction between armed parties and civil society, putting NGO workers at risk.

After pointing out all these reasons why I could not support the NDP, my friend at the NDP war room pleaded with me for my support. How can I vote for bloodshed and misery, I asked, whether it is delivered from the skies, from a warship, or through the hunger that millions will suffer to pay for all this?

Ultimately, it comes down to a choice: will we continue to choose the path of the gun, so successful that over 100 million lives were lost as a result during the 20th century (which excludes the millions who died because all the funds they needed to sustain life were sent to the war departments of the world)? Or will we seek another way? So far, those with any hope of forming the next government have made their unfortunate choices clear.

Matthew Behrens is an Ontario social justice advocate and freelance writer.

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