Less pretty words, more substantial action needed for military families

General Jonathan Vance

Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

This piece was first published in the Hill Times on May 31, 2017.

They have been called our “best kept secret.” Will the current government’s defence policy review and decades of tight-fisted budgets continue to relegate the centres that serve our nation’s military and veteran families to social and fiscal obscurity?

It has been more than 30 years since the current 32 Military Family Resource Centres (MFRCs) began to take shape. The initiative was born in opposition to the failure of Canada’s military bureaucracy to acknowledge the importance of military families, long labelled dependants.

Spouses who showed bravery that even the military had to begrudgingly admire, fought in the courts and political arena to have a say in how the military affects the lives of military families.
Arguably, spouses still have little voice on military matters affecting the lives of their families. MFRCs were not created, and arguably still do not operate, to address their needs. Although mandated to be “managed independently of the chain of command,” reality still hinders MFRCs’ arm’s length aspirations. As Dr. Deborah Harrison, Canada’s leading expert on the impact of military life and culture on families, points out in her 2016 book, Growing up in Armyville, MFRCs are still an “arm of the CAF [Canadian Armed Forces] and, as such, their overriding goal is the operational readiness and retention of CAF members.”

True, each MFRC operates as a charity, governed by a board that must include at least 51 per cent civilian spouses of military members. However, military members often sit on or observe board meetings. Their mere presence can intimidate civilian board members or potentially influence the hiring and firing of MFRC staff. Facilities such as daycare centres, space for youth and family education, job search and training, recreation, and peer support are located on and provided by military bases. Base commanders often contribute around 10 per cent of the operating budget for their respective MFRCs, a much-needed amount that can be removed at whim.

The majority of MFRCs’ budget is provided through the Military Family Services (MFS), headquartered in Ottawa. MFS controls allocation of funding which has not increased since 2012. In an email response, MFS refused to provide a breakdown as to how the nearly $28-million is assigned.

Last year, Ottawa reportedly stopped funding MFRCs’ operation of their own websites, perhaps the major conduit to provide information to families in need. Instead, Ottawa has centralized all MFRC websites under a larger umbrella for military members including fitness, healthcare, financial assistance, mental health, retail operations, insurance, sports, ski clubs, curling, golf, etc. The result: military families are reconsigned by modern technology to their historical position of insignificance. At least two MFRCs—Halifax and Victoria (Esquimalt)—maintain dedicated, informative, and accessible websites, emulating MFRC’s “by families, for families” founding philosophy.
Initiative, flexibility, and adaptability of civilian spouses and remarkable MFRC staff have allowed them to provide valuable services to military members and their families. A 2015 Veterans Affairs pilot program that funded seven MFRCs to assist medically releasing military members and their families will be expanded to all MFRCs, but only for those who leave the military after April 2018. Callous fiscal management continues to deny MFRC services to the vast majority of Canada’s 600,000 veterans and their families including severely disabled veterans and their families who need the most help.

In a telephone interview, Deborah Harrison explained that the military has “little interest in so-called ‘damaged goods,’” such as civilian spouses seeking divorce or civilian family members suffering spousal or child abuse. Most civilian spouses sacrifice career advancement, education upgrading, and the family and friend connections that most Canadians take for granted. After supporting the military member through years of unrecognized and unpaid support, once separated, spouses are denied access to MFRC services. Those suffering abuse, Harrison pointed out, fear stigma when they contemplate seeking MFRC services in the first place, as they accurately recognize the problem of “career costs to the serving member.”

Deborah Harrison’s 2002 book on violence against women in Canadian military communities, The First Casualty, led to an apparently short-lived CAF “Family Violence Action Plan” that included “substantial policy developments.” Tellingly, the 2004 CAF guide on how to operate MFRC’s did not mention the word “abuse” or the provision of services with respect to family violence. The supervisor and coordinator guidebook Take a Stand! for dealing with family violence in the military, instructs independent MFRC staff “contacted by the media … to refer enquiries to the appropriate local or national [CAF] public affairs officer.” Not one MFRC website has readily identifiable links to help victims of violence.

Quoted in a media release, Chief of Defence Staff, General Jonathan Vance said, “the health and well-being of all Canadian Armed Forces members and their families is my highest priority.” To a Parliamentary committee he explained “everybody is treated the same in terms of if you become a casualty, if you are hurt, if you need any support. Certainly, the families are supported the same”.

This is disingenuous, but an honest mistake for any member of a culture, unlike any other, that imbibes rhetoric with life and death ramifications. Honour, duty, bravery, respect, integrity, commitment, and sacrifice have fed and energized the military soul for generations. For a military member, such heavy words mean something. However, meaning something and doing something substantially tangible are difficult to bridge for any organization but especially for the military.

“Every organization has an opportunistic orientation to its employees’ families”, Harrison explains. “What makes the military unique is its policies of unlimited liability and universality of service. These policies make the way in which the military organization fails its families much more tragic and poignant.”

The mission has been and still is the highest priority. Mission takes precedence over peers, self, and especially families. This is why MFRCs are managed by a relatively unimportant section buried in Ottawa’s massive defence bureaucracy. The section is managed by a colonel, outranked by every general, who heads up any other unit, thereby making greater claims on not just operational but fiscal priorities. MFRCs, at $28-million annually, account for less than 10 per cent of the CAF Morale and Welfare Services budget. Families are valued far less than one maritime helicopter that cost well over $100-million in 2003.

In the meantime, military families are foisted upon provincial and territorial healthcare and education systems that are woefully unprepared to deal with the unique demands military service places upon them. The U.S. and the U.K.—but not Canada—have allocated extra funding to compensate regional and local institutions for the greater needs of military family members.

Highest priority families must beg for money to operate MFRCs with dedicated but highly underpaid staff. A quick look at charitable returns on Canada Revenue Agency’s website highlights MFRCs’ desperation. Three quarters of MFRC staff at most if not all 32 centres, including full-time positions, earn less than $40,000, without benefits or pension. They serve the families of military members with the richest pension and health benefits in Canada. It is not surprising that MFRCs have employee retention problems.

None of this makes rational sense. Modern military spouses are less likely to tolerate the indignity of being treated like third-class passengers on the military voyage. Less family support for the military member is a leading reason why military members leave the Forces. As for the military lifeblood, recruitment, children of military members are 100 times more likely to serve than other Canadians. It is never a good idea to shoot holes in your own boat.

MFRCs have come together to ask for modest and stable increases in their precarious funding and to enshrine a commitment in the upcoming defence policy review scheduled for release June 7, 2017. They deserve and require far more than this.

The war in Afghanistan mobilized the support of Canadians for our military. At the same time, the military and politicians did all they could to keep the suffering of military families hidden from the same Canadians. Canada’s history is framed and buttressed by the heartbreaking struggles of military families. It is largely these heartbreaking struggles that keep the Canadian military operating.

Sean Bruyea, Vice-president of Canadians for Accountability, has a graduate degree in public ethics, is a retired Air Force intelligence officer and frequent commentator on government, military, and veterans’ issues.

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It’s not easy to report wrongdoing in the federal government (part 2)

We pick up the story from where we last left off. In trying to report wrongdoing, the employee has already encountered many obstacles that discourage him/her from proceeding. These include a non-responsive management, an ethics adviser more interested in protecting a department and their own career, and the written information that is on the Public Sector Integrity Commission’s website. In an effort to report the corruption, he or she now is going to fill out the disclosure form that is required by the Integrity Commissioner before any discussion can take place.

Let’s see, I have to provide my name, job title, address, and telephone number. The form restates that the commissioner does not accept disclosures via email due to security and privacy concerns. What do they mean by this? Is an email from me sent to them not secure and private? I really don’t understand this reasoning or why I can’t email them from my own Gmail account.

Wait a minute; it states the majority of communication will be via regular mail or telephone. Now I understand, they can phone me but I can’t phone them. What a curious philosophy when I am the one who wants to help.

The next question asks who I’m represented by. No problem with this as I am representing myself. With what I have read so far, I can understand why someone would want to have a representative to avoid dealing with PSIC directly.

Information about my disclosure: I have to choose one of six potential categories. This is confusing. All I want to do is expose a problem that needs correcting. Of course, it is wrongdoing but why do I have to try and decide what type? The form also states that I can use my own words in describing what is wrong but I have to keep in mind the six definitions. Why is this required? Can’t I just describe the situation? They’re the experts, not me. I am not a lawyer. All I want to do is to talk to someone to explain what is going on and figure out the next steps. Instead, I have to fill out a form and decide what type of wrongdoing. This is worse than the normal bureaucracy.

Under the fourth point, I have to give the contact information for the individuals who I allege committed wrongdoing. Why should I? I really only want the wrongdoing stopped. I am not vindictive. Why do I have to point the finger at anyone? A proper investigation will reveal what happened and who was responsible. This is becoming a witch hunt, not a problem solving exercise.

The fifth point asks about documentation. That is why I want to talk with someone (which PSIC states I am not allowed to do) to know what documentation would be useful. It states in bold, “specifying which portions you deem relevant to the alleged wrongdoing.” That answer is simple—everything or I wouldn’t be reporting it. Is there not someone there who could help me prepare this clearly? Oops, almost forgot, I am not allowed to talk with anyone before submitting the written documents.

Now there is a section called “other proceedings.” The first sentence states, “… there are certain circumstances where the commissioner must refuse to deal with a disclosure or start an investigation.” Why do I have to fi ll out the form regarding disclosures if the commissioner is going to rule that it cannot be dealt with it? I am already under stress and don’t need this. Is there not someone I can talk to before doing useless work? There should be someone who can help me. There are some advocacy experts out there. Maybe they are willing to talk to me and listen to what I have to say?

Oh well, I’ve come this far. Might as well continue. Section six asks if I have raised my concerns through another mechanism. Let’s see, I told my supervisor/ manager. Don’t trust the senior ethics officer for internal disclosure as she is more concerned with her career. Grievance— didn’t think of that, maybe I should contact the union and start one. Not a bad idea. Is this a list to help me or a list to find a reason where the commissioner “must refuse to deal with a disclosure. Why is this information even relevant to solving the problem and correcting a wrongdoing?

In Sec. 7, I am asked who I reported the situation to. Why do I have to name people? I don’t want to get them in trouble. I just want a solution and the wrongdoing corrected. I am asked what action has been taken and the current status. I thought I did that at Sec. 4 when I was requested to discuss the wrongdoing.

At last, the final page, there’s a “declaration.” Now what do I have to sign? First, that the information is true and accurate. Wouldn’t an investigation confirm this? Why do I need to sign a declaration to this effect? Of course, it is true or I wouldn’t be reporting it. The second statement is a major problem. I have to confirm that, “…it is my responsibility to provide the commissioner with all the information required by this form, and to attach to this form any relevant documentation.” Help. How do I know what is relevant when I cannot talk to the experts who can guide me? What happens if I miss something? What exactly is my responsibility?

What is this below the signature line? “Note: By submitting the disclosure form, you are authorizing the Office of the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner to collect your personal information.” This is a showstopper. What does my personal information have to do with what I want to expose? My marital, financial or personnel file is none of his business. This is intrusive. I am not going to give permission for this. Whose side is the Commissioner on anyway?

It is bad enough that I can’t sleep nights, have migraines and my health is suffering. I can’t talk or discuss what is wrong with anyone that can be trusted. I was hoping that the Commissioner could help but, obviously, it just places me in a worse situation.

I give up. It is too difficult to report and too great a risk. There is no way that I am going to mail (or deliver) a copy of information when I cannot talk with someone who can understand my situation and give me guidance. Faxing a copy is not realistic. There are too many pages and no one uses a fax anymore – except for lawyers.

Trying to do the right thing is too difficult. With no one to talk to, there is no point to proceeding. I am just exposing myself more. The commissioner’s staff could show what I write to my department. What am I to do? I can’t afford a lawyer? I don’t want to launch a grievance. I just want to do my job the way that I am supposed to. I just want to be able to go home at nights feeling that I did my job with pride. I am trapped. The walls are closing in and management is getting ready to use me as an object lesson for anyone who tries to speak out. Is there nobody that can help?

Canadians for Accountability (www.canadians4accountability.org) is now the only organization in Canada dedicated to helping whistleblowers. This article was written based on discussions with many whistleblowers. What readers need to realize is that the lack of action by the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner’s Office (PSIC) affects real people. The lives and integrity of public servants are impacted, usually negatively. We have witnessed divorces, suicides, severe and permanent health problems, damaged self-esteem and firings—all which have resulted from reprisals against those who had the desire to do the right thing and do their jobs properly. Of course, unless there is a finding of wrongdoing, there cannot be a finding of reprisal.

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Do the right thing, how to blow the whistle on wrongdoing in the government: it’s not easy (part 1)

This piece first appeared in the Hill Times on March 20, 2017.

Whistleblowers are not well understood. They are under tremendous pressure and are faced with resolving their own personal belief in doing the right thing with survival. This affects them at work and at home.

The whistleblower may be faced with a number of situations: from blowing the whistle perhaps on the use of chemicals that have polluted the water table of neighbours, to blowing the whistle on financial fraud, to blowing the whistle on major and critical problems, such as in the Phoenix pay system.

The following is written from the perspective of a person who could be facing this type of dilemma and who is trying to decide what to do.

What should I do? I tried to bring up the problem to my manager. He listened, promised that action would take place but nothing happened. I know that he is concerned about taking a stand as that could end his career.

I am alone, isolated with no one to talk to or willing to support me. Since I spoke up, I am watched, my work closely scrutinized. Every word that I say can be used against me. It is only a matter of time before something happens. It is difficult to be careful every minute of every day when you know they are waiting for you to make a mistake.

There is the ethics adviser who is supposed to help me but I heard her say that her job was to protect the department. She reports to the deputy minister and is more concerned about her career than helping people.

Where can I go? I need to talk to someone who understands. Let me think. I heard that we now have an integrity commissioner. Maybe that’s where I should go. This commissioner must have a website to give advice.

Found it. It is the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner’s Office (PSIC). Now I will have someone to talk and who will understand. Let’s click on “Disclosure of Wrongdoing.” There are three headings under this: Five Questions to Ask Yourself Before Disclosing; Protection From Reprisal, and How to Disclose Wrongdoing.

I know there is wrongdoing, but I should check out the five questions. What are they anyway? Oh no, the first question requires the wrongdoing to be illegal under a government act. How can I be certain? I am no lawyer. I will tell PSIC the problem and someone in their personnel will advise me. They are the experts in this, not me. What does this mean? “At times, something may appear to be wrong but may not be considered wrongdoing under the act.” So wrongdoing may not be wrong. What a curious thought for an integrity commissioner to post.

The second question is easier: where can I disclose the wrongdoing? There are three possibilities: to a manager, to a senior officer for internal disclosure, or to PSIC. I have already ruled out the first two. Now I know I am in the right place, disclosing it to the Integrity Commissioner’s Office.

The third question is what the Integrity Office does with a disclosure. No problem with this. They can analyze my information and give me some advice. I am not certain what is meant by “procedural fairness” and “natural justice” when it states, “The right to procedural fairness and natural justice of all persons involved in investigations is respected throughout the process.” Still, it is good to know that I will be respected. I am beginning to feel better about going to an independent body. I will have an ally in addressing the situation.

What is this? Question four states it may take one year to complete a full investigation. What happens to me in the meantime? I can’t survive a year in this job, especially once it is known that I have taken action. They already know I have asked questions. Will I be protected? Am I going to be transferred? Thinking about it, why should I be the one transferred? After all, I am only doing my job the way that I am supposed to. I am going to have to carefully think about reporting through the Integrity Commissioner’s Office when I am exposed.

Question five is of equal concern. All the commissioner does is report whether the wrongdoing is founded. Nothing else happens. That leaves me out on a limb with no protection and a serious situation that has not been corrected.

The next header is “Protection from Reprisal.” I wonder if it answers any of the questions that the first header did not answer. Not much help here. PSIC states that it is obligated and fully committed to protecting my identity, with the caveat, “to the extent possible.” Do they really think I won’t be spotted once I make a disclosure? We are a small group and only a few of us have the information or access to the files. In any event, I am already known as raising concerns. What a meaningless title for the section. There is nothing about protecting me from reprisal, only about confidentiality.

I am discouraged. Why go on? PSIC will not help or protect me from reprisal. I will be left to the mercy of management while an investigation goes on (for up to a year). I have heard others were fired for reporting wrongdoing and PSIC wouldn’t help them. Why would my situation be any different? Maybe I should just not bother reporting wrongdoing. No one will ever know. By the time it surfaces, my management will all have received promotions or transferred. Once gone, they are safe. It is only the few of us left behind who will suffer. Maybe I can find a transfer. I should look for a job in an organization where I can work with pride.

I don’t know if I could live with myself if I don’t at least try to fix someone who understands the dilemma and that person has to be in the Integrity Commissioner’s Office. I am very discouraged but determined to continue. I need to talk to someone about this; someone who can listen; someone who understands; someone who can guide me. If I don’t do something, who will?

My decision is made. I am going to file a complaint of wrongdoing. Time to read, “How to disclose wrongdoing.” What’s this? I have to complete a disclosure form. Why? I just want to talk to someone. Second step is to gather information. For that I need to talk to someone. What type of information is helpful? Documents, copies of emails, memos to and from management? Do I need a written record of all my meetings and discussions on this? PSIC states that I will have an opportunity to discuss the file with an analyst if need be. What file? I haven’t submitted one yet. In any case, I need to discuss the situation even if the analyst doesn’t. Why are the needs of an analyst more important than mine?

Reading on, I now understand that I am not allowed to talk to anyone at PSIC. It is clear. I must submit all the details in person to the PSIC office, by mail or by fax. Who uses a fax anymore? PSIC states that e-mail is not a secure means of transmission. Why? I have a Gmail account, a Hotmail account, and others that are not government linked. I think they are secure. I would never send PSIC information over a government line that could be monitored. It must be that the Integrity Commissioner’s Office does not have security. Finally, I am asked to respect the confidentiality of the process while they determine the next steps. Nothing is there about respecting me and my needs. I am the one who is at risk, not them. Why are they only concerned about themselves?

This is frustrating. I doubt very few people in my situation would even get this far. Why bother when the Integrity Commissioner’s Office is not interested in helping or protecting people. They state that they want people to come forward and then make it almost impossible to proceed. This is like a four-way intersection with no stop signs and the person going through is proceeding at great risk.

I must be stupid, stubborn, or desperate to even continue. I am not certain which but I will persevere. Next step is to fill out the disclosure form.

Footnote: Due to length, this narrative will be continued next week as the employee attempts to report the wrongdoing. It is important to realize that at this point in time, most do not think of themselves as “whistleblowers.” Rather they have personal values and a belief (trust) that doing the right thing will have positive results. Canadians for Accountability (www.canadians4accountability. org) is now the only organization in Canada dedicated to helping whistleblowers. This narrative was written based on discussions with many whistleblowers. Real lives are impacted, usually negatively, when trying to report wrongdoing.

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