Canadians are resilient people, but Canada has a serious resilience problem.
Consider this recent interview by the CDA Institute with Josh Bowen, a Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) veteran who now teaches in the Disaster and Emergency Management program at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.
Bowen is rightly concerned that we have come to rely on our military too often in response to natural disasters.
The CAF is supposed to be “a force of last resort for when there is no other asset or capability available to address a problem.”
Nonetheless, Canada seems to lack any alternative, “civilian” means of dealing with floods, forest fires, and other crises.
Bowen’s frustration is palpable. “People do want to volunteer,” he writes. “People want to help.”
Laura Mitchell is one of those people.
Writing in The Line last week, the self-described “double-Pfizered stay-at-home mom with a reliable vehicle and time on my hands” recounted her frustration with not being able to do more to support Albertans on the front lines of managing the COVID-19 pandemic:
“I’m not suggesting I scrub in for a gallbladder removal or march in the doors and substitute in physics. But I refuse to entertain suggestions there isn’t administrative or organizational busy work that can be accomplished by an army of volunteers willing to take the weight off those on the front lines.”
Neither Bowen nor Mitchell are the first to make such arguments, nor will they be the last. But I have yet to see evidence that any government – federal or provincial – is interested in Bowen’s solution:
All we need, he says, is “a coordinated, federally supported, federally funded model to encourage people.”
Having taught strategic decision-making to both senior military personnel and senior civilian public servants at the Canadian Forces College for the last fifteen years, I’ve come to believe that part of government's aversion to such a solution comes from the difference between the way a good number of Canadians venerate our military but disdain our public service.
I certainly understand the former.
Members of the Canadian Armed Forces agree “to being lawfully ordered into harm’s way under conditions that could lead to the loss of their lives.”
This concept of unlimited liability “underpins the professional precept of mission, own troops and self, in that order... It also modifies the notion of service before self, extending its meaning beyond merely enduring inconvenience or great hardship.”
I share the overwhelming respect Canadians have for the burden that our troops accept on our behalf, and I agree that our government should spend what it takes to enable the CAF to succeed.
But look at how Mitchell describes the public servants involved in our response to COVID-19:
“Something that has bothered me since the beginning of this mess is the utter lack of imagination from the bureaucrats in charge of our major institutions about how to engage the rest of us in getting through this.”
Perhaps I'm too sensitive, but I suspect that her use of the term “bureaucrat” – rather than public, or civil, servant – comes with the implication that officials are habitually inclined to obsess over procedure at the expense of people’s genuine needs.
Mitchell is hardly alone in such thinking (indeed, I suspect that some readers feel the same way), which makes it easy for me to understand why a government would hesitate to replace military personnel with civilians in any capacity.
As Bowen concedes, even if Canada were to create a civilian volunteer capability to support the national response to emergencies, there would be organizational and training costs, not to mention a requirement to support the employers of these volunteers while also protecting their jobs during deployments.
That would mean we’d need some sort of bureaucracy.
Unfortunately, contempt for the public service – fueled in part by elements of the political class itself – has become so ingrained that it's easier for governments to risk burning out our military than it is to stand up the administrative structure necessary to support a cost-efficient, pride-inducing domestic civilian disaster response capacity.
Only in Canada could we be so frugal and yet so inefficient at the same time.
On the implications of the increasing role of the CAF in domestic emergencies, see this helpful note by the Library of Parliament’s Marie Dumont, Ariel Shapiro and Anne-Marie Therrien-Tremblay.
To be notified of my next post, follow me on Twitter @achapnick.
You can subscribe to my newsletter at https://buttondown.email/achapnick.