MONTREAL, Oct. 1 (UPI) -- Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien has sent signals that for the first time since he took office nine years ago, he will address chronic underfunding in Canada's armed forces and will beef up joint defense efforts with the United States.
The announcement came in the Speech from the Throne delivered in Ottawa Monday by Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson. Military leaders meeting in Kingston, Ontario, stated that increased cooperation between U.S. and Canadian forces is crucial to North American defense.
Chretien is expected to release more details of the proposed expansion in military spending and cooperation in a major speech to be delivered in the House of Commons Tuesday afternoon.
Canada's recurring military underfunding has come under increased criticism by U.S. Ambassador Paul Cellucci and high-ranking military personnel, defense experts, politicians and the House of Commons itself.
"Before the end of this mandate, the government will set out a long-term direction on international and defense policy that reflects our values and interests and ensures that Canada's military is equipped to fulfill the demands placed upon it," the governor-general said in the speech, which was written by the Prime Minister's office.
Senior government officials noted that Chretien pressed for an early reference to defense spending in the Throne Speech as a signal to Washington that Canada is addressing its decline in military capabilities, though the speech fell short of actually mandating a budget increase.
Canada's annual defense budget stands at $12 billion (Canadian), roughly half the NATO standard of 2 percent of gross domestic product. The Throne Speech did not specifically state that the amount will be increased but top-ranked government officials asserted that an increase of about $1 billion will show in the next budget.
The Canadian Armed Forces have endured budget cuts since 1993 and military personnel have dropped from 87,600 in 1990 to the current 57,000.
Canada has reduced defense spending by 23 percent since 1994, and is ranked 54th in armed forces globally and has the 77th largest reserve force despite having the 34th largest population.
The Throne Speech also declared that Canada will place greater emphasis on diplomatic relationships with Washington and establish more consular offices in U.S. cities.
At a meeting at Queens University in Kingston, Ontario, U.S. and Canadian military leaders moved a step closer to development of a joint anti-terrorist team, officials said.
Canadian Lt. Gen. George Macdonald, vice chief of the defense staff and one of Canada's highest-ranking officers, said suspicions that increased military cooperation with the United States could threaten Canada's sovereignty are misplaced, arguing instead that the security of Canadians depends on engineering close ties with American armed forces.
He said Canadian Forces and the Pentagon have agreed on the key elements of a joint military team intended to protect North America from terrorist attacks, but he stressed the anti-terrorism team will not see Canadian soldiers put under direct U.S. command.
Details are yet to be finalized and approved but a report is expected to be released within a few weeks, Macdonald said, adding the primary aim of the group was to develop contingency plans for joint military cooperation in the event of terrorist attack or natural disaster on either side of the border.
Throne Speeches do not outline how programs will be financed, but Finance Minister John Manley said the initiatives will be executed over the long term and paid for by future economic growth and rearranged priorities, with no deficit foreseen.