I've been putting together a Canadian Foreign Policy dataset, relying heavily on the early 1980s Statistics Canada Historical Data Series publication (partly because I like navigating a book format, partly because the CANSIM database is such a labryrinth of inpenetrable search returns and a graveyard of terminated longitudinal series).
Some of the series I've constructed are total defence spending and total federal spending. The following graphs are quick sketches of the expenditure trend, both at the macro scale and over the last few decades.
I like using defence spending in terms of the total federal budget because it gives a better sense of relative government priorities
than the more common GDP denominator. A government cutting EVERYTHING isn't signalling it wants to get away from military spending, it's signalling it just wants to spend less. Falling defence budgets are just a byproduct. Budget shares, however, signal a movement in some other direction than military force.
Note that it is harder to get government financial data than just GDP, so sometimes this metric simply isn't available. And of course, if the variable of interest is power potential rather than just foreign policy concern, then GDP is a more suitable measure.
Unsurprisingly, I like this one best because it shows a broad sweep of Canadian miltiary history. I'm a little surprised at how low the totals are in the prewar period. You can see in the drop-off post-1867 part of the reason why British defence officials were so unsure about the whole Confederation business. Ridding a 'millstone', for sure. But that strategy is no good if you end up having to go and win the place back from imperial rivals because the locals can't keep the gate locked.
The Great War spike is notable because of how little a learning curve there was. There was peace; there was war; then there was the greatest devotion of resources to a singular purpose the Canadian government had ever seen. And then things went quiet--at least until the next time. Fascinating.
With a little practice under our belts, we hit an even higher figure in the Second World War. Almost 80% of government spending devoted to the war effort. Goodbye capitalism.
Third is a good shot of just how serious we took the onset of the Cold War. 'We're going to be a big player' was not just a mantra, but a real effort was made to back those words up.
This of course proved unsustainable (and the Cold War less destined to conflict than initially assumed) and so we get what's been, in a relative sense anyway, pretty much a stable equilibrium. That would suggest all the talk of the '90s being a 'dark age' for the military are highly overblown.
Here's a cross-section of just the last 40 years. This makes the lament for the '90s a little more bearable, but only just. Cutbacks clearly weren't as harsh as those of the 1970s, and were on about par with the late Mulroney period. So a lot of crocodile tears there.
On the other hand, all the talk of Harper's 'militarization' of foreign policy could use a bit of damper as well. Relative spending still hasn't returned to the very latter days of the Cold War, and recent cuts suggest it won't be returning any time soon.
Given we're already on the margin of defence spending, I can't think overall capabilities would be much affected in one direction or the other. It is 1946--and 1919--no longer.