John de Chastelain in P.E.I. on the weekend for Nichola Goddard Foundation fundraiser
© Guardian photo
Gen. John de Chastelain (Ret), right, former chief of defence staff, was at UPEI Friday speaking with people involved in Irish studies. With Chastelain, from left to right, are student Matthew Flanagan, dean of arts Don Desserud, and Susan Brown, chair of the history department.
John de Chastelain knows all about belt tightening.
He was Canada’s chief of defence staff in 1989.
The Cold War had ended. Canada faced a severe deficit.
It was time for Ottawa to make cuts and the 1989 federal budget came down like a large axe on the Department of National Defence.
CFB Summerside, at the time home to anti-submarine and coastal patrol aircraft, was identified as a candidate for the chopping block. In 1991, the base was closed and the majority of military units were transferred to CFB Greenwood in Nova Scotia.
De Chastelain fought unsuccessfully to keep Canadian forces stationed in Europe. Instead, those organizations were moved back to Canada and absorbed into a Force that was already being reduced.
“We ended up closing a number of bases, including here in Prince Edward Island,’’ said de Chastelain, who was guest speaker Saturday at a fundraising dinner in Charlottetown for The Nichola Goddard Foundation that was created in honour of the first female soldier killed in combat in Afghanistan in 2006.
“I went to Summerside, in fact as chief of defence staff, to give the very sad news that we were going to be closing the base as we did in other places in Canada,’’ he added.
“And it was very difficult because the people that had been working in those places had been working professionally and well. It was part of their life. Nobody wanted to have to do things like that and yet if we were to have met the limits placed on us, we had to do it.’’
Canada’s newly minted top military commander, Gen. Tom Lawson, has also been told trimming will take place under his command.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper delivered a clear message to the military Monday as Lawson replaced retiring general Walt Natynczyk as chief of defence staff.
“The Forces will also be subject to the same pressures that the uncertainties of the global economy have imposed across our government and around the world,’’ the prime minister told a gathering of the senior military leadership at the war museum in Ottawa.
“In order to free up resources to carry out work on the ground, administrative expenses have to be reduced.’’
De Chastelain, who attended the change of command ceremony Monday, says he is “sensitive to what Tom is going through.’’
He agrees with Lawson’s assessment that there’s not much fat to cut, particularly when it comes to combat units.
“The difficulty is that having made the cuts that we did 20 years ago, there are not too many bases you can close now,’’ said de Chastelain.
“There are no troops to withdraw from Europe now. And we do have these capital acquisition programs -- new ships and new aircraft – coming up. So, yeah, it’s going to be tough.’’
De Chastlain is hopeful Canadian Forces will be able to continue to carry on out of area operations for a reasonable period of time, rather than simply set up a headquarters and then leave the work to others, which Canada has had to do before, he notes, with UN operations in the Middle East and Lebanon.
His major concern in 1989 through 1991 was, with all of the cuts the Defence Department was undergoing, to maintain the basis for combat capability for land, sea and air.
“We had to keep that in place so that if required we could build rapidly on it,’’ he said.
“Once you do away with something entirely, it’s very hard to get it back.’’
De Chastelain says the most notable strength of Canada’s military today, without question, is professionalism.
When he was still in uniform, NATO members constantly raved about Canada’s system of training officers in all three branches of service as being extraordinary.
“And therefore I think that is one of our greatest attributes: the fact that we have very professional men and women in the Forces because we train and we train for the hard tasks and we equip for the hard tasks,’’ he said.
“And I think that must be maintained at all costs.’’
With files from The Canadian Press