The commander of the Canadian Armed Forces is calling on the country to rally behind its military as it faces an unprecedented personnel crisis that he says is threatening its ability to protect and defend Canada.
“We’re here to defend our way of life, now and into the future,” chief of the defence staff Gen. Wayne Eyre said. “So we need a whole-of-society effort to help us bring the Armed Forces back to where it needs to be for the dangerous world ahead.”
The extraordinary appeal comes as Eyre and his subordinates are struggling to fill around 10,000 empty positions at a time when Canada’s military is facing a growing number of threats and requests for help at home and abroad.
Earlier this month, the defence chief issued an order setting a new direction for the military after years of high-tempo deployments and operations, making recruitment and retention of personnel its top priority.
About one in 10 positions within the Armed Forces sits empty after years of lagging recruitment rates and there is a growing shortage of non-commissioned officers and other mid-level leaders.
“We need to rebuild the Armed Forces, we need to get the numbers back up,” Eyre said in an interview. “And we’ve got to do it with a sense of urgency and priority because it is affecting our ability to respond around the world.”
Neither the order nor an accompanying retention strategy provide a clear picture of exactly why Canadians are steering clear of recruiting centres, or why the military is having trouble keeping troops in uniform.
The retention strategy instead emphasizes the need for better data on departures, while Eyre said military officers are “seized” with the same issue when it comes to recruitment.
The defence chief was quick to note that his isn’t the only organization having trouble attracting talent, with a labour shortage across the country.
But the Canadian military is dealing with unique challenges, starting with a reputational problem after reports of sexual misconduct involving senior leaders and concerns about the presence of right-wing extremists in the ranks.
Not all the difficulties are self-inflicted. Some are due to the nature of military service. Most Canadian Armed Forces bases and wings are located in rural communities, whereas the majority of the country’s population lives in cities.
“Let’s face it: Petawawa is a little bit different than downtown Toronto or even Ottawa,” Eyre said. “But to create the operational output required, we have to push people to Cold Lake, Bagotville and the coasts.
“So cracking that code — how do we incentivize movement to those locations — this is the big challenge.”
An opinion poll conducted on behalf of the Defence Department earlier this year found most Canadians reluctant to consider a military career.
“Asked whether they would consider joining the CAF, young men were more likely than young women to say they would, but overall, less than half of any group typically indicated they would,” reads a summary report.
“Men and women alike were deterred by the idea of having to leave their families and/or move around frequently, requiring them to uproot their families.”
The poll also found public concern about sexual misconduct and racism in the ranks.
Many of the recruitment and retention challenges are not new, and past commanders have rolled out a litany of initiatives aimed at fixing them.
Those include everything from signing bonuses in certain occupations to preaching the importance of diversity in the ranks and promising to weed out inappropriate behaviour.
Those efforts have continued under Eyre.
A new dress code dramatically eases rules around how troops can look and dress. Despite some outside criticism, the move has been embraced by many Armed Forces members as long overdue.
“The walls have not come tumbling down and we didn’t lose operational effectiveness overnight,” Eyre said of the new gender-inclusive dress code, which also for the first time allows long hair, fingernail polish and face tattoos while in uniform.
“I’m more concerned about: Can they fight? Are they fit? Do they follow orders?”
Eyre has opened the door to other changes, such as more remote work and easing the requirement that members be physically able to perform their duties and deploy on missions at any given time as a condition of employment.
The defence chief said he is also working to ensure troops can afford to live. That includes updating an allowance to offset the costs of living in more expensive communities, which has been frozen since 2009.
“The price of accommodation is skyrocketing,” he said. “But it’s more acute for our members because we expect them to move across the country on a more frequent basis. And so addressing that is right at the top of the list of things that need to be fixed.”
Eyre acknowledges that it has been difficult trying to change an institution with decades of established tradition — a tradition that he has been immersed in for nearly 40 years. But he says he and the Armed Forces have no choice.
“It’s a case of embracing them, trying or experimenting new things,” he said. “Because the path we are on, the stuff that we’ve tried, it hasn’t been working out that great.”
Asked about whether such changes risk turning off the military’s traditional recruiting pool — single, white men — Eyre acknowledged the “paradox” that as the population increases, the traditional pool is shrinking.
But he says that underscores the need to embrace diversity, and that those who don’t agree with the changes probably aren’t who Canada wants in uniform anyway.
What Eyre says he needs is buy-in from the rest of the country, including a recognition of the stakes involved.
“It’s not just the Canadian Armed Forces that needs to be concerned about Canadian Forces recruiting.”