by Sean Bruyea
For the first time in eight decades, issues affecting Canada’s military veterans issues are featured prominently in an election.
With so much at stake, why would government yet again mess up another issue with veterans: priority hiring into the federal public service? Veterans Affairs Minister Erin O’Toole, in another installment of government hype on the treatment of veterans, provided this statement during the July 2015 changes to priority hire veterans: “The Government of Canada is keeping its commitment to help military veterans thrive while making the transition to civilian life.”
Prior to these changes, only medically-released members could have one chance to be priority hired. Serving members weren’t allowed to access internal competitions, representing 88 per cent of public service job openings. Changes now allow Canadian Forces members to access internal competitions but with no priority placement. Non-medically released veterans can have priority accessing only external jobs, representing the remaining 12 per cent of competitions. After World War II, all overseas veterans received preference in all competitions, the injured having the highest preference, no time limits, and multiple attempts.
Time will tell if priority-hiring amendments are working, but are the minister, his department, and the rest of the civil service helping veterans “thrive”? In the first six months of 2015, which corresponded to O’Toole’s inaugural tenure, the Public Service Commission reports that he oversaw the priority hiring of zero medically released veterans. Since 2010, Veterans Affairs (VAC) has priority hired only six veterans, two of whom were hired by the Veterans’ Ombudsman.
O’Toole isn’t the only veteran in the upper ranks of Veterans Affairs. Former top general, Walter Natynczyk was appointed deputy minister in November 2014. These two individuals are the two most powerful individuals in VAC and arguably the most influential veterans inside government. They aren’t the only ones piling on endless platitudes but why the gaping chasm between media talking points and dawdling?
The current government has manifestly professed its commitment to veterans while demonstrating an iron grip on the public service. Yet, in the first six months of 2015, the entire 250,000 strong federal civil service could only priority hire 21 veterans.
In the past five years, 6,162 CF members have received medical releases out of a total of 24,000 releases. Troublingly, the public service has engaged only 446 veterans, or less than 7.2 per cent, of medical releases for those years, (veterans released other years would have also qualified further lowering the per cent).
Of the approximately 3,500 employees at VAC, only 97, or 2.7 per cent, are veterans, eleven of whom work in the Ombudsman’s Office. Most of these were not priority hires. A cornerstone commitment accompanying the controversial veterans’ benefits known as the New Veterans Charter was priority hiring. In the nine years since its enactment under the Conservative government, Veterans Affairs Canada has made just 25 veteran priority hires. Correctional Services, Public Works, Employment and Social Development, as well as Fisheries and Oceans, all priority-hired more veterans than the department legally mandated to “care” for and “re-establish” veterans.
National Defence has better fulfilled an obligation to veterans with 838 veteran priority hires, 71 per cent of the total. But the booby prize goes to the Veterans Review and Appeal Board (VRAB). With more than 100 employees and a perennial insensitivity to veterans, this agency priority hired just one veteran in 11 years. This must be what the public service wants because the chief bureaucrat during this time, Dale Sharkey, was last month awarded the Public Service Award of Excellence. Her nominator: VRAB’s director of communication. Back patting and rhetoric over substance.
Does all this mean the public service discriminates against veterans? Some veterans employed in the public service have made this allegation. Perhaps the greatest barrier is the public service culture. As the auditor general and DND have noted, hiring an individual can take 10 months while their application meanders through bureaucratic obstacles. When Canadian Forces members are ordered overseas at 48 hours’ notice to potentially lose their lives, government’s dull-witted response when the uniform comes off is a distant cry from the caring and dignity this government keeps telling veterans they deserve. One astute committee member noted during hearings on the changes to the priority hiring bill: “why aren’t we thinking outside of the box in which we tend to think right now?”
Enlightenment, compassion, and innovation appear anathema to the senior public service. There are time limits for the priority hiring window. Yet, for disabled veterans, the only expiry date on their disability is death. For spouses, if a veteran is too ill to work, she is barred from priority hiring.
More than 70 per cent of the priority placements are in clerical positions. For some, worthy jobs, but O’Toole tells us our veterans have a wide-ranging skill set. In fact, there is no unique veteran specific follow-up to ensure that veterans are not frustrated, bored, undervalued, under-performing or suffering discrimination in a public service culture, which is widely divergent from that of the military.
When Canadians join the military, they are constantly trained, taught, and transitioned into responsibility with some of the best mentoring management culture in the public or private sector. There is no gradual transition into a new public service job for the few accepted. All applicants must satisfy narrow criteria that either discourage or disqualify anyone outside the public service. Bureaucratic culture has a difficult time translating private sector skills to a public service context. No wonder almost all departments, except DND, have been unable to translate military skills sufficiently to substantively employ large numbers of veterans.
Neither are disabled veterans supported to take on partial workweeks to adapt their limitations to new employment. Anecdotally, veterans are too frequently unable to make the transition from disability to 100 per cent work schedule in an unfamiliar work environment.
But we really don’t know because we don’t care enough about our veterans to do any meaningful follow-up let alone provide urgently required coaching. And our veterans need a helping hand. Fully 60 per cent of recent releases have 20 years or less military service with 38 per cent having five years or less. They want a job and their skills are a must-have for a stagnant public service.
For veterans who are sloughed off onto civilian not-for-profits, we have no idea how they are doing because there is no accountable follow-up. Washing hands of veterans by the government to outside agencies has taken on a mean, hot-potato streak in the last decade.
Let’s put this all in perspective. In the six years after World War II, Canada’s federal civil service hired more than 130,000 veterans. By 1951, Veterans Affairs had 14,000 employees; almost 9,500, including more than 95 per cent of senior managers, were veterans. For all veterans in any employment, particularly the disabled, personalized follow-up was part of the package. Case managers met with veterans and employers on a regular basis to help ‘translate’ the military skill set and working limitations of veterans into civilian context.
“Walt” Natynczyk provided the following in a scripted news release: “Those who wear the uniform of the Canadian Armed Forces serve Canada with loyalty, pride, and a commitment to excellence.” Each military member does this for each and every Canadian at the orders of the Government of Canada. Canadians have increasingly appreciated this reality of late.
Discouragingly, government is far too mired in political self-interest, advised by the parochial and initiative-paralyzed bureaucracy to tangibly return the commitment in kind to our veterans and their families. Are veterans ‘thriving’ O’Toole? The best many veterans have been able to achieve, if they aren’t committing suicide, is to merely survive.
Sean Bruyea, vice-president of Canadians for Accountability, is a retired Air Force intelligence officer.