ANNIE SILVESTER/Bullet News
There is always the potential for a disconnect between the Canadian public and its military which must be guarded against, says a former broadcast journalist and member of the Senate.
Pamela Wallin says she is concerned that with the combat mission in Afghanistan over, it would be easy for the public to develop an “out-of-sight, out-of mind” attitude toward the military.
“We have to make sure that the ties between our citizens and our military do not disappear,” Wallin told the crowd during an address Monday at the Scotiabank Convention Centre in Niagara Falls. “That’s why we’re here today. We have to know why a country has a military. You have to know where you’re freedoms come from and sometimes we lose that connection…so it is up to us. Leadership and maintaining this connection … is the responsibility of all of us.”
Wallin, chairwoman of the Senate’s National Security and Defence Committee and member of the Veterans Affairs and International Trade Committee, was the keynote speaker at an event hosted by the Garrison Community Council of Niagara, an organization dedicated to building closer connections between Canadians and the military.
“The disconnect is somehow tied to the fact that when you’re in combat it’s on the news every night … and people tend to connect. But the larger issue is when it’s not that the folks who are in our public life like our MPs, our senators, our leaders … they don’t have those direct ties and connections to the military. They don’t think about it.”
That’s a far cry from the days when large portions of the House of Commons and the senate were filled with veterans who had actually served and “appreciated what the Canadian Forces means to our national interests.
“During World War One, one-tenth of our population signed up to serve. And after the war the veterans continued to play a prominent part in our society. But pretty soon the Second World Wars and the Koreas started fading from memory.”
Wallin cited several changes that contributed to the further separation of military ideals with the public, including the new peace-keeping ideology, which started in the 50s, and the unification of the Canadian forces, which began in the days of the Pearson government and killed off many reserves. She said the disappearance of military programs from university campuses during the Vietnam War further marginalized soldiers from the population at large.
“Again this vital citizen-military link at our universities, at that crucial age was just disappearing and has not yet been re-established.”
Even the end of the Soviet Union was led some to question the need for an expensive military.
“There seemed to be fewer enemies and defence was seen as a lesser priority and so the 90’s in order to balance the books the government drastically and disproportionately cut military spending.”
Wallin quoted former Canadian Gen. Rick Hillier, who called the 1990’s “the decade of darkness” as funding and public support dried up.
She told the group it was only after 9/11 that things began to turn around when the Canadian forces were engaged in going after the Taliban and helping to rebuild Afghanistan that public opinion turned to one of support for the troops.
She said the Canadian military helped build 52 schools in Afghanistan since 9/11, and assisted in essential skill building for many by teaching locals basic literacy skills.
“When those kids go back to their own communities with the ability to pick up a pen and write a letter or fill out a form, they are now the hero in their community – not the drug lord and not the Taliban leader.”