FREDERICTON — After years of budget cuts and neglect, Stephen Harper pledged Monday to bolster the ranks of the country's citizen-soldiers.
He said a re-elected Conservative government would add 6,000 reservists to the military, bringing the total number of part-time soldiers to 30,000 — a figure the prime minister initially promised back in 2008 when the country's last defence strategy was unveiled.
The government never hit that target, even though reservists play an integral role in deployments, including the war in Afghanistan, where they made up as much as 20 per cent of the battle groups that fought the Taliban.
Harper also said he would bolster training for reservists to respond to domestic emergencies such as floods and forest fires. The promise meshes with a flood of pre-election infrastructure announcements by Conservative MPs for the refurbishing local armouries across the country, many of which have needed repairs for years.
"Ensuring the Canadian Armed Forces have the tools and the people they need has always been a top priority for our government," said Harper. "Others would make very different choices — wrong choices, frankly irresponsible choices."
Harper tried to cast himself on Monday as the military's main defender on the national scene.
"I don't have to tell you that the lack of true respect for our military and the true appreciation for the absolute necessity of the work — it does still linger in some parts of Ottawa."
The Conservatives say the recruiting of more part-time soldiers will cost $163 million over three years, and $63.4 million going forward once the target is reached.
The money comes after years in which the budget for reserves was cut by as much as 25 per cent. Over the last eight years, a sizable portion of the roughly $330 million set aside for part-timers went to reservists who were called up to full-time duty at National Defence headquarters in Ottawa.
Andrew Leslie, a retired lieutenant-general who is running for the Liberal in the Ottawa suburb of Orleans, was involved in crafting the 2008 policy for the army and was incredulous over the Harper announcement.
"How dare he?" Leslie said. "Since the end of combat operations in Afghanistan, Mr. Harper has decimated the reserves."
Leslie claimed the training budget for part-time soldiers, funding for spare parts and vehicle movement have been cut by between 30 and 35 per cent since 2011. The number of actual reservists has also been allowed to dwindle to 24,000 — about 2,000 less than during the Afghan war.
In 2010, the budget situation was so bad at one point the reserves were required to stop training for a short time.
In 2013, the Harper government ordered National Defence to find a new funding model and to rebalance the distribution of reservists among the different services — a program that was supposed to be in place last spring.
But a series of documents obtained through the Access to Information Act, released and reported on by The Canadian Press last winter, show the initiative has ground to a halt.
The plan was politically sensitive given that reserve units are sprinkled in 100 communities across the country and any proposed re-organization had the potential to generate a local backlash.
The documents also touched on polling data that suggest Canadians favour cuts to the defence budget, as long as they don't hurt the military's ability to respond to domestic natural disasters.
Harper was in the Maritimes on Monday to shore up support for local candidates. Conservative incumbent Keith Ashfield is looking to hold the riding of Fredericton.
Ashfield joined Harper and his wife Laureen at an event this morning where they met about 20 veterans.
A handful of anti-Conservative protesters gathered outside of the Royal Canadian Legion, where the event was held.
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