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Poverty rising in Canada as Ottawa boosts military spending

Nearly a quarter of people in Canada are currently living in poverty

Canadian PoliticsEconomic CrisisWar Zones

Ottawa’s updated military policy allocates an additional $8.1 billion to military spending, with a promise to increase the defence budget from $30 billion to $50 billion by 2029. Photo by Sgt. Michael Wilson/US Army/Flickr.

In April 2024, the Canadian government released its updated military policy, Our North, Strong and Free: A Renewed Vision for Canada’s Defence. The document allocates an additional $8.1 billion to military spending, with a promise to increase the defence budget from the current $30 billion to $50 billion by 2029, bringing Canada closer to NATO’s two percent defence spending to GDP ratio. The update also promises a spate of new purchases: tactical helicopters, early warning aircraft, long-range missiles, specialized maritime sensors, funds to improve the country’s naval fleet, new satellite communications systems, billions toward the creation of a “strategic reserve” of ammunition and production of made-in-Canada artillery rounds, and more.

On June 18, two months after the release of Our North, Strong and Free, a report from Food Banks Canada estimated that 25 percent of people in Canada are currently living in poverty: 10 million of Canada’s 40 million people, and six million more than officially reported by Statistics Canada.

The report defines poverty as being unable to afford two or more household essentials. Poverty levels are highest among single-parent families (44.5 percent), renters (42 percent), those unemployed and looking for work (55.5 percent), people who identify as Black (34.4 percent), people who identify as Indigenous (37.4 percent), disabled people (37 percent), and all demographics aged 18 to 30 (30 percent).

Sarah Stern, executive director for the Maple Leaf Centre for Food Security, said the report shows that “Poverty [in Canada] may be more extensive and possibly more multifaceted than it appears.”

Rising poverty in Canada should come as no surprise. Food bank use rose 32 percent from March 2022 to March 2023, and a staggering 78.5 percent from March 2019. Meanwhile, Canada’s richest people saw their wealth jump 51 percent during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As poverty rises, the number of billionaires in Canada is growing at a rate of 15 percent annually, faster than the global average. A May 2022 report from Oxfam Canada found that Canada’s 41 richest individuals own as much wealth as the poorest 40 percent of Canadians. These billionaires are the leading figures in Canada’s most lucrative media, technology, food, clothing, and pharmaceutical companies.

The so-called “affordability crisis” can more accurately be described as a crisis of capitalism driven by elite wealth hoarding, price-gouging by grocery monopolists, our government’s disinvestment from the public sector, and a rampant housing crisis caused by speculation and the financialization of housing.

And as Canadians struggle to make ends meet, the Trudeau government is pumping tens of billions of dollars into the Canadian military machine in order to confront geopolitical adversaries including Russia and China.

Our North, Strong and Free came on the heels of several recent initiatives to expand Canada’s military capabilities. In April 2023, Ottawa announced a new long-range radar system, based in southern Ontario, to detect military threats in the Arctic region. Our North, Strong and Free promises to further expand the military footprint in the Arctic. As Tamara Lorincz writes in Canadian Dimension, the militarization of the Arctic poses a grave threat to Indigenous communities and the climate.

In February of this year, Canada spent $316 million on new air defence systems and anti-tank missiles for Canadian troops deployed in Latvia under Operation Reassurance. Indeed, over the past year, Ottawa has announced $30 billion in new equipment purchases, “including the acquisition of the Lockheed Martin F-35 and the Boeing P8-8A Poseidon,” plus “a fleet of General Atomics MQ-9B Reapers as well as trucks.” The Royal Canadian Navy is in the process of acquiring a submarine fleet. The federal government is also spending $300 billion over 65 years to build and maintain a new fleet of warships.

This significant increase in military spending is primarily aimed at Russia, another Arctic power and Canada’s geopolitical foe. It’s also directed at confronting China, a bugbear of the Canadian military and political elite. The military update states:

…the service of our Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) is more important than ever—from defending Canada and securing our sovereignty in the Arctic, to protecting our continent alongside the United States…to strengthening NATO’s collective defence and providing military assistance to help Ukraine defend itself, to increasing our presence in the Indo-Pacific.

Why is Canada preparing for war? The answer, according to Ottawa, is that Russian and Chinese malevolence is undermining the “rules-based international order,” and as such, Canada must be ready to defend its democratic freedoms with force. Our North, Strong and Free claims:

We need a robust military that can defend Canada and protect Canadians at home, including in our North, while defending North America and our national interests abroad with Allies and partners…This is about preserving our values of democracy, freedom, peace, and fairness for the next generation of Canadians…

General Wayne Eyre, Canada’s chief of defence staff, has claimed that Canada’s Arctic territories are under threat from Russian and Chinese expansionism. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has warned against rising authoritarianism and called on “like-minded democracies” to band together and oppose Moscow and Beijing. His government has allocated billions to sourcing critical minerals for a Western supply chain of high-tech input materials, while claiming that “Antagonistic states around the world are using our economic interdependence for their own geopolitical advantage.” In the name of protecting “democratic” states from “authoritarian” ones, Ottawa has committed billions of dollars in arms and training to Ukraine in its fight against Russia and sailed Canadian warships off the coast of China.

At the G7 summit in mid-June, Canada announced an additional $5 billion in funding for the Ukrainian government, which is in the midst of an aggressive forced mobilization campaign as Russian forces continue their advance in Ukraine’s eastern regions. Ottawa has already sent $4 billion in military assistance to Ukraine since February 2022, plus another $7.4 billion to “help meet Ukraine’s urgent balance of payments needs and support its macroeconomic stability.”

Rather than promoting negotiation and peaceful settlement between the Russian and Ukrainian governments, Ottawa has spent at least $16.4 billion to perpetuate the conflict, while over the same period of time poverty in Canada has risen.

The results of Canadian policy on the Russia-Ukraine war have been disastrous, producing more dead Ukrainians and Russians and no greater hope of victory for the Ukrainian government. At present, the average age of Ukrainian soldiers on the frontline is 43 to 45, an indication of just how many young Ukrainians have lost their lives or fled the country since February 2022—and yet another indication that this conflict cannot be solved by throwing more bodies into the meat grinder.

As poverty rises, Canada is also increasing its military footprint around China. In addition to sailing warships through the Taiwan Strait, Canada participates in the biennial US-led Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) military exercises around the Hawaiian islands. While RIMPAC claims not to be directed against any particular states, the 2022 exercises saw US troops raiding a simulated North Korean town and firing shots into a building containing portraits of former Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) leader Kim Jong-Il and current DPRK leader Kim Jong-un.

In February 2024, the Canadian government released its Indo-Pacific Strategy, a polemic against China. While claiming that “the Indo-Pacific is [Canada’s] neighbourhood,” the document describes China as “an increasingly disruptive global power” with “interests and values that increasingly depart from ours.” The document accuses China of disregarding United Nations rulings, coercive diplomacy, forced labour, lending practices that “create risks for developing economies,” and “arbitrary application of Chinese laws.”

Canada’s militaristic policies do not make Canadians safer. They increase global tensions while benefitting Canada’s economic and political elites. War is a racket, as Smedley Butler said in 1935, and cold wars are rackets too. As long as the Canadian government makes the public fear the international agendas of official enemies, then public outcry over wealth transfer to the owners of arms manufacturers, defence contractors, and mining companies will remain muted.

Canada’s massive increases to military spending, paired with the recent Food Banks Canada report on poverty, illuminate once again the need for a socialist, anti-imperialist left that educates Canadians about the injustices of our present system while promoting peace, economic equality, and a more just future.

Owen Schalk is a writer from rural Manitoba. He is the author of Canada in Afghanistan: A story of military, diplomatic, political and media failure, 2003-2023 and the co-author of Canada’s Long Fight Against Democracy with Yves Engler.


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