In The Media

David Pratt: Paying attention to Canada’s reservists

by David Pratt

National Post
April 12, 2012

Sixty years ago, as the Korean War raged on half a world away, Lieutenant-General Guy Simonds, chief of the general staff, spoke to the Empire Club in Toronto, seeking the co-operation of employers to “put up with what, after all, is more or less the minor incnvenience of supporting those representative of firms who are prepared to give their time to Reserve Force training.”

Simonds put his finger on one of the core issues we are still grappling with 60 years later. What is our responsibility as a society to protect the jobs and incomes of those who don the uniform of the Canadian Forces as part-time reservists in the service of Canada?

Simonds’ remarks to the Empire Club placed the onus on the shoulders of employers. But is that reasonable today? Employers confronted with losing a valued employee for an extended period and having to hire someone else for the interim may well decline a request for leave, or refuse to hire reservists. If employers grant leave, why should they personally bear the total costs of the decision?

There is a growing consensus around a societal responsibility to ensure that the burden of fielding reserve forces does not fall solely on either employers or reservists themselves. Having well-trained professional part-timers is clearly in the national interest. After all, the Reserves are routinely called up to assist with natural disasters, such as last year’s floods in Quebec; special operations, such as the security for the Vancouver Olympics; or to augment our combat or peacekeeping forces. And politicians have gone out of their way to recognize their valuable contributions.

But the inadequate support that we have provided members of Canada’s Reserve forces for over half a century has had an impact on both recruitment and retention. It also sends the unmistakable message to reservists that we undervalue their work. If we want our Reserve forces to function properly, we must re-think how we as a society sustain them.

Other countries have struggled with this issue of trying to balance costs and fairness. Among our allies, the Americans have job protection legislation, and the British and Australians have both job protection laws and financial support for employers. Here in Canada, we have varying degrees of national and provincial job protection, but there are gaps and inconsistencies. We currently have no financial support for employers.

Last month’s federal budget contained the first real indication that the government is prepared to change this. Finance Minister Jim Flaherty told the House of Commons: “Canada’s reservists make extraordinary sacrifices to keep our country safe. But potential long absences and added costs mean some employers will not hire them. These brave Canadians should not be disadvantaged. Our government, working with Canada Company, will help remove barriers to hiring reservists.” His comments were greeted with a round of applause from all sides of the House — and rightfully so.

Canada Company, a charitable, non-partisan organization that links businesses and community leaders with the military, is a driving force behind this initiative, which they have dubbed, “Sharing the Sacrifice.” Their efforts appear to have borne fruit. There are strong rumours that the government is prepared to allocate at least $8-million in new spending to the proposed program.

This would be a significant step forward for the Reserves. Captain Andy Witecki, a reservist with The Royal Regiment of Canada, probably reflected the sentiments of his colleagues in an email he sent home from Kabul two days after the budget: “Hopefully this will enable those [who] have left everything behind, to return and share their wealth of experience with employers that value and understand their sacrifice.”

David Pratt is a senior fellow with the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute and a senior vice president with GCI Group. He is the author of Canada’s Citizen Soldiers: A Discussion Paper.

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