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NATO secretary-general urges Ottawa to meet its defence spending target

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, right, waves as he meets with North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at Rideau Cottage in Ottawa, on June 19, 2024. (Spencer Colby/The Canadian Press) Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, right, waves as he meets with North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at Rideau Cottage in Ottawa, on June 19, 2024. (Spencer Colby/The Canadian Press)
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Canada needs to meet NATO's minimum defence spending target, and present a plan on how it will reach it as a way to show authoritarian regimes that Western allies are aligned, said the alliance's secretary general on Wednesday.

Numbers NATO released this week show Canada is expected to spend 1.37 per cent of its gross domestic product on defence this year, well below the two per cent target.

"Canada's standing in NATO is strong, but at the same time of course we expect all allies to make good on the promise of investing two per cent," Jens Stoltenberg, secretary general of NATO, said during an event hosted by the NATO Association of Canada in Ottawa. 

Ahead of Stoltenberg's remarks, Defence Minister Bill Blair promised the goal will eventually be reached, as Russia's war in Ukraine raises a threat of expanded conflict in Europe. 

Last year, members agreed that two per cent should be a minimum, a reflection of worries over Russia's ongoing invasion of Ukraine.

Stoltenberg acknowledged it's tough for politicians to prioritize defence over social services, but said a precondition of success in any Western country is preserving peace and investing in security.  

National Defence Minister Bill Blair speaks to reporters following a caucus meeting on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday, June 19, 2024. (Sean Kilpatrick / The Canadian Press)

Canada faces the same challenges as all the allied countries that have budgets, he said. 

"They're concerned about the fiscal balance. They want to spend money on health, education and on the other things," he said. 

But at the end of the day, if those countries aren't able to prevent war, their efforts on health, education and climate change "will fail" he said. 

His remarks on spending received enthusiastic applause from the NATO Association of Canada, including from former defence minister Anita Anand, who snuck in the back to listen to his remarks. 

A handful of protesters gathered outside a building in the parliamentary precinct where Stoltenberg spoke.On the sidewalk in front of the building, "Canada lagging behind our NATO allies" was written in chalk, along with "Trudeau and Blair laughing stocks of the world" and "Canadians are not laughing."

Stoltenberg's visit came the same day Russia and North Korea signed an agreement that pledges mutual aid if either country faces "aggression." 

Stoltenberg expressed concern that Russia could be providing support to North Korea's nuclear and missile programs, and over China "propping up Russia's war economy" by providing electronics that are being used in weapons and combat against Ukraine.  

"So the answer is that when they are more and more aligned, all the authoritarian regimes like North Korea, China, Iran and Russia, then it's even more important that we are aligned as countries believing in freedom and democracy," he said. 

Defence spending across European allies and Canada was up nearly 18 per cent this year alone, Stoltenberg said during a speech at the White House on Monday — the biggest increase in decades.

Blair has said Canada's defence spending will climb to at least 1.75 per cent of its GDP by 2029. 

Additional spending on a new submarine fleet and integrated air defence and missile systems will probably push the figure past the two per cent mark, Blair said. 

"Let me assure you that we've been doing a great deal of work within our Defence Department, with the government of Canada, but also with our NATO allies," Blair said. 

Allies were "very encouraged" by a defence policy update Canada released earlier this year, he said. 

Defence spending will be among a number of topics Stoltenberg said he would raise with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who he had dinner with on Wednesday. 

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg is seen outside the West Wing of the White House in Washington, D.C., on Monday, June 17, 2024. AP / Mark Schiefelbein

The secretary general embraced Trudeau and Ottawa warmly, calling Canada like "home" and the prime minister "friend."

Stoltenberg also wants Canada to scale up its contribution in the North and maritime operations. 

Both Blair and Anand, now treasury board president, acknowledged this week that defence spending is delayed because of a shortage of procurement workers. 

"We have the ability to accelerate spending. It does require an investment in people to get the job done," Blair said.

The Liberal government has set aside $1.8 billion over 20 years to increase the number of workers who can purchase new equipment, recruit, train new soldiers and upgrade infrastructure. 

NATO leaders are set to meet in Washington, D.C., next month for an annual summit and mark the alliance's 75th anniversary. 

Increasing funding for Ukraine will be an agenda priority, after Stoltenberg came forward with a proposal for all NATO allies to contribute 40 billion euros a year, Blair said.

At the White House on Monday, Stoltenberg said his expectation for next month's meeting is to have allies agree "to step up financial and military support to Ukraine," and reduce the burden on the U.S.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 19, 2024

-- With files from Sarah Ritchie and The Associated Press

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