The Canadian Rangers are not getting access to the health care services they deserve and lack sufficient support staff, according to the Canadian Forces ombudsman's initial investigation into Canada's northern patrol units.
The Rangers are part of the Canadian Armed Forces Reserve, but are not considered reservists. Generally they are part-time volunteers from the remote communities where they serve. Often called the "eyes and ears of Canada's North," they are responsible for reporting unusual activities, collecting data to support military operations and conducting surveillance when required in Canada's North.
"Anyone who's joined the Canadian Armed Forces and has committed their side of the obligation leaves us with an obligation. That is to ensure that they're well managed and well taken care of, if they should become ill or injured," Gary Walbourne, the Canadian Forces ombudsman, said in an interview with CBC News.
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Walbourne began his investigation into the Canadian Rangers with a focus on health care and the reporting and tracking of injuries, illnesses and deaths in the fall of 2015, following CBC News stories about deaths among members of the military's northern patrol units. His office is about halfway through that investigation.
One of the most concerning things he's found so far is a disparity between Ranger units when it comes to getting mental health care.
"Some members of the Canadian Rangers have experienced some difficulty. And trying to find access to the support they need has been very difficult," Walbourne said.
But there have also been incidents where a member was given full access to psychological help, revealing a lack of consistency between units, he said. Sometimes that has to do with knowledge of the system and the support staff within the unit.
Health care, including mental health care, for Canadian Rangers is covered by the provincial and territorial health-care systems. The military will provide resources for any personnel who experience service-related injuries.
Right now the military ombudsman is in the process of evaluating the health care access available to Canadian Rangers and what his office feels is lacking.
Walbourne is also concerned about a lack of support staff, whose job is to take care of administration, training and general running of the program.
Struggling to meet demands
In a report to the defence minister, Walbourne highlights the ratio of support staff to Rangers. That ratio for the Rangers' largest patrol group — 1CRPG — is one Canadian Forces regular force member to 27 Rangers. If Junior Rangers are included, the ratio is 1 to 53.
Walbourne said ratios that high are "not sustainable," can affect training and have an impact on programs.
"Additional programs and incentives that the Canadian Armed Forces would like to roll out are going to be hindered if we don't have the right ratio of management to the Rangers," he said.
It also prevents some programs — such as the Junior Ranger program, which includes children between the ages of 12 to 18, and is a pre-cursor to the Ranger program — from expanding, something the ombudsman says is "vitally important" to many of Canada's northern communities.
'Eyes and ears' of Canada's North
There are currently about 5,000 Rangers who serve in more than 200 communities. The 1st Canadian Ranger Patrol Group has 3,400 members and covers Nunavut, Yukon, Northwest Territories and the community of Atlin, B.C., an area that covers about 40 per cent of Canada's land mass.
The Liberal government has promised to increase the size of the Canadian Rangers.
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan's mandate letter says he is expected to "renew Canada's focus on surveillance and control of Canadian territory and approaches, particularly our Arctic regions, and increase the size of the Canadian Rangers."
In an email to CBC News, a spokesperson for the minister's office said details on how the government will meet its goal will be included in the upcoming new Defence Policy document, which is expected to be released later this year.