BRANDON -- If 2 PPCLI and Canadian Forces Base Shilo are in the crosshairs of the Harper government's planned defence spending cuts, those plans should be disclosed now, before Brandon-Souris voters go to the polls next Monday.
Over the past several months, a number of defence experts have suggested that slashed budgets and huge spending commitments will force the Department of National Defence to dramatically reduce the number of active Canadian Forces personnel.
On that point, in August, National Post columnist John Ivison suggested disbanding an infantry battalion would be the most logical step for DND to take. "The suggestion from some quarters is that the current structure, where Canada has three regular force regiments -- the Royal Canadian Regiment in Ontario and New Brunswick; the Princess Patricia's Light Infantry in Alberta and Manitoba and the Royal 22nd Regiment in Quebec City -- is a political construct without justification in the real world," he wrote.
Retired general Rick Hillier has told CTV News the government's budget targets could not be reached without reducing numbers. "It's going to be smaller," he said. "You just can't get around it." A Canadian Press report raised the concerns again this week.
If an infantry battalion is on the chopping block, Brandon-Souris residents have reason to be concerned. CFB Shilo and 2 PPCLI have an economic impact in the Brandon area that is measured in the tens of millions of dollars annually. The disbanding or relocation of 2 PPCLI would be a serious blow for the economy of southwestern Manitoba, impacting thousands of jobs.
Ivison says it is unlikely the Conservatives would cut a battalion in Quebec City, the only area of Quebec where they enjoy a tangible level of support. It is just as unlikely they would disband a battalion in either vote-rich Ontario or in their Alberta base.
That leaves Manitoba and New Brunswick -- provinces with small populations, where voter anger would affect the government far less than it would in larger provinces.
Manitobans have been victims of the politics of military spending before. In 1986, the Mulroney government awarded a maintenance contract for CF-18 fighter planes to Quebec-based Bombardier rather than to Winnipeg's Bristol Aerospace, which had the superior bid. The resulting scandal led to the creation of the Reform party.
With the CF-18 controversy still prominent in the memories of many Manitobans, it is understandable they would be concerned about the possibility their province could once again bear the brunt of politically motivated defence spending decisions.
The Harper government could easily dispel those concerns by reassuring Manitobans that 2 PPCLI and CFB Shilo are safe from the Defence Department's cost-cutting plans. Instead, they are sending mixed signals.
Last week, a DND spokesman told me 2 PPCLI and CFB Shilo were safe from the looming cuts. On Monday, however, Defence Minister Rob Nicholson waffled when Winnipeg North Liberal MP Kevin Lamoureux asked him to guarantee 2 PPCLI and CFB Shilo will not be hit by cutbacks.
"We have grown the size of Canada's military men and women consistently, along with the equipment that they need. This is in complete contrast to what the Liberals did during their years in office," Nicholson said. "We will never go back to what the Liberals did."
That's not good enough for Lamoureux, who says "the future of 2 PPCLI and CFB Shilo are being put into question because of this government's lack of commitment to Manitoba. People all over the province, and in particular Shilo, are concerned. The minister's non-answer causes me to believe that they have a hidden agenda and they do not want their decision to interfere with the upcoming byelection."
Up to now, the Brandon-Souris byelection has lacked a dominant issue for candidates and voters to focus on. The possibility of 2 PPCLI and CFB Shilo being targeted by federal spending cuts -- and the possibility the Harper government is withholding the news until after the byelection -- could reframe the dynamics of the campaign days before the vote.
Deveryn Ross is a political commentator living in Brandon