Almost 300 pages of documents obtained by the Liberal party under the Access to Information Act detail something called "Operation Distinction" — a campaign mandated by Prime Minister Stephen Harper that will include dozens of events through to the year 2020.
"This series of commemoration events will have significant resource implications for DND organizations and CF units," says a 10-page draft communications plan prepared by National Defence.
No costing is provided and the government has not released a budget for the multitude of events that begin this year to mark the 100th anniversary of the First World War and the 75th anniversary of the Second World War.
"We maintain our commitment to commemorate important military milestones, while ensuring our men and women in uniform have the equipment they need to do their jobs," Johanna Quinney, a spokeswoman for Defence Minister Rob Nicholson, said Thursday.
Promoting Canada's military history has been a Conservative government priority since it came to office in 2006, and planning for the 150th anniversary of Confederation in 2017 has kicked those plans into overdrive.
A January 2013 "Planning Directive" from Gen. Tom Lawson, the chief of defence staff, makes it clear the mission comes straight from the top, with input from the Privy Council Office (PCO) that serves the prime minister and cabinet, the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) and the PM himself.
"Co-ordination is ongoing with the PCO, PMO, PCH (Canadian Heritage) and VAC (Veterans Affairs) to develop the DND activities to meet the intent of the PM's correspondence while leveraging existing DND programs so as to minimize costs to the extent possible," said the 10-page directive.
It is part of a "whole of government" strategy that began with celebrations of the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 and will end in 2020 with the 120th anniversary of the Battle of Leliefontein — a battle from the Boer War in South Africa.
Throughout the planning documents, one point is repeatedly stressed: the army, air force and navy will have to eat the cost of the many military events demanded by the government, right down to the regimental level.
"Funding for the commemoration program will be provided from within existing departmental resources," says a central planning directive from the chief of defence staff dated August last year.
The military planners also explain why.
After the Harper government spent $30 million celebrating the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 while services for veterans were being loudly criticized, the documents show the government has become gun-shy about public perceptions of the next wave of military commemorations.
Liberal defence critic Joyce Murray calls it "utterly irresponsible" for the prime minister to expect the Canadian Forces to spend its limited funding on commemoration events rather than equipment, training and medical personnel.
"Remembering the sacrifices of the Canadian military simply should not come at the expense of the ability of the Canadian Armed Forces to do its job and care for those who serve," Murray said in an email.
The documents suggest the direct cost to military operations to date has been modest — estimated last August at about $1.3 million for fiscal year 2013-14. No estimates were available for subsequent years.
And a government official, on background, says the military will carry only a small share of the total commemoration cost, most of which will be borne by Canadian Heritage and Veterans Affairs.
But that is set against a backdrop of four years of budget-cutting at National Defence that has sliced as much as $30 billion from the government's original defence strategy.
Dave Perry, a senior analyst at the Conference of Defence Associations Institute, said last month that a continuing freeze on departmental budgets imposed four years ago is "siphoning off an additional $9 billion in operations and maintenance funds to cover rising (DND) personnel costs."
The prime minister, in a letter to then-defence minister Peter MacKay in June 2012, warned that fiscal restraint meant years of belt-tightening ahead for the defence budget.
"As a result, it will be imperative that we make every effort to ensure that each dollar currently devoted to defence is targeted towards enhancing our operational capabilities," said Harper's June 15, 2012, letter, obtained by The Canadian Press.
Nonetheless, the detailed communications plan for Operation Distinction says the media line — "If pressed on costs of commemoration ceremonies" — is to be that DND and the Canadian Armed Forces are using "existing departmental resources."
The documents also suggest the exercise is being driven by political imperatives rather than military.
"The supported commander must remain cognizant that the expectations for commemorative activities from the political and public sphere are more substantial than those from within the CAF," Gen. Lawson stated in his August 2013 planning directive.
Emails among senior DND planners refer to the commemoration program as "a beast" and a "steaming football."
Murray, the Liberal critic, said the documents show where the government's priorities lie.
"After cutting the Army's budget for training and readiness by 22 per cent, the Prime Minister's Office is now forcing the CAF to foot the bill for partisan, political photo ops out of the limited funds it has left," said Murray.
"This is wrong, and the government knows it: documents show it even has an explicit damage control strategy in place for when people start asking questions."
Quinney, in the Defence minister's office, responded that the National Defence budget is 27 per cent higher now than it was when the Conservatives took over government from the Liberals in 2006.
"Unlike the Liberals, our government is making a commitment to honouring the service of our men and women in uniform and to ensuring that they have the equipment needed to do their job," she said.
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