OTTAWA — The former commander of the country's special forces says no matter how many "sunny ways" there are in Canada, the reality of the world outside is that people continue to kill people and that is something the nation needs to understand.
The blunt talk by retired lieutenant-general Mike Day comes as the Trudeau government mulls options for its much-anticipated defence policy review, which will set the future course for the military.
Day referred to "sunny ways," the unofficial catchphrase of the Liberal campaign, at the end of cautionary speech to a Mackenzie Institute conference on future conflicts.
He said those clashes will be messy, ill-defined and driven by climate change and world demographic shifts. They will not be clear, or easy, and will likely require "decades of engagement."
"I'm a cynic when it comes to human nature and the fact is, no matter how many sunny ways we have, my experience in deploying around the world is people will want to continue to kill other people and we need to be ready for that."
His presentation underscored the challenge facing the new government as it tries to figure out how to defend the country, but also act with "responsible conviction" — as Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion puts it — on the international stage.
The commander of the navy, Vice-Admiral Mark Norman, told the conference it is absolutely essential to get the policy review as close to perfect as possible.
The key is to design a future military capable of delivering operational and policy options for governments for the next several decades, he said.
"It's an unbelievably complex task, one that we may not be able to get perfectly right today, but one that we cannot afford to get wrong."
The Liberals have yet to formally launch the review and public consultations — something they promised in the last election — but insist the exercise will be done by the end of the year.
While some parts of Day's presentation might irk "sunny ways" Liberals, others seemed in step with the new government, notably on the importance of defending home soil rather than staging expeditionary missions.
He questioned if the Canadian military must be all things to all people in terms of the kind of operations it's able to conduct, which have traditionally run the gamut from disaster assistance to waging war.
Norman, who will take over as second-in-command of the Forces in three months, argued that global uncertainty makes it necessary for the military to be ready for anything, much like a fire department.
"Our ships are designed and our people are trained with the ability to go much further than diplomacy can all on its own," he said. "Firefighters are great getting cats out of trees, but that's not what firefighters are trained to do."
But Day also wondered whether there were some expensive capabilities the country could do without — either now or in the future.
"When we go overseas, let's accept the fact we don't need to come to the party with the cake and the champagne and the chips, and the party poppers," said Day. "If we just showed up with a two-four some times? I'm from Nova Scotia, right? Twenty-four beer is a two-four and 12 beer is a case."
Norman, however, had a slightly different take, mostly when it came to the navy and recent criticism from defence analysts that the admirals must temper their expectations on the pricey equipment should go into the upcoming replacement frigates — a program currently estimated to cost around $104 billion over 30 years.
No one knows what foreign or security policy challenges will look like in 2050, he said.
"There's a perception in some circles that the navy is being overly ambitious in terms of our requirements. ... We need to openly and aggressively tackle the perception that our requirements are somehow gold-plated — or that we're perhaps asking for a Rolls Royce, but we can live with a Toyota Camry."
The Liberals advocate a leaner, more agile military. While not endorsing that, Day said he believes debate over the military often ends up stuck on procurement and the notion of hardware, like ships, planes and tanks.
He said the country's "intelligence architecture" — satellites, drones and other means — is as important and will also require attention.
By Murray Brewster, The Canadian Press