One of Canada’s former top soldiers says he worries a federal government looking to slash spending once the time comes to rein in the coronavirus deficit could look to the military as an “easy” target.
In an interview with The West Block‘s Mercedes Stephenson, retired Gen. Rick Hillier — who will be leading Ontario’s vaccine distribution effort — said even as the military ramps up to help roll out vaccines across the country, he is already hearing concerns they could see cuts in the years that follow.
“I’d be lying if I said I weren’t worried because, yeah, it’s crossed my mind numerous times,” said Hiller when asked whether he thinks the government could look to cut spending by slashing military budgets.
“The word out of Ottawa, of course, always is, ‘No, we’re going to prosecute and we’re going to finance the strategy that we’ve laid out for the Canadian Armed Forces.’ I hope that is the case,” he continued.
“I hope that we don’t look to the armed forces as an easy source of money to help balance our financial spreadsheet in the years to come.”
The federal Liberals in 2017 unveiled a major new defence plan that they billed as a way to modernize the Canadian Forces for a new era of cyber warfare and pledged to boost current defence spending by 70 per cent within a decade to a total of $33 billion.
However, the coronavirus pandemic led the government to an unprecedented spending program that shovelled out billions of dollars in benefits for workers, businesses, caregivers and others struggling as the country shut down earlier this year.
Shifting levels of public health restrictions have kept businesses and individuals locked in a cycle of uncertainty over recent months as the second wave of the pandemic intensifies.
The federal government cancelled plans for a budget in March 2020 and instead presented what it billed as a “fiscal snapshot” in the summer, which pegged the deficit at $343 billion.
At the end of September, Parliamentary Budget Officer Yves Giroux forecast the deficit will be closer to $330 billion, and has repeatedly warned that the level of spending is “unsustainable” beyond one or two years. But so far, the government has provided no indication of how it plans to rein in spending, nor a timeline of any sort for doing so.
Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland has said the spending will be “limited” but that the high levels of spending are necessary to prevent further economic harm to Canadians.
She is scheduled to present a fiscal update on Monday.
The update will come as the government continues to face questions about its plan for rolling out vaccines, and mounting pressure to provide clearer timeframes about when people will get it.
Coronavirus: The challenges in distributing vaccines
Public health officials have said in recent weeks the first doses are expected to arrive early in the new year, between January and March, and will see roughly three million front-line health workers and first responders, as well as high-risk groups, get their vaccines.
The rest of the population should be able to get their vaccines by the end of 2021, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau saying last week the majority of Canadians should be able to get the shot by September.
“The fact that the doctors highlighted that if all goes according to plan, we should be able to have a majority of Canadians vaccinated by next September, puts us in very good stead,” Trudeau said.
“We’re working extremely hard to deliver as quickly and as safely as possible.”
The man tasked with leading that rollout on the national level is Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin.
Fortin, the former commander of NATO’s mission in Iraq, was announced last week as head of the national vaccine distribution efforts and said in an interview with The West Block the effort needed to roll out vaccines across the country will be like nothing Canadians have ever seen before.
“It’s an unprecedented situation and it’s nothing like anything we’ve seen before in terms of complexity, in terms of size and scope,” he said, adding that while “significant” work was underway on the planning for the rollout before he was named to the role, there are specific skills the military will contribute.
“In the military we learn processes, we put in place systems, and then we deal with a number of different scenarios … we’re really adapting those processes here for the [Public Health Agency of Canada] for that particular purpose and setting up an operation center,” he added.
“There’s a lot of great work here and we bring that expertise, that experience and unique way of doing things to bolster the capacity here in this demanding period.”
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