Why Canada needs to pry open the doors of the legion’s headquarters

Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

Sean Bruyea

The national leadership of the Royal Canadian Legion faces a crisis in confidence with its membership along with Canada’s veterans. All Canadians should be concerned with this, given the legion’s responsibility for the poppy symbol and the millions donated as a result.

The legion once actively and assertively advocated for the rights of veterans and their families. The community work performed by many local branches is highly commendable. Provincial Commands, without consideration of personal reward or enrichment, have frequently launched innovations to assist veterans such as homeless-shelter programs.

In contrast, paid senior leadership at national headquarters, known as Dominion Command and located in a suburb of Ottawa, is at risk of being perceived as out of touch with not just veterans but legion membership. Much of the blame for plummeting membership can be placed directly on the leadership’s shoulders.

Why should veterans care about how the legion manages its affairs? After all, of the legion’s about 254,000 paid members on June 1, 62,000 are listed as “ordinary” members. This category includes those who served in Canada’s military but also retired and serving members of the RCMP, civilian police forces, armed forces of all 28 NATO nations, as well as the Canadian Coast Guard.

There are 700,000 serving and retired Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) personnel. The legion’s website states that almost 100,000 of its members are veterans. However, one insider I talked to estimates that fewer than 35,000 legion members have served in the CAF, or five per cent of the CAF veteran population. Rather than an organization for veterans, the legion exists more like a social club using veterans as props.

The legion national leadership has long attributed membership decline to the sad passing of war veterans. There is little truth to this. Of the 37,000 members who did not renew last year, only one in 18 was because of a veteran’s death. The legion’s national leadership has failed to curb the voluntary exit of so many, as well as attract enough veterans and other Canadians alike.

Notwithstanding the legion’s long decline in membership, the legion profoundly benefits from Canadians’ sympathy and support for all veterans. Canadians don’t wear the poppy to honour the legion, they wear it to honour men and women who offer to sacrifice for Canada. That is why all veterans, but also all Canadians, should care deeply about how the legion is managed.

As the legion website states, “On June 30, 1948, the Royal Canadian Legion was given the responsibility to safeguard the poppy as a sacred symbol of remembrance by the people of Canada through an act of Parliament in which the Legion was granted trademark copyright of the poppy symbol in Canada.” The website also notes, “Canadians are fiercely proud of our veterans.”

We are also fiercely proud of our poppy. It was Canadian John McCrae’s poem that spawned the adoption of the poppy symbol in many countries to represent the sacrifices of war.

The legion has what can only be described as a monopoly and legal stranglehold upon the use of the poppy as a symbol of remembrance. Such immense responsibility requires the highest standards of transparency, openness, and accountability.

Instead, Dominion Command leadership has at times practised a standard that more resembles evasion and obfuscation.

A barely noticed article in Le Journal de Montréal published just before Remembrance Day last year raised questions about the management of this sacred responsibility. The newspaper reported that of the nearly $16.5 million raised the year prior from poppy donations, Dominion Command could account for only $114,000 awarded directly to veterans from its own Poppy Fund while millions more lay dormant. The legion said Le Journal de Montreal report contained “incorrect or misleading information” and said that the $16.5 million was “distributed to veteran related services in communities across the country.”

This same leadership recently transferred $500,000 from Canadians’ poppy donations to the Invictus Games when the money may not go directly to Canadian veteran participants. Rather, poppy money would support the operation of the games, involving wounded soldiers from 16 countries. Would providing volunteers and hosting the cross-country torch relay not be sufficient?

For such weighty responsibility, national leadership has taken a rather tacky path to marketing the poppy symbol. One can purchase poppy drop earrings, poppy napkins to become stained with food, umbrellas, mittens, toques, and headbands, not to mention stuffed poppy puppies. This is far from responsible management of a sacred symbol that represents death in war, loss of limb, and the wounding of minds and souls.

In an attempt to restore some confidence, Manitoba Command has urged Dominion Command to be more transparent by disclosing salaries and travel expenses. Dominion Command refused to allow the discussion of Manitoba’s motion at the biennial national convention to be held June 11 to 15 in St. John’s, Nfld.

What will not be discussed openly can be deduced through legion financial statements and other non-confidential sources.

Not counting Legion Magazine, Dominion Command has 43 permanent employees. Most are clerical staff, such as those who manage supply, finance, and membership. Managing this small group are four directors and a dominion secretary, Brad White. In the public service, 43 employees would merit one director at most. In the military, this would be the equivalent of base or wing administration led by a single lieutenant-colonel.

In rejecting the motion to reveal salaries, Dominion Command circulated a five-page brief indicating “we pay LESS than the going rates in the marketplace.”

Steven Clark, director of administration for the Legion’s Dominion Command, told The National Post that it hasn’t been disclosing individuals’ salaries for privacy reasons. There is no legislative requirement to do it, he said, as the organization is not federally or publicly funded. Expenses are tightly controlled after concerns were raised by members in 2014, the Post reported him saying.

For my analysis, I used the equivalent of market rate or higher for non-directors to deduce, from the 2016 Dominion Command budget, a conservative salary range of the directors. To measure the market rate, I used websites that compare salaries like payscale.com and glassdoor.ca.

Salaries for the directors of supply and finance are likely $115,000 to $140,000 and $120,000 to $170,000 respectively depending upon whether market rate or above-market rate is applied to other jobs in these sections. Notably, all salaries are budgeted separately from employer-paid benefits such as pension contributions.

As for the director of administration, the deputy director of marketing, and the dominion secretary, these three salaries were less apparent due to a reorganization not reflected in the most recent budget. Nevertheless, out of a total salary budget of just over $2.8 million, these three positions account for $425,000to $555,000.
Considering other directors’ salaries, deputy directors could be earning $95,000to $120,000 while the director of administration, likely the highest-paid director, could receive from $140,000 to $180,000. This would leave $185,000 to $255,000 for the dominion secretary’s salary.

Dominion Command does publish one salary: the janitor/custodian at $26,800 annually, roughly $13.50 per hour. The market median for this job is $16 per hour or $32,000 annually.

The Service Bureau section is the most opaque. Six service officers and two assistants help veterans access disability benefits, a job similar to Veterans Affairs Canada’s client service agents and case managers. Case managers have medical, nursing, social work, and often post-graduate backgrounds. Do any of the service officers have such credentials? Are they bilingual? Do they have university degrees? Assuming the current director makes $110,000 to $130,000 to manage seven employees, service officers could earn up to $80,000. This is the maximum a VAC case manager makes and 80 per cent more than new client service agents earn.

Of all sections, the Service Bureau demands accountability and transparency: 90 per cent of its budget is paid for by Canadians’ poppy donations.

A director in the public service can earn $107,000 to $140,000. Commanders and lieutenant-colonels command ships, squadrons, and regiments earning $116,000 to $124,000. None of Dominion Command’s jobs has responsibilities to justify such stratospheric salaries. It is not clear what responsibility Dominion Command has for what occurs at the provincial or local branch levels. All are responsible for their own accounts, charitable status, tax filings, service officers, and poppy campaigns.

If Dominion Command approves below- or at-market rates for the majority of its employees, then directors and deputy directors are receiving excessively exorbitant compensation for limited responsibilities. If leadership authorizes more than market rates, then Dominion Command has misled legion membership about salaries. Similarly, paying more than the market demands shows irresponsibility and incompetence in managing trusted membership and poppy funds.

Part of the problem lies with an elected executive that meets biannually. Paid senior staff may see the executive as a nuisance. The current elected president, Tom Eagles, has spent 37 years in the Legion but never served in the military. He has worked as a groundskeeper and maintenance worker at the recreation centre for the village of Plaster Rock, N.B. The Legion website indicates Mr. Eagles is also past-president of Plaster Rock’s Minor Hockey League and sat on the board of a 30-bed local long-term care facility.

An admirable rise through legion ranks, but what skill set and experience does he bring to assume the sacred responsibility of protecting the poppy for all veterans and Canadians? Add to this the 75 per cent legion membership who never served in the military, and the appreciation for the poppy is bound to become diminished and distorted.

Dominion Command and Tom Eagles declined multiple requests to answer questions on these matters or to be interviewed.

The monumental responsibility of safeguarding the poppy should not remain with leadership that fails the most basic tests of transparency, accountability, and democracy—not to mention sound and fair management. Dominion Command’s doors must be open to a forensic audit so that all of Canada, including Parliament, and every veteran, can attest to the protection and preservation of the most hallowed symbol of sacrifice. The memories embodied in the poppy must remain sacred when the veteran is long gone.

Sean Bruyea, vice-president of Canadians for Accountability, is a retired Air Force intelligence officer and frequent commentator on government, military, and veterans’ issues.

This piece was first published on June 8, 2016, in the Hill Times.

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Time to turn a new leaf with whistleblowers

We are now about six months into the new Liberal government mandate. It’s a good time to stop and take stock. From a whistleblowing viewpoint, has anything changed under the new regime?

There are some indicators of a positive change. In November 2015, scientists were reported to have been “unmuzzled.” We’ve also heard from public servants speaking off the record about a positive change in culture inside government; impartial advice is again valued. The new government has also dropped several legal cases—for example, one in which the previous government tried to silence Cindy Blackstock and her efforts to get fair funding for aboriginal education.

On the other hand, there are also negative indicators. While the Liberals promised to be open by default with information—and continue to reinforce this message—they have recently announced that reforms to the Access to Information Act will have to wait until 2018. This is a major disappointment for advocates. They believe that good recommendations for change already exist and simply have to be enacted. So why the wait? After 10 years of Conservative government, none of the skeletons in the closet will belong to the Liberals. There are still significant delays in obtaining information from departments under the ATI. Some departments, such as Public Services and Procurement, have actually regressed since the change in government.

With respect to whistleblowers, the picture looks as bleak as ever. Several remain locked in battle with the government, desperately trying to get their jobs back. One is Sylvie Therrien, who blew the whistle on a system of quotas for employment insurance investigators. These quotas meant that investigators were being encouraged to reject EI claimants for the flimsiest of reasons. Rejected claimants would then have to navigate a long and complicated system of appeals, a process that could take years. Therrien leaked information about the policy to the press, and was publicly called a liar. When evidence emerged that she was telling the truth, ministers claimed they were merely “targets.” Therrien was fi red, and, of course, her claims for EI rejected.

While the public and opposition parties weren’t fooled, the Conservatives were successful in at least one respect: in her fight to get her job back, they have reframed the issue around her conduct, and not the fact that she was essentially ordered to reject claimants who should have been accepted. Her case is in front of the Public Service Labour Relations Board, but she faces an uphill battle.

With the change of government, Therrien hoped for relief. Promises were made before the election, after all. She had been called a hero by the Liberals. In January, however, she learned that this was not to be. It is difficult to reconcile the positive tone of this still-young government with breaking its word with the reversal of its commitment and refusal to settle the matter. Possibly an answer lies in taking into account the bureaucratic culture against which Therrien had to speak and the fact that the public servants advising the new government on the fi le probably had a direct hand in both the policy she objected to and the reprisals against her. Is the decision based on advice from this quarter?

And perhaps this is the nub of the matter: how can any government change the prevailing culture and practices of an entrenched bureaucracy, particularly when members are implicated in questionable practices? We can easily imagine a scenario in which a senior executive tells the new minister, who knows no better, that Therrien was a rogue employee who had it completely wrong, that reinstating her or settling the case would set a bad precedent—and perhaps encourage others to copy her. There were, after all, alternative avenues for Therrien to follow in the case of real wrongdoing, and if she was disagreeing with a policy, well, it isn’t her role to object.

On the latter point, there is some truth. Public servants should faithfully implement legitimate policy no matter what their ethical stance. An official who is personally against same-sex marriage must still issue a marriage license to such a couple if the law says so. The opposite is also true. It is up to Parliament and the courts to strike down unjust laws and policies. A problem, however, emerges when the policy or practice is secret or causes direct and immediate harm. When there is no way for parliamentarians or the public to know a problem exists there is also no way for them to fix it. And in her case, Therrien did not refuse to reject EI claimants: she refused to reject legitimate claimants and informed the public of a secret, highly unethical policy targeting vulnerable Canadians. This, surely, is the kind of thing the new government wants to stop.

The other possible answer, and one we hope is not the truth, is that Liberals have chosen power over honour. Having the power, they can do what they want, not what they promised to do.

As to the other avenues available to Therrien, there were really none. Internal complaints such as this are typically investigated by someone considered safe, with an eye to making the matter go away. This is precisely what appeared to happen in Therrien’s case. As for the Office of the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner (OPSIC), it rejected her complaint on the basis that the law under which it operates bars it from investigating. This excuse has worn thin, and the incredibly low rate of investigations and findings by the office (11 in 10 years) suggest that it is a multi-million dollar piece of window dressing.

No senior bureaucrats have ever been implicated, even when the circumstances of the wrongdoing cases might reasonably have invited questions about poor oversight or complicity. The scandal that led to the resignation of former commissioner Christiane Ouimet also pointed at serious problems in the offi ce which have not been addressed. Let’s hope the new government and its ministers will take another look at Therrien’s case and treat objections from senior executives with a certain amount of skepticism. Across government, many officials who implemented some of the former government’s less savoury policies remain in place. Sometimes they were so enthusiastic that they became part of the problem, as in the case of the campaign against Cindy Blackstock. Rather than worrying about a fl ood of whistleblowers, it would be more constructive to reform OPSIC and its mandate, and other internal reporting mechanisms, so that internal whistleblowing becomes safe and effective (and, perhaps, make external whistleblowing unnecessary). As for ending Therrien’s ordeal, it would simply send a message that things really have changed.

This piece first appeared in the Hill Times on April 25, 2016. 

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Just when you thought it couldn’t get worse…

For a couple of years, Canadians for Accountability has been raising the issue of problems surrounding Safety Management System or SMS.  SMS is a “voluntary”, although the government will say “mandated”, reporting system for the safety of certain forms of transportation in Canada.  In essence it allows rail and air operators to do their own safety checking procedures and send the paper work to Transport Canada (TC).  The inspectors at TC make sure that all the boxes are filled in correctly, not that the inspection was done correctly!

The government will not admit it but the reason behind SMS was to allow TC to cut their budgets for inspections and inspectors.  We average, belive it or not, about one rail incident PER DAY in Canada.  Most of them are related to issues that should be part of safety inspections.  Airlines fair better under SMS than rail carriers because they have very large maintenance crews, but SMS is being extended to small carriers and bush fleets who do not have a culture of self examination (air minutes mean profit…. downtime means loss).

Now the government has decided to cut the inspection budget of TC again.  See: <http://globalnews.ca/news/1916438/funding-slashed-for-all-safety-programs-at-transport-canada>.

Our work is never done.  Sigh.

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