A crisis of confidence in the Canadian Armed Forces

Paul Wells: Military surveys suggest Canada’s armed forces faced a growing morale problem even before the misconduct allegations against chiefs of defence staff
A Canadian Forces member at CFB Trenton on Oct. 16, 2014 (Lars Hagberg/CP)
A Canadian flag sits on a members of Canadian forces that are leaving from CFB Trenton, in Trenton, Ont., on October 16, 2014. The Department of National Defence says 16 military members linked to hateful actions or groups in a report last year have been warned, disciplined or order to take counselling but allowed to remain in uniform. National Defence had previously reported that seven of the 36 members identified through the military-intelligence report on white supremacy and hate groups in the ranks were no longer in the Canadian Armed Forces. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Lars Hagberg

In May 2019, 2,622 members of the Canadian Armed Forces filled out a survey on their feelings about their work environment and career prospects. In one question, respondents were asked whether they agree with the statement: “I have confidence in the leadership of the CAF.”

Among regular force personnel, the term for full-time members as opposed to reservists, 38.5 per cent said they disagreed. Another 25.7 per cent were neutral on the question, and only 35.8 per cent said they had confidence in the leadership.

The 38.5 per cent no-confidence figure was up 6.3 percentage points from the 2017 edition of the same survey, two years earlier. Among non-commissioned members (as distinct from officers), 41.3 per cent now disagreed that they had confidence in the military leadership, up from 34 per cent in 2017. And while the confidence landscape was a little less disastrous in the Air Force, among regular-force personnel in the Navy, the number saying they lacked confidence in CAF leadership was 45.3 per cent, up from 41 per cent in 2017. In the Army the no-confidence vote stood at 42.6 per cent, up nearly 13 points from 29.8 per cent in 2017.

These figures come from the CAF Your Say Survey, a twice-annual tool for tracking CAF members’ feelings about their work. The spring and fall surveys use different questionnaires to track different indicators. Copies of the spring surveys from 2017, 2018 and 2019 were provided to Maclean’s by the Department of National Defence. The 2020 survey’s results are being compiled, a departmental spokesman said.

Taken together, the results, which came well before two successive Chiefs of the Defence Staff faced allegations of sexual impropriety, suggest Canada’s armed forces already faced a serious and growing morale problem.

I asked for the survey results because I wanted to test a hypothesis: that morale in the Canadian Forces is not good these days. First, because two successive Chiefs are under investigation, a state of affairs that has led to other high-profile resignations and serious questions about the competence of Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan. But also because, what else is going on that could possibly boost morale? The vaunted return of Canadian peacekeeping missions was a huge letdown. Procurement is an even bigger mess than usual. And the astonishing spectacle of Vice-Adm. Mark Norman being drummed out of his job, charged with breach of trust, and dragged to court, only to see the Crown finally drop its charges, must surely have rattled faith in the chain of command.

Conversations with close observers of the CAF suggest there could be something to this hypothesis. But serving members are expected to report problems up the chain of command, not to reporters. The clearest window we have into the state of the CAF is these surveys.

They’re not perfect. The response rate for regular-force personnel is around 40 per cent. The 2018 survey uses different methodology that makes comparison with other years difficult, so I’ve stuck to the 2017 and 2019 surveys in this discussion. And that most recent survey is now two years old.

But these surveys are the best answers thousands of soldiers, sailors, air crew and HQ personnel could give to questions about how they perceive their own life. At a moment of crisis for the Canadian Armed Forces, its members’ own perspective is an important element of the overall story.

Not all the news is bleak. Most CAF members are nowhere close to giving up on the military. Some 66.8 per cent of regular-forces personnel, and 80.1 per cent of reservists, agreed in 2019 that they are satisfied with “the military way of life.” Those numbers are down only a touch from 2017. Fully 81.6 per cent in the regular forces agreed in 2019 that their family supports their career in the CAF. When asked outright whether they are “proud to be in the CAF,” 79.6 per cent responded yes in 2019, down from 83.2 per cent in 2017 but still robust.

Some 70.8 per cent in the regular forces agreed they are “satisfied with the leadership provided by my immediate supervisor.” But whereas the surveys rarely found a large difference between male and female respondents’ answers, there was a gender gap on this latter score and on a similar question. Among men in the regular forces, 71.9 per cent in 2019 said they were satisfied with their immediate supervisor’s leadership, compared to only 65.5 per cent for women. And when asked whether they “trust my immediate supervisor,” 75.1 per cent of men agreed, compared to 68.8 per cent of women.

Those generally high numbers regarding members’ immediate circle collapse, however, when respondents are asked a broader question about the CAF leadership in general. As noted above, only 35.8 per cent of regular forces, barely one CAF member in three, agreed in 2019 that they “have confidence in the leadership of the CAF.”

What I wouldn’t give to ask follow-up questions on this. Which leadership? The National Defence Act says the Minister of Defence “has the management and direction of the Canadian Forces” and mentions a Chief of Defence Staff only several paragraphs later. But it’s fair to assume respondents gave several different interpretations to the mention of “leadership.” It’s also reasonable to assume warriors, like people in any workplace, might have decent relationships with immediate colleagues but take a dim view of the top brass as an abstraction. So as a general proposition, a lower number on these questions than others wouldn’t necessarily be shocking.

It’s the drop that’s remarkable. In 2017 35.3 per cent of regular Navy members agreed that they had confidence in CAF leadership, against 41 per cent who disagreed (with the rest neutral in between those extremes). By 2019 only 27.9 per cent agreed, and 45.3 per cent disagreed. The 2019 numbers for the Army are almost as stark—only 30.1 per cent expressed confidence in the leadership, against 42.6 per cent who disagreed—and the swings from 2017 were even more marked.

The survey eventually comes right out and asks respondents about their “current individual level of morale.” The general answer is, not fantastic. In 2019 42.4 per cent of regular members rated their own morale high, compared to 24.3 per cent who rated it low, with the rest in between. That’s actually up from 37.9 per cent who rated their morale high in 2017, and 25.9 per cent who rated it low.

But it’s also the second question on the survey about morale. The first asks respondents to rate, not their own morale, but the general level of morale in their unit or workplace. This seems to make respondents less likely to paint a rosy picture: in 2019, 27.8 per cent of regular forces personnel rated their unit morale high, compared to 35.1 per cent who rated it low. That high-morale number falls to only 20.4 per cent in the army, compared to fully 46.4 per cent of army respondents who rated their unit morale low.

2017 Your Say Survey

2018 Your Say Survey

2019 Your Say Survey