The head of Canada's armed forces was accused of playing partisan politics today after he told a meeting of defence experts that the military was coming out of the "decade of darkness" that began with the Liberal government in 1994.
"Over the past one to two years, we have begun to fully realize the immense, the negative impact of the defence expenditure reductions in 1994 and the lasting, almost negative legacy that they brought into effect that has to be put right," General Rick Hillier told the annual meeting of the Conference of Defence Associations.
The Liberal government of Jean Chrétien cut money to the forces as it wrestled with a multi-billion dollar deficit. In the process, said Gen. Hillier, Canada's military was deprived of the money it needed for training, postings, equipment, fleets, maintenance, sea days, ammunition use and a host of other things at the same time it was being asked to increase the number of missions is was performing around the world.
That left the Canadian Forces with fragile base upon which to rebuild and some parts of the institution remain "on a life support system," he said.
"Those actions, dollar deprived, have now led to some deep wounds in the department in the Canadian Forces over this past, what I would call, a decade of darkness."
It's not the first time that the gregarious and outspoken general has used the words "decade of darkness" and "life support" to describe the effects of Liberal budget cuts on the military. But, coming at a time when the buzz of a spring election is in the air, the Liberals took offence.
Denis Coderre, the Liberal Defence critic reminded reporters that the previous government of prime minister Paul Martin had a plan to reinvest $13 billion in the military. The only difference between the procurement strategies of the Conservatives and the previous Liberals, he said, was a decision to spend $3.4 billion on large C-17 aircraft - something his party still does not support.
"We also have to understand that, when we came to power in 1993, we inherited a deficit of $40 billion and we had also to take care of some of the priorities including the quality of life of the people. So, talking today about 10 years of darkness, I don't think it's appropriate, I think it's highly political and I am very disappointed at it," said Mr. Coderre.
"To get involved in politics, there is one way. You should run."
But Gen. Hillier stood by his statements.
"I think there would be many people who would line up to say I'm not a politician. I don't tread in those waters," he said after his speech.
"My job as Chief of Defence staff is described clearly. And hopefully I paint a picture for Canadians, for our Government, on what the state of the Armed Forces is. I have described it about three, or three-and-a-half years ago as we were in a decade of darkness with respect to what we needed to do versus we were being asked to do. And, as I said this morning, we've gone through a decades of darkness and we are starting to come out of it and like it or not that's the description of the Canadian Forces."