National Defence reviewing limits on 'double-dipping' for retired soldiers

The Canadian military wants to retain "top talent" in the reserve forces, but retired soldiers receiving a pension are limited to 364 days of paid full-time service. The military is proposing to change that.

Military wants to keep talent in reserves, but retired soldiers limited to 364 days of paid full-time service

Reserve soldiers with the 32 Combat Engineer Regiment conduct beach assault training on Toronto's waterfront in October 2016. The military is looking at allowing retired soldiers to serve full-time in the reserves without losing their pensions. (Master Corporal Precious Carandang, 4th Canadian Division Public Affairs)

The Canadian military is searching for ways to remove or modify restrictions prohibiting retired Canadian Armed Forces members from collecting their military pensions while serving full-time and receiving pay cheques in the reserves.

The plan has the preliminary endorsement of the Liberal government, pending final details.

Reference to the idea was buried deep in the latest defence policy released in June.

The proposal is still very much in the nascent stage, but if successful it would effectively reverse regulatory changes — made last year and in 2012 — that set strict limits on double-dipping by soldiers.

It is an important tool in retaining experienced members and "top talent," Lt.-Gen. Chuck Lamarre, the chief of military personnel, told CBC News.

"I think you have a compelling argument in terms of the talent," he said in an interview.

"You've spent a lot of money training [people]. So, we're hoping to be able to convince folks with our proposals."

MPs reviewed double-dipping in 2010

The issue of whether ex-soldiers, with highly sought-after combat or technical skills, should be allowed to double dip preoccupied Parliament for three years during the war in Afghanistan; the practice annoyed the Conservative government of the day.

At the time there was a spike in the number of soldiers, aircrew or sailors who would retire and return the next day as civilian contractors, or reservists, doing the same job.

They should be allowed to collect their pension. They've done their time. They've made an incredible contribution and fulfilled their obligation- NDP veterans affairs critic Irene Mathyssen

That led to scrutiny by the all-party Commons defence committee in the spring of 2010. One of Lamarre's predecessors told MPs the Afghan war created the demand to keep those positions filled.

The hearings led to a set of regulatory changes that strictly limited the practice. The last of those changes only came into effect in June 2016.

Under that new system, a retired member of the military can serve as a reservist full-time for only 364 days while collecting a military pension. After that period has passed they must decide whether or not to return to the regular force, pushing "pause" on their pension cheques.

Part-time reservists are not affected. 

Thinning ranks

But the pressing policy issue today is rebuilding the reserve force, which the auditor general last year described as being in dire shape.

A scathing report by Michael Ferguson's office found that after years of budget restrictions and neglect, only roughly 14,000 troops — out of an active enrolment of 21,000 — were fit to deploy. The Liberal defence policy, issued in June, calls for a total reserve strength of 30,000 members.

Lamarre said one way to solve the quantity problem, and increase quality, is to look to retirees.

"As you can imagine, when we've taken the time to develop someone and they've worked 20 years, 25 years or 30 years and they go off to leave and they're looking at the outside market, one of the things that might interest them is a job in the reserves," he said.

Heading to private sector

Anecdotally, Lamarre said the military has had instances where personnel exiting the military have expressed the desire to serve in the reserves, but declined because a private-sector job would allow them to receive their military pension without restriction.

"I cannot see why the Forces insists on [the restrictions]," said retired colonel John Selkirk, of Reserves 2000, a coalition of ex-military members dedicated to the militia.

"If you are a public servant, nobody is going to make a fuss about it. You can be a public servant and draw your military pension."

On Thursday, CBC News reported that three dozen members of Parliament are double-dipping and nearly 20 per cent of them are collecting pensions from either the federal government or the Canadian Armed Forces.

The issue, as far as Selkirk is concerned, is the amount of experience that's walking out the door: "Why would you waste that training?"

NDP veterans critic Irene Mathyssen said she doesn't see a problem double-dipping in this circumstance as long as the federal government doesn't use it as an excuse to deny — or clawback — benefits from ex-soldiers.

"The reserves are having difficulty finding the talent they need and if people want to continue to serve, they should be able to," she said. "They should be allowed to collect their pension. They've done their time. They've made an incredible contribution and fulfilled their obligation."

The challenge, she said, will be to not "incentivize" double-dipping.

Lt.-Gen. Chuck Lamarre, the Canadian Armed Forces' new chief of military personnel, says he wants to retain the experience of the military's 'top talent.' (Murray Brewster/CBC)

But even then, she said she doesn't anticipate a rush of people returning to the reserves as a result of the changes.

Lamarre said he isn't certain what the right balance will be, but he's confident there is one that is fair to both the individual and the taxpayer.

"I don't yet have the mechanism in place as to how we're going to do it," he said, adding his team hopes to have a proposal ready for the government within a year.

About the Author

Murray Brewster

Defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.

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