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Canada is facing ‘irrelevance’ on world stage, ex-defence chief warns

Retired general Rick Hillier, Canada’s former chief of defence staff, says he believes the country risks facing “irrelevance” in an unstable geopolitical world.

In an interview on The West Block, host Mercedes Stephenson asked Hillier what he thought Canada’s biggest national security risk is amid the war in Ukraine entering its third year, conflict in the Middle East and aggression from China, Russia and Iran.

“Our irrelevance. The fact that nobody even bothers to phone us if they’re talking about doing something as a group of Three Eyes or a group of Five Eyes or things of that nature,” Hillier said.

“All those things you described are very real geopolitical and strategic threats and they can destabilize the world even more than it is now. And when the world is destabilized, it’s bad for Canada.”

His comments come as the prospect of a second Donald Trump presidency casts doubt on the future American role in NATO, with Trump suggesting the U.S. wouldn’t defend partner nations that don’t meet the two per cent of GDP spending target.

Canada’s current NATO contributions are about 1.38 per cent of GDP.

In an interview on The West Block last week, Defence Minister Bill Blair said he is confident the U.S. will maintain NATO commitments but could not give a date on when Canada will hit the two per cent target.

The Washington Post reported last year that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had privately told NATO officials Canada would never hit the military alliance’s spending target.

“The way we are progressing right now, irrelevance in the international scene, I think is the greatest threat to Canada and I think we can change it in a variety of ways, but we have to have the leadership focus on it and do it,” Hillier said.

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Hillier says the short-term solution is a significant amount of spending to update military equipment.

Blair has said he is pushing for more defence spending, and the long-promised defence policy update is being tied to ongoing budget deliberations ahead of the 2024-25 fiscal plan.

As for the current state of the Canadian Armed Forces, Hillier says he feels sorry for people currently serving.

“Their equipment has been relegated to sort of broken equipment parked by the fence. Our fighting ships are on limitations to the speed that they can sail or the waves that they can sail in. Our aircraft, until they’re replaced, they’re old and sort of not in that kind of fight anymore. And so, I feel sorry for the men and women who are serving there right now,” Hillier said.

“I am so thankful that we still have them, and I hope that there are better days ahead. I think there is some potential of that, but at present, we’re in a world of hurt.”

As the war in Ukraine enters its third year, Hillier says that nation is now more vulnerable than it has been in the last two years as western support shows signs of waning.

“The war and Ukraine itself is at the most fragile, most vulnerable period during this past two years. Their morale is sagging certainly, as they see them disappear from the headlines in the West, if you will. They see a lack of support from western countries who have been supporting them up until now,” Hillier said.

The retired general currently serves as the chair of the Ukrainian World Congress’ strategic advisory council.

Coming out of the winter, Hillier sees Ukraine on the back foot as he sees Russia preparing for a renewed spring offensive.

This is compounded by decreasing military aid, most notably from the United States as measures to support Ukraine face opposition from the Republican-controlled Congress.

“They’re vulnerable. They’re fragile. This could go really badly very quickly. And there’s not much the West can do about it in that short term, except give them munitions and the things that Ukraine needs to fight,” Hillier said.

In the longer term, Hillier says the Ukrainian forces need better training on how to operate in larger battlegroups of thousands as opposed to smaller strike teams.

An Angus Reid poll from Feb. 6 found that 25 per cent of Canadians now feel Canada is doing too much to support Ukraine, compared with 13 per cent when Russia first invaded.

As the conflict stretches on and public support for assisting Ukraine declines, Hillier says there is a greater cost to not helping Ukraine.

“If we don’t help Ukraine succeed and Russia wins, and we have Putin with his military standing on the border of the Czech Republic, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. All of those countries believe that they would be next as a target, and none of them have complete confidence that NATO would come to their support if something occurred,” Hillier said.

“Think of the cost of that of what it would do to our economy, the price of energy around the world and all of the things that would impact from that. So by helping Ukraine, we are defending ourselves.”

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