by David Akin
Canadians have a high regard nowadays for their military.
Not only did our soldiers earn our admiration and thanks for the way they conducted themselves in the longest war in Canadian history — the last decade in Afghanistan — but the last two chiefs of defence staff did much to advance the cause of uniformed men and women with their own outsized personalities.
Gen. Rick Hillier, the top general from 2005 to 2008, was a quote machine and a favourite for the TV cameras. His popularity sometimes caused headaches for his political masters, but the troops loved him.
He was followed by Walt Natynczyk who, though not as over the top and outgoing as Hillier, was so much a favourite of the troops that he was given the nickname Uncle Walt.
Uncle Walt finished his four years as chief of defence staff Monday in an emotional ceremony at the Canadian War Museum, handing off his responsibilities to Gen. Tom Lawson with the words, “My duty is complete. The nation is secure.”
The defence minister, Peter MacKay, lauded Natynczyk’s larger-than-life qualities.
“You’re a force of nature,” MacKay told the retiring soldier. “Your heavy handshake, your thundering laugh, your bone-rattling pats on the shoulder and your tireless work ethic are legendary.”
Lawson seems a very different leader from the two tank commanders who were his predecessors. Though he may yet flower in front of the TV cameras or develop a “bone-rattling” back-slap, he does not seem to to be the media personality his predecessors were. That’s not a criticism, but it does mean that Canadians and the 65,000 men and women who now serve under him will see a different style at the top.
He is well spoken, crisp in his speech and smart. But there is a coolness to his manner that was absent from Natynczyk and Hillier.
The cadets and others who served under Lawson when Lawson was commandant of the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ont., say he’s the best commandant that school has had in its modern history.
But if Lawson comes across as more of an administrator than a hell-raising general, that may be because that is precisely what he must be.
As Prime Minister Stephen Harper said in his speech at the change-of-command ceremony, “the Forces must (now) be restructured to ensure administrative burdens are reduced and those resources freed up for the front line.”
In other words — and Lawson certainly knows this — the Harper government will be reducing the money the Forces gets this year and, quite likely, through the “medium term,” to use the vague language of the Department of Finance Canada.
Administering those cuts will be not be easy. As Lawson stressed in his first news conference as chief of defence staff, there is “not a lot of fat” in the Canadian Forces. That means certain “capabilities,” as the military likes to say, will have to be squeezed to fit the available budget.
The last time governments levied budget cuts at the defence department was from 1994 to 2002, as the Liberal government of the day dealt with massive deficits. Hillier, in 2007, called that the “decade of darkness.”
Defence spending last year was $22.8 billion and it will almost certainly be lower this year and perhaps for the next few.
The chief challenge for Lawson as he sets to work in his new office in the defence department’s national headquarters on the banks of the Rideau Canal will not be earning a reputation as a back-slapping, beloved leader. No, his challenge will be to avoid his successor a decade from now cursing him for presiding over the beginning of another decade of darkness.
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