OTTAWA — Defence Minister Bill Blair says he is "absolutely committed" to ensuring budget cuts to his department don't affect Armed Forces members or their ability to respond to domestic emergencies, despite a recent report warning the military is not meeting its objectives because of a lack of trained soldiers and viable equipment.
"We believe that there are savings to be had," Blair told the House of Commons defence committee Thursday, pointing to consultant reports, professional services and travel as examples.
"We are looking at ways in which we can eliminate unnecessary costs, but none of those reductions are to impact the Canadian Armed Forces' capability or the supports that we provide to the men and women of the Canadian Armed Forces."
Blair and the chief of the defence staff, Gen. Wayne Eyre, were invited to speak about the rising number of domestic military operations and the challenges that poses for the Canadian Armed Forces.
A recent Defence Department report said the response to this year's record wildfires and other natural disasters put a strain on the military's operational readiness, as did the government's continued support of Ukraine in its bid to repel Russia's invasion.
Blair told the committee that as climate change gets worse, the demands for domestic deployments in floods and wildfires is growing rapidly.
Between 2010 and 2016, he said, there were an average of two requests for help from provinces each year that required the military to respond.
This year, there were eight, largely due to massive wildfires that raged in almost every province for weeks on end.
The department's annual results report noted the military is not ready to conduct concurrent operations and is not meeting the requirements of Canada's defence policy, the 2017 document "Strong, Secure, Engaged."
"Readiness of CAF force elements have continued to decrease over the course of the last year, aggravated by decreasing number of personnel and issues with equipment and vehicles," the report said.
Blair told the committee that recruitment is still a problem. The Armed Forces has said it is short about 16,000 troops in the regular and reserve forces and that another 10,000 soldiers do not have the training they need to be deployed.
Eyre has often said the federal government needs to call in the troops less often in its response to natural disasters, and return to the practice of making them a last resort.
"What we need is intermediate capacity at the municipal and provincial level to be drawn upon," he said.
Eyre was asked what impact domestic deployments have on other military missions.
He pointed out that, for example, the same battalion that is currently deployed to help with possible evacuations of Canadians from Lebanon was deployed in Quebec fighting fires in the summer.
Blair has said he believes the military's mandate includes responding to natural disasters in Canada.
But he said Thursday that he agrees the military cannot be the first responder, even if provinces are asking for military help more and more often. He said the military is also never ordered to respond, but is always asked what help it can provide.
Sometimes the answer to a request from a province for military aid is no, said Blair.
"I hear very clearly from premiers and ministers of the provinces and territories they really, really value the CAF contribution. It's one of the first things they ask for," he said.
"And on many occasions, we've had to say, 'That's not the appropriate response. We'll provide you with other help.'"
About 2,100 members of the Armed Forces fought wildfires this summer for more than 130 consecutive days, Blair said, adding that he expects demand for help will increase.
"This support doesn't come without a cost," Blair said.
He noted that responding to natural disasters puts added stress on the troops and equipment, and on overall readiness.
"I want to assure you all that I hear that very clearly, I see that impact and I'm committed to help."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 23, 2023.
Sarah Ritchie and Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press