Kitchener-Waterloo

Pandemic halved number of recruits for local Canadian Forces reserves

Canada Army reserve units in Wellington County saw a drop in the number of recruits this year, as the COVID-19 pandemic hampered the recruiting process.

Military acknowledges it must diversify ranks

New Canadian Army Reserve recruits participate in Basic Military Qualifications at the Guelph Armoury. (Nick Bauman/Canadian Armed Forces)

Recruiting numbers have dropped heavily for three army reserve units in the region, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Royal Highland Fusiliers, an infantry regiment in Kitchener, the 31 Combat Engineer regiment in Waterloo and the 11th Field Artillery Regiment in Guelph recruited 35 new members between April 1, 2020 and March 24, 2021. That's compared to 70 for roughly the same period last year, the Canadian Armed Forces told CBC.

Members of the primary reserve serve part time in the armed forces, and usually hold full-time civilian jobs. There are just under 30,000 reservists total between the Canadian army, navy and air force. They play an important role in the armed forces, making up to a third of the country's total military. 

Captain David Vandevenne, a recruiting officer with 31 Brigade — which covers all army reserve units in southwestern Ontario — said the COVID-19 pandemic meant that the recruiting process was effectively shut down for a period of six to seven months.

Aptitude tests, fitness tests and an in-person medicals were all put on hold. 

"Essentially we weren't able to do any of the processing," he said. "The health constraints were so significant that we were not able to allow either civilians into our premises, or even in some cases we were trying to minimizing our own staff. So our own recruiters were in fact deemed as non-essential at the time."

New recruits participate in Basic Military Qualification at the Guelph Armoury (Nick Bauman/Canadian Armed Forces)

Normally, recruiters from reserve units attend local job fairs and schools. Vandevenne said occasionally recruiters even get applications started on the spot, but that had to change with the pandemic.

Now, like with so many other industries, military recruitment has been forced to go mostly digital.

Vandevenne says recruitment is now up and running again, though with added health and safety precautions.

"We're back to almost normal — back to where we were before the pandemic, though the pandemic has had an impact on our processing times and the speed with which we've been able to get people recruited over the course of this year," Vandevenne said.

In an emailed statement, Lieuntant-Colonel Miguel Ortiz-Sosa, the Command Officer of the 11th Field Artillery Regiment in Guelph, said his unit has adapted to the pandemic in both recruiting and training.

"Our approach is based on public health regulations and guidelines, and recruiting new soldiers and continuing our important local training helps us maintain a high level of preparedness for operations, while preserving the health and wellbeing of our members," he said.

Diversifying the ranks 

In a public letter released earlier this week on March 24, acting Chief of Defence Staff Lt. Gen. Wayne Eyre said the military would look to increasing diversity as a way to recover from the recruitment drop during the pandemic.

"A key aspect throughout will be increasing the diversity in our ranks to benefit from the talent across Canada," the letter reads.

Vandevenne said that he does not have details on the background of the new local recruits —  they're still going through the enrolment process.

But he said last year, of the 70 local recruits, 10 were women. Recruits are not required to report ethnic background, but he says of those who did two said they are Indigenous and five identified as visible minorities.

Bessma Momani, a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo, says the Canadian Armed Forces is at a critical juncture. It needs to appeal to a broader range of Canadians reflect Canada's diversity — in terms of gender, ethnic and religious background, sexuality and more.

"It has to have less of that bravado culture," she said. "If they're going to succeed, they're going to have to change the culture."

But, Momani says, this will not be a quick or easy process — particularly for an institution like the military which has shown resistance to change.

"Organizational culture change is really difficult. That is not something that happens overnight," she said. "It takes a lot of investment, a lot of rethinking of everything from recruitment strategy to ensuring that people in the Forces who are minorities do feel that indeed it's a welcoming and open place."

The armed forces has been under fire lately as allegations of sexual misconduct have been levelled at a number of its senior officers.

Momani says that will only make it harder for the Canadian Armed Forces to show the public that it's changing for the better.

"It's very difficult to say that that's the case today, particularly because of the scandals," she said.

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