NATIONAL

THAT’S GRATITUDE

Reservists are serving their country—and risking their livelihoods

CHARLIE GILLIS August 14 2006
NATIONAL

THAT’S GRATITUDE

Reservists are serving their country—and risking their livelihoods

CHARLIE GILLIS August 14 2006

THAT’S GRATITUDE

NATIONAL

Reservists are serving their country—and risking their livelihoods

CHARLIE GILLIS

When the call came through, Paul, a master corporal in the Canadian Forces reserves, was coated in camouflage, soot and a sheen of sweat. But the 35-yearold soldier from Toronto figured the message must be urgent, so he rushed to find out what was wrong. “It was my office telling me I had made a mistake filling out the forms for my leave,” he recalls, noting that he was miles away from the nearest land line—a pay phone at the base offices—at the time. After weeks of trudging through the brush near Meaford, Ont., as part of his training for active duty, he was near the end of his tether with an employer who failed to grasp what he was trying to accomplish in the reserves. “I was totally exhausted, I hadn’t eaten in two days,” he says. “Here they were calling me over some stupid problem with paperwork. It definitely was not cool.”

It would get worse. Paul—who asked that his identity be withheld because he was speaking without the army’s approval—lost three days of pay because of the paperwork foulup. Then, in a decisive exchange upon his return, the head of the Toronto finance company where he worked cornered him for a face-to-face conversation. “You were one of our best employees,” the executive said ruefully, “until you got into this silly army thing.” Paul quit the firm three weeks later—“I knew at that moment that I couldn’t stay”— and found another job. But stories like his are playing out with increasing frequency throughout Canada’s army reserves, as the socalled “weekend warriors” who back up the country’s 62,000-strong force of regulars are drawn into the all too real world of gun battles, ambushes and roadside bombs. Fully 300 soldiers in Afghanistan, or 13 per cent of Canada’s 2,300-strong contingent, are parttime troops who do their training on weekends, holidays or leaves granted by their employers. With just 2,700 more regulars ready at any given time to go on rotation, the forces are leaning ever harder on the 23,000 civilian soldiers back home to fill out missions, or to plug gaps left by departing regulars.

That means they are leaning on the firms and institutions that employ reservists. To accept a six-month deployment like Afghanistan, a reserve soldier must spend another six

months training, bringing his entire commitment to a full year. And while there’s nothing compelling part-timers to serve in danger zones, most join with the idea of participating in some sort of mission. As one soldier interviewed by Macleans put it: “If you don’t want to see a little bit of action, then really, why sign up?”

The result, inevitably, is friction between reservists and their bosses. Leo Desmarteau, the executive director of the Canadian Forces Liaison Centre, a joint civilian-military body which works to mediate these differences, estimates the number of soldiers seeking assistance in workplace disputes has increased from roughly 30 per year before the mission

in Afghanistan to more than 100 last year. Most cases are easily settled, he says. “We encourage reservists to have a clean, clear break from their work situation before they go on tour.” But some are not.

One officer interviewed for this story returned from a tour in Afghanistan in early 2004 to find that his job with the Ontario government had been given away. He had tried to extend his leave by six months to complete his mission, a highly touted initiative which involved civilian outreach in the villages around Kabul. But a manager back home who was eager to promote another employee denied him, and filled the job in his absence. By the time he got back to pur-

sue the matter, his union membership had lapsed and—as if to add insult—the army itself decided it no longer required his services.

With no medical or dental benefits, and no one to help him fight for his job, the soldier (who also sought anonymity) sank into despair. “I’d always thought the military was supposed to be a kind of large family,” he says. “Now I felt like I was being cut adrift.” Only after a colonel who had known him in Afghanistan intervened did he get another assignment with the military, and even then the whole experience left him jaded. “I know some guys come home to worse troubles, like post-traumatic stress,” he says. “But to come back and be treated like a piece of crap is pretty traumatic, in itself.”

Not surprisingly, the issue has become a hot one in the military community, especially since the death in Aghanistan of Cpl. Anthony Boneca, a reservist from Thunder Bay, Ont. Soldiers and family members, conversing on unofficial military websites like Army.ca, say Boneca’s passing illustrates the risk part-timers are undertaking for their country at great cost to themselves. Others have called on Ottawa to act on the findings of a 1995 commission urging legislation that would force employers to keep jobs open for those on training or tour. “My husband is having a tough time right now trying to get leave from his job for training,” wrote one woman in late May. “He actually works for the feds and even though they have regulations in place to help employees who are also reservists, they seem disinclined to go by them.” Many critics point to measures taken in other countries, saying Canada lags badly. The U.S. has laws forcing employers to protect the reservists, they noted, while Britain compensates employers whose workers volunteer for active duty. Australia, too, provides more than $800 per week to companies who release workers for military service, and bans

‘YOU WERE ONE OF OUR BEST EMPLOYEES,’ ONE EXECUTIVE SAID, ‘UNTIL THIS SILLY ARMY THING’

discrimination in the workplace against reservists. Canada, by contrast, has done little more than pass legislation guaranteeing jobs in the event reservists are called for compulsory service. Considering that hasn’t happened since the Second World War, it is something less than a grand gesture. “To my thinking, we have a moral obligation to these guys,” says Bob Bergen, a research fellow with the Calgary-based Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute. “We can do better.”

So what route should Canada, with its lim-

ited means and wholly voluntary reserve force, take? Desmarteau warns that U.S.-style laws, which forbid employers from firing reservists, lead to workplace discrimination, pushing those soldiers off hiring lists and limiting their chances for promotion. “We’ve seen this in other countries,” he says. “It’s a very real problem.” Other critics argue that compensating employers would put extraordinary and possibly unnecessary strain on the public purse. These are the choices now facing Defence Minister Gordon O’Connor, who has committed to expanding the reserves by 10,000 troops-and who publicly agrees with the need to protect their civilian jobs.

Officials in O’Connor’s office say the minister has asked his department for advice on the issue, and hopes to bring forward a new approach later in the year. “The ultimate goal,” says a spokesman, “is to help with the recruitment and retention of reservists in the Canadian Forces.” Whether that’s soon enough to help soldiers like Paul-already working up the nerve to ask his new bosses for time off-remains to be seen. Canadians may consider the lives of their soldiers precious beyond value. Those soldiers’ livelihoods appear to be another matter. M