‘We’ve Reversed the Trend’: Military Recruitment Outpacing Attrition, Says Defence Minister

‘We’ve Reversed the Trend’: Military Recruitment Outpacing Attrition, Says Defence Minister
Canadian Forces personnel stand at CFB Kingston in Kingston, Ont., March 7, 2023. (The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick)
Noé Chartier

The Canadian military is currently recruiting more new candidates than active soldiers are leaving the ranks, says Defence Minister Bill Blair.

“We've reversed the trend, and in fact, the number of people joining is now exceeding for the first time in nearly three years the attrition, the people that are leaving, and that is good news,” Mr. Blair told the House of Commons defence committee on Sept. 28.

The Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) have been plagued by low recruiting numbers and a high attrition rate in recent years, and COVID-19 measures had an impact on soldiers leaving voluntarily or being kicked out for refusing vaccination.

Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS) Gen. Wayne Eyre told MPs on the committee of the challenges faced by the CAF amid labour shortages to recruit and retain those with “highly marketable skills,” but he said the overall attrition rate is now down to 7.1 percent.

He said this is back within historic norms, while during the COVID-19 period, it was around 9.1 or 9.2 percent.

The CDS said the recent number “feeds into my narrative of being cautiously optimistic.”

“How much of that was relevant to letting people go with regards to COVID?” asked Conservative MP Shelby Kramp-Neuman.

“That is for this fiscal year, so zero,” said Gen. Eyre, who softened the policy of mandatory vaccination in the fall of 2022, removing it from being a hiring requirement.

The CDS currently has on his desk a number of decisions from the Military Grievances External Review Committee, a non-binding administrative tribunal, that judged the CAF vaccine mandate violated charter rights. Gen. Eyre is the final authority on those grievances, and the Department of National Defence (DND) hasn’t provided a timeline for when they will be addressed.

Never Been ‘So Low’

Mr. Blair and Gen. Eyre faced questions from Conservative MPs about the low troop numbers and morale being at its lowest since a “quarter of a century.”

“It's been eight years now that the Liberals have been in power and I don't think we've ever had troop strength so low,” said James Bezan, defence critic for the Conservatives.

“We've lost more people than we've been able to recruit, but we're turning it around,” said Mr. Blair.

The CDS ordered in October 2022 a pause to all non-essential activities to undertake force reconstitution. “We are at a point where undertaking one of the largest and most significant reconstitution efforts in recent memory is now a critical priority,” he wrote in a note to the Defence Team.

The minister told MPs that 30,000 people have applied to the CAF this fiscal year, with 70 percent being Canadian citizens and the other 30 percent permanent residents.

The CAF dropped the requirement of citizenship to serve last year, and the government said it would create an expedited pathway to becoming Canadian for those soldiers.

Mr. Blair said the CAF is working through the applications as “quickly as possible” and noted that other countries are facing similar issues in recruitment.

“It is a challenge, but I think it's also an opportunity,” he said without elaborating.

Mr. Blair replaced Anita Anand at DND following the July 26 cabinet shuffle. Ms. Anand, who was seen as capable in the role, was moved to Treasury Board. Mr. Blair said he didn’t have the time to meet with Ms. Anand to discuss the file.

“I have not had an opportunity to speak to my very busy colleague in her new role and I in mine,” he said.

Troop and Equipment Shortages

The CDS said that the total force, including regular and reserve troops, was short of nearly 16,000 soldiers as of Aug. 31. The regular force is short of 7,862 members and the reserve 7,605. He also said there are currently 10,489 members in the training pipeline and not ready for operations.

Gen. Eyre also raised the alarm regarding Canada’s ammunition stock and production capability.

“I am very concerned about our ammunition stocks,” he said. “If we were to consume munitions the same rate that we're seeing them in Ukraine, we would be out in some cases in days and it would take years to restock.”

Artillery shells in the 155mm calibre are in high demand right now and the CDS said Canada has capacity to produce 3,000 of those per month. This is “not enough,” he specified.

Deputy Minister of Defence Bill Matthews said there are discussions underway to potentially invest to increase production, but it’s not a “quick fix.”

“This is the hottest, perhaps the hottest military commodity in the world right now,” said Conservative MP Pat Kelly. “Why is there no urgency on getting the production ramped up?"

The CDS said that NATO allies are also concerned about the issue of underwhelming production of shells, and said they have underestimated Russia’s ability to regenerate in its war against Ukraine.

“It is of increasing concern, because we take a look at the Russian reconstitution ability, they're actually reconstituting at a faster rate than we anticipated,” he said.

Gen. Eyre was also questioned about main battle tanks, since Canada donated eight Leopard tanks to Ukraine and is deploying 22 to Latvia, leaving 52 for other tasks.

Mr. Kelly asked whether those 52 tanks are operational, and the CDS said he didn’t have the information with him. “I do know what the overall serviceability rate of army vehicles is, and it's not good.”

While addressing those shortcomings, Gen. Eyre also spoke of Ottawa’s directive to DND to cut nearly $1 billion in spending.

“There's no way that you can take almost a billion dollars out of the defence budget and not have an impact, so this is something that we're wrestling with now,” he told MPs.

Mr. Blair said he was committed to making sure the CAF is well supported despite the cuts, but he noted his first priority at the department is culture change and creating a safe and inclusive workplace.

“All the investments in boats and planes and equipment are important, but none of them will help us achieve what we need to achieve if we don't create the right environment for the men and women who serve in the Forces, and so it has to be our first priority,” he said.