OTTAWA - The Department of National Defence appears set to miss a self-imposed deadline to rebalance the number of reserve soldiers in the military.
It is a budget-driven exercise that experts say the Harper government is keen to avoid in the run-up to an election as Conservatives try to patch things up with disgruntled veterans.
Internal documents say a review of how Canada's force of citizen soldiers is structured was supposed to be done by the end of March 2014, with a new funding model to be in place by April 1 of this year.
But National Defence spokesman Zoltan Csepregi said the review is still ongoing and it's too early to speculate what it will recommend.
The vice-chief of defence staff is examining the "optimal number" of part-time and full-time reservists with an eye towards having a "predominantly part-time, strong and sustainable reserve force," Csepregi said in an email.
Changes to both the number of full-time reservists and the amount of money allocated to the overall force, which is sprinkled in as many as 100 communities across the country, is a touchy political issue, said retired lieutenant-colonel John Selkirk of Reserves 2000, a coalition that advocates for the militia.
"There is not a politician in the House that doesn't recognize that cutting out a local unit or closing down the local armoury is bad news politically and there would quite a backlash," Selkirk said.
"So, if the government has a hint that DND wants to cut the reserves, it'll be told to stand down in an election year."
Restructuring the reserves, which were essential to filling out combat units during Canada's mission in Afghanistan, was one of the key areas identified by the Harper government when it began its post-war budget-cutting exercise.
In fact, the internal directive that initiated the review, dated May 7, 2013, said implementing a new funding model at the beginning of the 2015-16 budget year was essential to the department's business planning, which is seeking ways to absorb and manage an annual cut of $2.1 billion to the department's overall budget.
Johanna Quinney, a spokeswoman for Defence Minister Rob Nicholson, said the government's intent has been to reduce back-office expenses and preserve front line capabilities, of which the reserves are a "vital" component.
"The government is committed to ensuring that reserve units have both budgetary stability and are able to recruit to the levels required to contribute effectively to the defence of Canada," Quinney said.
But Selkirk said he's worried the review exercise is simply fiscal and that meaningful reform could get lost in the race to the bottom line.
"The intent has been, since the mid-1990s, to just cut," he said.
The militia is not just a relic of the vast citizen soldier armies of the last century, Selkirk added: properly reorganized and equipped, they could be a useful instrument to counter terrorist threats and provide security at home, he said.
In another sign the topic makes both the government and the department nervous, officials produced as part of the review plan a carefully crafted, 10-page communications strategy to address the anticipated backlash.
"It is relevant and necessary to communicate the ongoing changes, as they will affect a large population of the (Canadian Armed Forces), both primary reserve and regular force, future recruits and public perception," the undated document says.
It also points to polling data that suggests Canadians are in favour of funding cuts to the defence budget, as long as it doesn't impact the military's ability to respond to domestic natural disasters.
"While the issue of reserve employment can be considered to have a low profile in the public domain, major changes to policies governing the reserves will likely garner significant media attention," the document says.
The communications strategy warns that the closure of depots, as a result of the fiscal review, "may affect public perception of the reserves," and warns questions may arise about why the government is cutting, yet still spending money on War of 1812 commemorations.
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