I often hear people lament the "dark years" of the Canadian military, the '80s and '90s where the budgets were slashed. The budgets were actually slashed around 27% in order to eliminate the federal budget deficit and even pay down the balance. The military budgets were slashed far in excess of most other government programs. The Conservatives slashed, the Liberals slashed, and the NDP would have slashed too, had they been given the chance.
This was really, really hard on the military. Manpower was cut significantly and procurement was put off, as was infrastructure upkeep. Even the pay was kept from growing, up until the government was embarrassed by reports of active soldiers using food-banks to get by. Even worse, the military was reduced from staunch defender of freedom, as a committed partner in NATO, to Blue-Beret Peace-keepers that could only meet NATO requirements on paper. Military institutions run on reputation, and the Canadian reputation was taking a beating among soldiers.
Among Canadian civilians, there was still much pride to be had in the UN Peace-keeping operations, but even that took a kicking with the Somalia cover-up. It got so bad that the battle with Croatian forces in the Medak Pocket, a battle all Canadians should rightly feel proud of, was buried lest Canadians be reminded that they still had a military. Dark times indeed.
Times have changed, and the Canadian military is once again taking its rightful place as an honoured institution. Canadians generally feel proud of their soldiers; the fallen are rightfully remembered. While none envy the casualties it represents, the "Highway of Heroes" is often commended by other nation's soldiers wondering why their citizens don't show the same respect. Most politicians agree that military spending should be increased and that long-delayed projects should go ahead. The Canadian military has come a long way back; the times are not so dark now.
However, just because politicians are re-funding the Canadian military, it does not follow that slashing the budget originally was the wrong choice. The military may be a storied institution with a rich history and important tasks, but it is still a political tool. The military serves the needs of the times, and in the '80s, the times had changed. The mighty Soviet Union had collapsed, and the threat of European invasion along with it. People were talking about "Peace Dividends" and politicians were happy to oblige, especially the Canadians. The politicians in Canada were fearful of running up huge and unmanageable deficits, not the Soviets, and they were looking to cut anywhere they could get away with. In the late '80s, it looked like they could get away with a lot. The Canadian military reputation went from "meaningful deterrent" to "well trained and good at making do."
Many people, military and civilian alike, made quite some noise about Canada not being able to meet our NATO obligations, about not being able to support our allies in times of need. However, those times of need didn't happen. The Canadian politicians gambled that they would not need a strong and capable military, that they could get away with horribly slashing military spending, and they were right. Canada got away with it; we survived the "dark years" without a strong military. Instead, we put our financial house in order and are now the envy of the industrialised world, the most capable of weathering the current financial storm. It was a risky move, and it could have turned out bad, but it didn't. Be it luck or foresight, the Canadian politicians picked the right battle, and they won.
Times have changed again. We are approaching a period of instability brought on from a host of factors including climate change, food scarcity, energy depletion, and American aggression. Most Canadian politicians acknowledge this and are supporting a more-robust military. Budgets are up and this is starting to repair the damage from the dark years. The Canadian military has participated in Afghanistan, combat-hardening its soldiers, and will stand ready to deal with the potential troubles ahead. Who knows, maybe in another decade or two, the politicians will be able to declare another Peace Dividend and slash military spending again. It's just not something I'd bet on right now.