OTTAWA –Canada’s defence minister is hinting at new money for the military following a much-anticipated meeting with his U.S. counterpart in Washington this week.
But Harjit Sajjan says what’s equally important is what countries do with their military, a line successive federal governments have used to fend of criticism of Canada’s defence spending.
“It’s about defence investment,” Sajjan told reporters on Tuesday.
“But also what are you actually doing with them?” he added. “If you look at it, whether it’s NATO coalitions or even the UN, you have very similar nations that are always providing the resources.”
The comments come one day after Sajjan met U.S. Defence Secretary James Mattis at the Pentagon, the first meeting between a Canadian minister and a member of the Trump administration.
Trump has repeatedly blasted NATO allies for not spending enough on their own defence, a message he repeated Monday even as Sajjan was meeting Mattis.
“We only ask that all of the NATO members make their full and proper financial contributions to the NATO alliance, which many of them have not been doing,” Trump said during a speech in Florida.
The Liberal government is currently drawing up a new defence policy that sources say will start inching defence spending closer to NATO’s target of two per cent of GDP.
But Canada’s current defence budget of $20 billion accounts for less than one per cent of GDP, meaning the government would have to double spending to $40 billion to reach NATO’s target.
Even with the additional funding, sources say Canada will still fall far short of that goal.
Past governments have highlighted Canada’s contributions in places like Afghanistan and Iraq to defend against pressure from allies to increase defence spending.
Sajjan adopted a similar tack Tuesday, saying Canada has “stepped up” at NATO and in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and that the focus of the new defence policy will be its “outputs.”
The question is whether the Trump administration, which has been much more aggressive on the need for allies to spend more, will accept that argument.
Defence spending wasn’t the only topic of discussion between Sajjan and Mattis, as the two former soldiers also discussed Canada’s plan to send peacekeepers to Africa and the situation in Ukraine.
The government announced in August that Canada would deploy up to 600 troops on future UN peacekeeping missions, but has not said where they would go.
Sajjan told reporters last month that he needed to talk to his American counterpart before the government signed off on a peacekeeping mission, saying co-ordination with the U.S. was essential.
The minister reiterated the Liberal government’s commitment to peacekeeping on Tuesday, but offered little clarity on when it would decide where to send them.
“Talking with Secretary Mattis is just one piece of the work that needs to be done,” Sajjan said.
As for Ukraine, Sajjan said the government is currently looking at what type of “continuing support we need to provide,” adding that a decision will be made shortly.
Canada first deployed about 200 troops to Ukraine in the summer of 2015 to help train government forces after Russia annexed Crimea and began supporting separatist forces in Ukraine’s Donbass region.
The mission, which Prime Minister Justin Trudeau toured during a visit to the country in July, has so far resulted in 2,600 Ukrainian troops being trained primarily in the basic soldiering.
While the mission is set to expire at the end of March, the Ukrainian government has publicly appealed for it to be extended.