Canada’s Defence Policy Statements: Change and Continuity

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Disponible en français.

In June 2017, the Government of Canada released its most recent defence policy statement: Strong, Secure, Engaged: Canada’s Defence Policy (SSE). SSE outlines Canada’s defence priorities for a 20-year period. In the 2022 federal budget, the government announced a defence policy review with the goal of updating SSE.

This HillNote provides an overview of defence policy statements in Canada over the past 60 years. It also describes the approach to defence policy reviews taken by certain Canadian allies and discusses SSE in the context of the changing international and domestic security environment since 2017.

Strong, Secure, Engaged

In July 2016, the Government of Canada initiated a defence policy review, which involved consultations with the Canadian public, defence experts, parliamentarians and some allies. SSE is the result.

SSE’s “vision for defence” is that Canada is “strong at home, secure in North America, and engaged in the world.” The statement outlines the eight core missions of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) and contains 111 specific commitments. Furthermore, SSE pledges to increase Canada’s annual defence spending from $18.9 billion in 2016–2017 to $32.7 billion in 2026–2027.

Compared to previous defence policy statements, SSE has a greater emphasis on personnel matters. The first chapter is entitled “Well-supported, diverse, resilient people and families” and incorporates a focus on Gender-Based Analysis Plus. Academics Meaghan Shoemaker and Stéfanie von Hlatky note that this emphasis reflects the gradual “mainstreaming” of gender into defence policy.

Previous Canadian Defence Policy Statements

Canada’s first modern defence policy statement was released in 1964, and it announced the unification of the army, navy and air force into a single force: the CAF.

Since then, seven other defence policy statements – sometimes called “white papers” – have been released, as shown in Table 1.

Table 1 – Defence Policy Statements in Canada since 1964

Year Statement Prime Minister Minister of National Defence
1964 White Paper on Defence Lester B. Pearson Paul Hellyer
Lucien Cardin (Associate Minister)
1971 Defence in the 1970s: White Paper on Defence Pierre Elliott Trudeau Donald S. Macdonald
1987 Challenge and Commitment: A Defence Policy for Canada Brian Mulroney Perrin Beaty
1992 Canadian Defence Policy Brian Mulroney Marcel Masse
1994 1994 White Paper on Defence Jean Chrétien David Collenette
2005 A Role of Pride and Influence in the World: Defence Paul Martin Bill Graham
2008 Canada First Defence Strategy Stephen Harper Peter MacKay
2017 Strong, Secure, Engaged: Canada’s Defence Policy Justin Trudeau Harjit Sajjan

In writing about defence procurement in Canada, academic Kim Richard Nossal explains that the timing of Canada’s defence policy statements usually coincides with the election of a new federal government and not necessarily with a change in the international security environment.

Nossal maintains that the purpose of defence policy statements is to justify the need for defence expenditures by explaining to citizens the federal government’s approach to geostrategic issues. As well, these statements send a signal to allies – and potential adversaries – about the future direction of Canada’s military capabilities.

No Canadian law requires a review of defence policy or the release of a defence policy statement. Such statements have no legal standing, and they do not authorize expenditures.

Moreover, within Canada, there is no standard practice for how reviews are conducted. For example, the 1994 defence policy statement incorporated the findings of a special joint parliamentary committee created to study defence policy, but subsequent defence policy reviews have taken other approaches for consulting parliamentarians.

Approaches to Defence Policy Reviews in Certain Other Countries

Canada’s approach to defence policy reviews differs in some ways from that taken by some of its allies, including – among many possible examples – the United States and the United Kingdom.

In the United States, there is a legislative requirement for the Secretary of Defense to conduct a review of that country’s National Defense Strategy every four years.

Like Canada, the United Kingdom does not have a legislative requirement for defence policy reviews and has published defence policy statements at irregular intervals since the Second World War. The most recent such review was the 2021 Integrated Review of foreign, security, defence and development policy. This review contrasts with Canada’s approach of reviewing these areas separately.

Canada’s Defence Policy Statements in an Evolving Threat Environment

Canada’s 1987 defence policy statement provides an example of the effect of a changing international security environment on the longevity of a defence policy statement. In the context of the Cold War, the statement called for a “more sober approach to international relations and the needs of security policy.” One of its commitments was the purchase of between 10 and 12 nuclear-powered submarines. However, both the end of the Cold War and budgetary pressures led to many commitments in that statement not being implemented, and the federal government cancelled the submarine purchase in 1989.

Subsequent defence policy statements have had an expanded geographic focus regarding Canada’s security interests. Whereas the 1987 statement claimed that “Canada’s security policy must respond to an international environment dominated by rivalry between East and West,” the 1994 statement described an “unpredictable and fragmented world, one in which conflict, repression and upheaval exist alongside peace, democracy and relative prosperity.”

The 2005 and 2008 defence policy statements were released during Canada’s military engagement in Afghanistan. The former emphasized “a bold new vision to deal with an increasingly uncertain world,” and the latter’s focus was “rebuilding the Canadian forces.”

Despite a changing security environment, many themes have appeared perennially in Canada’s defence policy statements. For example, the statements focus on such priorities as protecting Canada, defending North America in partnership with the United States and contributing to international security through the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and United Nations peacekeeping operations. They also typically contain commitments regarding the management and structure of the CAF.

Strong, Secure, Engaged and the Modern Defence Policy Environment

In the context of Russia’s most recent invasion of Ukraine, the federal government indicated that a review of SSE is required because of the rapidly changing international security environment. According to Deputy Minister of National Defence Bill Matthews, “a key part of the policy update is any update to the threat environment.” The 2022 federal budget stated that the invasion has “fundamentally changed” the world, and claims that “recent events require the government to reassess Canada’s role, priorities, and needs.”

Moreover, during a May 2022 conference, Minister of National Defence Anita Anand said that issues related to the recruitment, retention and well-being of CAF personnel – including supporting culture change in the CAF – will be among the priorities reflected in the review.

Some observers have suggested that SSE remains an adequate basis for responding to the current international security environment because it acknowledges the return of great power competition and the need to adapt to a rapidly changing security environment. In contrast, other commentators have argued that SSE needs to be reviewed and explain that regular reviews of defence policy statements would both provide an up-to-date assessment of the security environment and identify how to respond to the associated security challenges.


While the federal government has not provided a timeline for concluding the current defence policy review, in June 2022, Minister Anand indicated that the Department of National Defence will conduct a “swift update … over the coming months.”

Additional Resources

Chapnick Adam, and J. Craig Stone. “From Policy and Strategy to Outcomes.” In Juneau, Thomas, Philippe Lagassé, and Srdjan Vucetic, eds. Canadian Defence Policy in Theory and Practice, 1 September 2019.

Duval-Lantoine, Charlotte. People First: Rethinking Personnel Policy.” Policy Perspective. Canadian Global Affairs Institute, May 2022.

Lang, Eugene. “The shelf life of defence White Papers.” Policy Options, 23 June 2017.

Nossal, Kim Richard. Charlie Foxtrot: Fixing Defence Procurement in Canada, 2016.

Perry, David. “Strong, Secure, Engaged: A Two-Year Review.” Policy Perspective. Canadian Global Affairs Institute, May 2019.

Rodman Lindsay. “You’ve Got it All Backwards: Canada’s National Defence Strategy.” In Juneau, Thomas, Philippe Lagassé, and Srdjan Vucetic, eds. Canadian Defence Policy in Theory and Practice, 1 September 2019.

Rossignol, Michel. Defence Policy Review. Library of Parliament, 4 February 1994.

Vucetic, Srdjan et al. A Comparative Analysis of Defence Review Papers: Australia, France and the United Kingdom. CIPS Working Paper. Centre for International Policy Studies, University of Ottawa, April 2017.


By Ariel Shapiro and Anne-Marie Therrien-Tremblay

Categories: Government, Parliament and politics, International affairs and defence

Tags: , , ,