Canada promises to meet NATO target as secretary-general visits Ottawa

Canada is expected to spend 1.37 per cent of its GDP on defence, short of 2% target
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NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg is set to meet with the prime minister in Ottawa today. Stoltenberg speaks to reporters outside the West Wing of the White House in Washington, after meeting with President Joe Biden, Monday, June 17, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Mark Schiefelbein

Canada continues to miss its NATO defence spending target, but Defence Minister Bill Blair promises the goal will eventually be reached, as Russia’s war in Ukraine raises a threat of expanded conflict in Europe.

Numbers NATO released this week show Canada is expected to spend 1.37 per cent of its gross domestic product on defence this year, falling short of the two per cent target Western allies have agreed upon.

Blair took pains to note that the federal Liberals are doing better than their Conservative predecessors.

“In 2014, Canada’s defence spending actually fell for the only time in its history below one per cent,” Blair said.

“That’s a long way to come back from.”

Last year, members of the alliance agreed to spend a minimum of two per cent of their economies on defence, a reflection of worries over Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine.

Blair’s comments come as NATO’s Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg visits Ottawa.

He is slated to give a speech and receive an award at an event hosted by the NATO Association of Canada on Wednesday afternoon. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is then expected to host him for dinner.

That follows a Monday visit to Washington, D.C., where Stoltenberg met with U.S. President Joe Biden.

A handful of protesters gathered outside a building in the parliamentary precinct where Stoltenberg was set to speak on Wednesday.

On the sidewalk in front of the building, “Canada lagging behind our NATO allies” was written in chalk, along with “Trudeau and Blair laughing stocks of the world” and “Canadians are not laughing.”

Defence spending across European allies and Canada, was up nearly 18 per cent this year alone, Stoltenberg said during a speech at the White House — the biggest increase in decades.

Blair has said Canada’s defence spending will climb to at least 1.75 per cent of its GDP by 2029.

He asserted Wednesday that additional spending on a new submarine fleet and integrated air defence and missile systems will probably push the figure past the two per cent mark.

“Let me assure you that we’ve been doing a great deal of work within our Defence Department, with the government of Canada, but also with our NATO allies,” Blair said on Wednesday.

He said allies were “very encouraged” by a defence policy update Canada released earlier this year.

“It results in historic and upward trajectory of defence spending for Canada.”

Both Blair and Treasury Board President Anita Anand acknowledged this week that spending is delayed because of a shortage of procurement workers.

“We have the ability to accelerate spending. It does require an investment in people to get the job done,” Blair said.

The Liberal government has set aside $1.8 billion over 20 years to increase the number of workers who can purchase new equipment, recruit, train new soldiers and upgrade infrastructure.

It’s superficial to speak about the two per cent target without examining how that money will be spent in the short and long term, said Anand, who was former defence minister but now holds the government’s purse strings.

“If you can understand that procurements take time and they require expertise, then you would see the need to have more public servants who are able to work on those procurements — and multiple procurements at the same time — to get them out the door, to spend that money,” she said Tuesday.

“And why would we continue to fill the books with additional money if that money can’t get out the door?”

Stoltenberg’s last visit to Canada was in August 2022, when he and Trudeau spent time in the Arctic together.

That region is the highlight of Canada’s most recent defence policy update, and it’s seen as increasingly important to NATO since Sweden and Finland joined the alliance.

NATO leaders are set to meet in Washington, D.C., next month for an annual summit and mark the alliance’s 75th anniversary.

Increasing funding for Ukraine will be an agenda priority, after Stoltenberg came forward with a proposal for all NATO allies to contribute 40 billion euros a year, Blair said.

At the White House, Stoltenberg said his expectation for next month’s meeting is to have allies agree “to step up financial and military support to Ukraine,” and reduce the burden on the U.S.

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