By Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press
OTTAWA — Canada’s military watchdog is calling on the Armed Forces to better accommodate troops with disabled children and other exceptional family circumstances, warning some are being forced to choose between their loved ones and their careers.
While around one in four members of the Canadian Armed Forces are required to relocate every year due to training or operational needs, those with special family needs are allowed to apply for exemptions.
A compassionate posting or status is intended to provide flexibility to members who have special family circumstances, such as children with disabilities or older parents who need support.
But in a new report, military ombudsman Gregory Lick says the military’s current approach to deciding whether troops qualify for such compassionate postings is riddled with shortcomings and problems that need to be addressed.
Those include unclear criteria around who can qualify, a lack of transparency around how such requests are approved or rejected and even pressure on some troops not to apply in the first place.
“Most CAF members and family members interviewed believed the needs of their family were secondary to the needs of the CAF,” reads the report. “Many reported feeling marginalized or stigmatized when requesting … a compassionate posting.”
In an interview, Lick said he was particularly touched during visits to military bases and wings by the stories from service members and families about the difficulties caring for children with disabilities and special needs.
“They’re a very vulnerable community,” he said. “They’re on a wait-list to be able to get help for their children and all of a sudden they get a posting message.”
Compassionate postings and statuses have been very beneficial to military members and families who have been able to take advantage of them, he added. The problem is with the gaps and uncertainties that surround them, which has led to uneven application.
Part of the problem is the lack of clear criteria, including a definition of what constitutes both “family” and “exceptional personal circumstances,” creating confusion for troops asking for a compassionate posting and those deciding whether to approve it.
There was also a lack of understanding around how such decisions are made, with long delays and little in the way of updates or information, and even uncertainty around who was actually responsible for making the decision.
“CAF members reported instances where their chain of command was unaware of the steps involved in the process and unable to identify the decision-making authority,” the report reads.
That uncertainty could explain why only about half of all requests between September 2017 and March 2021 were approved, Lick said.
The ombudsman’s report comes at a time when the Canadian Armed Forces is struggling to recruit and retain troops, with thousands of positions currently sitting vacant even as the military is facing significant demands at home and abroad.
Vice-chief of the defence staff Lt.-Gen. Frances Allen indicated last week that senior commanders are currently looking at how the military deals with postings and relocations in an effort to better balance military and family needs.
Lick acknowledged military leaders need to ensure Armed Forces members are where they need to be, but argued better accommodating families and those with special needs will help with recruitment and retention in the long run.
“It will show the public, who they’re trying to recruit, that this is an organization that supports its members and their families better,” he said. “There may be a little bit of short-term pain. … But in the long run, these are the things they need to do.”