When Your Country Calls
May 15, 2006

Despite the apparent gloom contained in the Auditor-General’s recent report on Canadian Forces recruitment and the negative headlines it spawned, there are good reasons to be optimistic about recruiting in the future.

Among some of the comments in the national press the day after the report was that a tight labour market would result in fit young men, between the ages of 16 and 34, opting for jobs at Starbucks or as mall security guards rather than the rigors of military life and service in Afghanistan.

The Auditor-General’s report mirrored a dire Queen’s University analysis last September that the Forces would be hard pressed to meet ambitious expansion targets set by the government last year to add 8,000 full-time regular force soldiers and reservists to its 52,700 deployable troops.

The problem with those analyses is that they may well be locked in time because the most recent recruitment figures show exactly the opposite and that the children of baby boomers are having a powerful impact on the Canadian Forces in 2006.

Minister of National Defence, Gordon O'Conner, presents the Canadian Forces' Certificate of Enrollment to Ms. Annet Power during the mass swearing-in of 250 new Canadian Forces recruits at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa. (Photo: Cpl. Matthew Ufholz, CFSU(O) Photo Services)

Recent figures show that baby boomers’ children are flocking into military recruitment offices in an eye-popping fashion, resulting in the Canadian Forces exceeding, by 10%, the April 2005 – April 2006 recruitment year target of 5,522.

Even in Alberta, where lucrative jobs in the oil patch and the construction and service industries are aplenty, Alberta recruiters easily met their target of 900 young men and women.

The government’s plan is to continue to increase the number recruited by 1,000 every year so that by the year 2011, some 12,000 new regular force and reservists will join the Forces annually.

Why the urgency in the Forces recruiting? Again, look to aging baby boomers, the ones in uniform who are approaching retirement from the Forces who advanced through the ranks to become among its most important junior leaders: warrant officers and majors.

That becomes most evident in Exhibit 2.4 of the Auditor-General’s report, showing that almost 50% of Canada’s military men and women have 15 or more years of service and are either already eligible to leave, or soon will be. This chart also shows a trough following that cohort, dramatically demonstrating that the relative handful of people in the Forces with between nine and 13 years service is dwarfed by the 50% that are leaving.

Colonel Kevin Cotten, the head of recruiting for the Canadian Forces, is optimistic that the Forces are up to the challenge because three factors appear to have converged, resulting in the current spectacular recruiting phenomenon.

The first is a meaningful role for the military, such as it has right now in Afghanistan.

Having a clear purpose is the reason why Canada was able to contribute 424,589 troops, from a population of just eight million, during the First World War: some 9,000 naval officers and men, mostly to the Royal Navy; 22,812 pilots; and 13,160 ground crew to the British ­flying corps and air services.


A clear purpose is the reason why Canada was able to contribute 257,978 Canadian combatants to the ground forces in North-West Europe: 95,705 officers, men and wrens to the naval effort; and some 232,682 men and 17,030 women to the Royal Canadian Air Force, including 94,000 mostly flying with Britain’s Royal Air Force overseas, during Second World War.

History is clear: Canadians step up to the plate when their country calls. And Canada is clearly calling, which is the second important factor.

In the wake of the former Liberal government’s advertising scandal, then-prime minister Paul Martin’s government put an eight-month moratorium on all government advertising.

That moratorium was lifted in February and, since then, aggressive television and radio advertising has been saturated with messages about the Forces’ employment and educational opportunities.

That targeted advertising, coupled with the news media’s coverage of the 2,200 Canadian troops in Afghanistan’s southern province of Kandahar and another 100 in Kabul, has the ability to put the military front and centre in Canadians’ minds.

The third factor to converge is Operation Connection, which showcases all that the Forces have to offer in job fairs and the like across Canada.

Military occupations the Forces most want to grow are in the army: “Boots on the ground, armoured crew, infantry, artillery and signal operators.”

Canadian Forces’ recruiters participate in Job Fairs across the country to increase the ­possibilities for connecting with a wide cross-section of Canadian youth. (Photo: DND)

A question recently put to me by a television interviewer was: “Why would young men and women want to join the Canadian Forces when the news is filled with headlines about 17 Canadians soldiers killed since the Afghan mission began.” The response must consistently be that the Canadian Forces want men and women who want a challenge – and military service in the combat arms is just that, dangerous, but vitally meaningful work.

Are Canadian youth up to that challenge? The only teacher we have in that regard is history.

During the Second World War, on August 19, 1942, of the 4,963 Canadians who took part in the Dieppe Raid, 907 died and 1,946 were taken prisoner.
Newspapers of the day could not possibly profile each and every casualty or try to interview their survivors the way the news media does today.
Instead, day after day after day, the names of the dead in their hundreds were published in lists revealing the grim realities of war.

That was anything but good publicity, but brave Canadians volunteered by the hundreds of thousands.

Despite some of the news coming out of Kandahar, there is another reason to be optimistic about the Forces’ future.

History has shown that leaders emerge on the battlefield. Canada’s ground troops are becoming battle hardened in Afghanistan day in and day out in a way they haven’t been since the Korean War.

The other good news is that thousands are still walking into Canadian Forces recruitment offices.

Are Canadians stepping up to the plate in a time of need as their forefathers did? It would seem so.

Bob Bergen, Ph.D., is a Research Fellow with the Canadian Defence & Foreign Affairs Institute (CDFAI) in Calgary. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of CDFAI, its Board of Directors, Advisory Council, Fellows or donors. Learn more about the CDFAI on the Internet at www.cdfai.org
© FrontLine Defence 2006