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date: 13 June 2024

Canada: Very “Civil” Military Relationslocked

Canada: Very “Civil” Military Relationslocked

  • Joel J. SokolskyJoel J. SokolskyDepartment of Political Studies, Queen's University


Civil–military relations in Canada are “civil” not because Canadians are inherently “nice,” but because there is not much opportunity, incentive, or fodder for serious and intensive disagreement over defense policy between the military and the political leadership. This does not mean that disagreements do not arise or that the military has not chaffed from time to time under Canada’s relatively strict liberal-democratic traditions of civilian control over the military.

Moreover, it is not the structure, traditions, and practices of government in Canada that best explain the relatively ordered nature of civil–military relations. Rather, one must look to the very nature of the Canadian defense and security situation. While Canada is also known for, and at times has vigorously promoted, its contributions to collective security through United Nations (UN) peacekeeping operations, it has been its participation in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD) that has determined almost all of defense policy and the posture and major weapons systems of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF). This has had profound implications for civil–military relations in Canada and also accounts for the relatively “civil” tone, and the lack of tension and controversy, in those relations. This has meant that Canada’s political leaders and the senior leadership of the CAF have not had to engage in intensive “dialogue” on alternative conceptions of the international strategic environment and what a Canadian “grand strategy” should be in order to guide how the Canadian forces should be postured and equipped to meet security challenges. Canada does have a “grand strategy”; it is just not that grand.

In the end, what tempers and smooths civil–military relations in Canada is that the CAF remains supportive of Canada’s not-so-grand grand strategy and accompanying expeditionary strategic culture, even if that culture is disciplined by a fiscal efficiency that sometimes seeks to extract as much international involvement out of as few military assets as possible. It is well understood on both sides of the civil–military divide that the CAF needs to maintain the confidence of political leaders to be effective in supporting the foreign policy objectives of the government through the applied or apprehended use of force when requested. In order to achieve this, the senior officer corps and the military apparatus must be cognizant of the breadth of nonmilitary factors that play into civil–military relations. Acknowledging that the scope of policy choices is inherently limited by international factors beyond Canada’s control, the importance of domestic priorities, and the access that Canadian politicians have to military expertise and assessments from other sources, the CAF has, for the most part, unobtrusively provided its political master with advice consistent with the realities facing Canadians at home and abroad. Even here, however, the Canadian military, perhaps more than most, understands the unequal character of its dialogue.


  • History and Politics

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