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Harper pledges military for cities
Up to 500 troops in major centres
Force could help with disasters
Conservative Leader Stephen Harper wants to beef up military detachments in the GTA and other major metropolitan areas to help deal with emergencies.
"Obviously, we would anticipate that its domestic need would be in case of disaster," Harper said during a federal election campaign stop late yesterday on Vancouver Island.
But he said the "territorial defence units" — 100 regular troops and 400 or more reservists each — would help protect Canada's sovereignty and provide the military with handy jumping-off points if Canadian forces are needed to help out in conflicts in other countries.
Although he didn't make a direct connection, Harper's pledge to deploy regular army troops in Canada's major cities came as the GTA was reeling from the shock of the latest gun violence in downtown Toronto on Monday.
Vancouver, Calgary, Regina, Winnipeg, the Toronto area and other major metropolitan areas would be in line for the territorial defence units, Harper said, according to Canadian Press.
"A large number of our cities have no military presence," Harper said.
Initial reaction was skeptical. Military historian Jack Granatstein called Harper's plan of having 100 regular soldiers stationed with 400 or more reservists in major cities across Canada "silly."
"This is nuts, dispersing penny-packets of troops in major cities," he told the Toronto Star. "It makes more sense to build up the reserves."
Harper revealed the idea of the new units as part of an announcement on strengthening the military presence in western Canada.
"This is a full military presence," he told reporters in Courtenay, B.C.
"Obviously they would be military forces that could be forward deployed in the event of more serious military conflict elsewhere."
Harper's announcement has echoes of moves by the Canadian Forces earlier this year to improve its responses to domestic emergencies.
The forces created Canada Command, a separate command structure, that for the first time treats Canada as an operational theatre. Its commander has the authority to draw on naval, air force and army units to cope with a terror attack or natural disaster.
Prior to its creation, military commanders had to negotiate a maze of approvals in order to get equipment or manpower.
Harper's announcement was part of a promise to restore the military's presence in B.C. and across Western Canada. Since CFB Chilliwack was closed in the mid-1990s, Harper noted that B.C. hasn't had any army units on its soil.
"British Columbia is now the only region of the country without a regular army presence," he said, promising a rapid reaction battalion of 650 troops to be stationed at nearby CFB Comox.
But Granatstein said establishing territorial defence units in cities was a mistake.
"You really don't need to do this," he said, arguing that it was more important to have the capacity to move troops quickly. "One hundred are too few to do anything."
But Granatstein stressed that he was positively inclined to the rest of the Conservative military proposal announced yesterday, especially Harper's argument that there is not enough military presence in British Columbia.
"All that sounds pretty good to me," he said of the announcement. "It's just the silliness of the troops in the cities. He must be thinking people in Toronto want regulars to deal with the gangs."
Harper tied the boost in military spending in the West to protecting Canada's sovereignty, as he recently did in promising icebreakers to help surveillance of Arctic waters.
"Canada's West Coast is vital to our national sovereignty," he said. "British Columbia is our window on Asia and the Pacific. Our Pacific waters are home to vital trade routes, fishing grounds and resource wealth."
In addition to stationing a battalion at Comox, Harper said the Conservatives would:
Increase Pacific navy personnel by about 500 regulars.
Buy a new transport ship.
Embark on a program to replace Canada's destroyers and frigates.
Boost the air force's surveillance capability by purchasing unmanned aerial vehicles, as well as upgrading existing Aurora surveillance aircraft.
Harper has promised to increase defence spending by $5.3 billion more than is now planned for the military from 2006-2011.
Granatstein agreed that an increased military presence is good for British Columbia.
But he pointed out that since the greatest civic emergency risk in the area comes from earthquakes, "what they need is a big engineering presence."
"At the moment, the nearest troops are in Edmonton," he said. "We don't have the air capacity to move them; they would have to cross the Rockies by road."
Granatstein was dubious about the proposal for a rapid reaction battalion in Comox, pointing out that Chilliwack might be a better location, and that Harper has already promised to have one in Goose Bay and Trenton.
"This would be a lot more rapid reaction battalions than we have now," he said. "Scattering battalions like that usually doesn't work. Concentration is one of the principles of war."
With files from Canadian Press
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