Finance Minister Michael Wilson’s fifth budget landed last week like a mortar shell on the sleepy Prince Edward Island town of Summerside, where a military base is headquarters for two air force squadrons. Talk in the Island’s second-largest community (population 7,830) quickly turned to the government’s decision to move the units elsewhere and close the base. “Everybody who comes in the door is talking about it,” said Ira Kember, owner of a local Nissan automobile dealership.
The economic impact of shutting down Summerside’s largest employer would be enormous. The squadrons’ annual payroll for 929 military personnel and 264 civilian employees amounts to $50 million. The government spends another $11 million locally on maintenance and construction at the base each year. Predicted Kember:
“This could become a ghost town.” Yet, even after the announcement from Ottawa, construction crews continued work on a new $ 12-million officers’ mess on the base.
Spree: Protests erupted from Newfoundland to British Columbia after Wilson announced that Ottawa would close seven military bases and trim seven others in order to save money. At the same time, advocates of a stronger defence accused the Conservatives of reneging on a commitment to increase military spending. Indeed, at the urging of the Conservative government, the military had embarked on its biggest peacetime shopping spree in Canadian history, including an $8-billion plan to buy as many as 12 nuclear-powered submarines. But Wilson’s budget cancelled the submarine program and froze the 1989 defence budget at last year’s level of $11.2 billion. In Halifax, retired Rear-Admiral Fred Crickard of the Centre for Foreign Policy Studies at Dalhousie University complained: “The government came in standing tall. We have been let down.”
Certainly, the base closures in nine provinces—only Saskatchewan was spared—and a decision to trim as many as 3,000 people from the 87,600-member Armed Forces over the
next five years made it clear that the department of national defence was among the biggest losers in Wilson’s attack on the deficit. Declared Gen. Paul Manson, the chief of the defence staff in Ottawa: “We don’t take these things lightly at a time when we were just starting to build up the Armed Forces.”
Manson announced that the military would cancel or scale back plans to buy a wide range of equipment, from Aurora antisubmarine patrol planes to portable army radios. All the projects had previously been approved by the government. For his part, Defence Minister William McKnight insisted that the government would continue to frame its defence policy around a 1987 white paper introduced by his predecessor, Perrin Beatty, now minister of health, which called for Canada to strengthen its defences.
In fact, the spending cuts appeared to leave Beatty’s policy in tatters. Troop cutbacks will leave the Armed Forces without the manpower required to meet the white paper’s goal of reinforcing 7,800 Canadian Armed Forces personnel stationed in Europe. And McKnight himself acknowledged that the government
would have to rethink its approach to defending the Arctic—only nuclear-powered submarines can operate for extended periods under polar ice—and may seek the help of its NATO allies. That alternative drew a sharp response from critics. Declared Crickard: “Mr. Wilson has mortgaged our ability to control our oceans.” On the other hand, disarmament activists expressed open delight at the apparent scuttling of Beatty’s policy. Said Sheena Lambert, campaign co-ordinator of the Canadian Peace Alliance: “The submarines were the centrepiece of a policy that was illconceived in the first place. This should lead to a thorough review of defence policy.”
Fight: But defence contractors reacted with shock to the cancellation of the submarine program. At Nova Scotia’s Halifax Dartmouth Industries Ltd.—one of several companies that had been competing for part of the submarine order—the project “would have meant work for 400 people for 23 years,” said company president An___ drew McArthur. “Now it’s I back to the drawing board.” Í In fact, the navy is certain to I buy more warships—and “ build them in Canadian shipyards—though they will not be nuclear-powered. Admiral Charles Thomas, chief of Maritime Command, told Maclean’s that the morning after the budget became public, he and senior staff began work to determine what mix of ships would best meet the navy’s needs.
Other victims vowed to fight the defence cutbacks. P.E.I. Premier Joseph Ghiz and opposition politicians agreed to work together to save the Summerside base. The town’s mayor, Basil Stewart, noted that governments had tried to close the base in 1972 and 1980. Said Stewart: “We got in a good scrap then, and they changed their minds. I guess we’re going to get into another scrap.” Given Wilson’s declared determination to cut the deficit, Stewart may find the going tougher this time.
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