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VETERANS AFFAIRS AND MILITARY CUTS

Thumbnail image for Julie.JPGWhile the sun shone and a military band played, veterans and other officials gathered in front of the National War Memorial in Ottawa on Tuesday. The small group was there to commemorate Canada's most famous battle. Canadians took Vimy Ridge 96 years ago, on April 9th, 1917.

Standing among the veterans, wearing his blue beret and medals was Michael Blais. He runs Canadian Veterans Advocacy. Memorials are important for him, but these days they're often overshadowed by the issues he hears from veterans of much more recent conflicts.


Thumbnail image for Vimy parade.JPGLast month's federal budget included money for the Vimy memorial in France. There was also a bit more money to bury veterans. But Blais is still trying to figure out how modern-day soldiers will deal with budget cuts. He's concerned about the impact of 800 job losses.

"I think it's significant and I think what they haven't taken into consideration is a lot of our modern veterans who served in Afghanistan will be coming forward very shortly with help from Veterans Affairs Canada," said Blais.

When nine Veterans Affairs offices close across the country, Blais worries vets will need to seek help from workers more familiar with Employment Insurance and maternity leave benefits than veteran's claims.

"It all comes back to this issue of Service Canada not having the same skill, not having the same experience, not being as professional as those they've replaced from Veterans Affairs Canada," added Blais.

            MPP Peter Stoffer is the NDP Veterans Affairs critic. He says veterans - old and young, with various mental and physical health issues -- need people who understand their claims. But he says sometimes the vets need to deal with contractors.

"When the phones are busy and backed up, they send them over to a private company called Quantum, which is based out of Ottawa we find that rather sad, the fact is that should be real Veterans Affairs employees doing that work, not a contractor."

I made several calls, sent emails and even spoke to a Veterans Affairs Canada communications official at the Vimy commemoration. But I did not get any response to my requests for information or an interview.

 A statement from Treasury Board says the department is introducing meaningful back-office modernization that is improving service to Canadians while respecting taxpayer dollars.

Highest form of public service

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I've never been to war, but if I went, I'd want Majors Steve Nolan and Mark Campbell to have my back.  Most people don't imagine military officers to be the soft, sensitive types. But maybe they should. These men recognized in their Afghan interpreter a kindred spirit. And they've each gone out of their way to bring Mohammad Rahman and his family to Canada and to help them settle here and build a successful new life. This welcome has included hugs and tears.

 Major Mark Campbell was in charge of the Operational Mentor and Liaison Team in Afghanistan in 2008. His job was to oversee the training of hundreds of Afghan National Army soldiers. He had to communicate with Afghan commanders. Mohammad Rahman, or Froggy as he was known to the NATO soldiers, was Campbell's head interpreter. Campbell says Rahman was a master at cultural and linguistic interpretation.

"He was incredibly effective, even with the language and I guess the cultural sensitivity side of things. He saved me so many times from myself."

But the professional relationship between Campbell and Rahman ended on the day Campbell stepped on an improvised explosive device in the Panjwaii District of Afghanistan. Then, the relationship became personal. Rahman, a former medic in the Afghan army ran to Campbell's aid. He tore up his own shirt to make tourniquets. Campbell's legs were gone so he tied the rags around his major's thighs. Next he set up an I-V and moved Campbell to safety.

"This man was died, 99 per cent," recalled Rahman. "The person two times gone to the shock and no bleeding. Then a lot of bullets, mortars coming."

Rahman says he cried for two days after Campbell was flown off for treatment. Campbell was profoundly injured. It would be four years before the two men would find each other again.

Over his months convalescing back in Canada, Campbell did what he could to help Rahman and his family immigrate to Canada. He made calls, sent letters, consulted with his M-P. But he never knew if Rahman was safe.

By the next time they spoke, in May 2012, they were both at home in Canada.

Rahman, his wife and seven children are now permanent residents in Ottawa. They came here after several death threats from the Taliban. They immigrated on a special federal program for Afghan Nationals who've worked for the Canadian government for at least one year.

Since the Rahmans arrived, they've received the attention, gifts and guidance of Major Steve Nolan and his family. Nolan replaced Major Campbell as the head of the Operational Mentor and Liaison Team for six months in 2008-2009. Rahman became his interpreter. Now the two are very close friends and in Ottawa, Nolan is Froggy's cultural advocate.

"When I have some problems, I don't care, I call him," said Rahman, tapping a smiling Nolan on the shoulder.  

That's not all Nolan did. In 2009, while working at National Defence Headquarters, Nolan went back to Afghanistan. This time, he took a group of federal bureaucrats with him and introduced them to Afghan interpreters - including Rahman. The Department of Citizenship and Immigration was in the process of developing a new policy that would allow interpreters and other Afghan contractors a potential fast track to immigrate.

"Froggy, through all his time serving with the Canadian Forces has probably done way more for Canada than 95 per cent of the citizens of the country. So I feel really good that immigration came up with this policy," said Nolan.froggy and steve feature.jpg

Nolan and Rahman see each other regularly in Ottawa now. Rahman talks to Campbell via skype.

The interpreter worked for nine different Canadian officers. It's fair to say that "Froggy" has left an impression on each one of them. After my stories about the interpreter aired in early June on CBC radio, TV and on-line, I got the following message from Major Jeff Monaghan.

 I was Froggy's Commanding Officer from April to November 2010...My team also helped him complete paperwork as part of his immigration process, and I concur that he was a fantastic resource and became a good friend...Further, I will be awarded the Meritorious Service Medal on the 22 of June from the Governor General for my work in Afghanistan during the tour, and I credit much of the great work my team did to Froggy's linguistic and cultural abilities.
 

It's been said that performing military duties for one's country is the highest form of public service. Mohammad Rahman was never an official member of the Canadian Forces. He doesn't wear any Canadian medals. But it's fair to say that Majors Nolan and Campbell acknowledge his important role in their own way.

Listen to the Current doc: The Interpreter

Public Servants with disabilities fear cuts

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Dan Mooney goes to work every day at the naval base at Esquimalt, B.C. He's had his public service job at the Department of National Defence for decades, but these days, he doesn't have much to do.

 He calls it being in "limbo".

A condition called wet macular degeneration stole his sight over the past few years. While his managers have given him the tools to accommodate his disability, he hasn't actually been given new responsibilities.

"The system isn't designed for someone who says, 'Oh, OK, I lost my eyesight, what do you want me to do now?' The accepted attitude was, you're disabled, you're going on disability, we've met our obligation to you, we're doing the best we can in difficult fiscal times."

So Mooney has taken on tasks as the national co-chair of the Advisory Group for Persons with Disabilities, a voluntary role that helps raise the concerns of people with disabilities to the chain of command.

"When a person with a disability goes back to work and becomes a productive member of society, everybody wins," he said. "The co-workers win because they look at the individual and say, you know, if that ever happens to me, I know my life isn't over."

Mooney said it would be shortsighted for managers to target people with disabilities as they plan layoffs. Thousands of public servants could lose their jobs in the weeks and months after the March 29th budget.

"It would certainly be easier if we could give these people a pension and send them home," said Mooney, "if it were a fact that we were mannequins that could be put on a shelf and be stored, but that's not the case."

Sheri Daneliak said she's being pressured to do just that -- leave her public service position and take a medical pension. But she's only 45 years old.

Daneliak worked as a contractor for several years before becoming a full-time public servant more than a decade ago. But in 2003, just a few years into her position as a contracting officer with Emergency Preparedness, strange things started happening to her.

"I was waking up in the night, grabbing my throat, unable to breathe," said Daneliak. "I would be smelling odd smells that weren't there. I'd see flashing colours in my brain."

Daneliak said she continued to work long hours at a demanding job. She was eventually diagnosed with epilepsy and went on medication.

"It was the opposite of accommodation, they were pushing me to work longer, the seizures got worse," she said.

In February 2004, Daneliak was too sick to continue working. She's since been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease and remains on long-term disability leave.

"I think several years ago when this situation happened, there could have been a lot of accommodations made for me," she said. "And I could still be working. I could still be in my profession. I could still be climbing. But I've been shoved aside."

According to the Public Service Alliance of Canada, there are currently more than 400 complaints of discrimination and "failure to accommodate" people with disabilities. That's a statistic for just one of several federal government unions.

Mooney is familiar with the complaints.

"I hear all the cases that aren't working and there are a lot of cases that do work," he said. "And when it doesn't work, look at the harm, because it's not an administrative exercise, it's not an exercise in policy, it's genuine human beings facing probably some of the largest challenges they'll ever face in their life."

The Public Service Commission is currently analyzing data on persons with disabilities. It plans to publish a report this fall. One of the commission's priorities is recruiting people with disabilities. Last fall, the former head of the commission told a senate committee that "for the disabled, we really have a challenge because we are not even getting the applications in at a workforce availability rate. We have more to do in that area."

Mooney and Daneliak both said there's more work to do to help public servants currently working inside the federal public service.

 

Oil and water

julietechphoto.jpgOver the past couple months I've spoken to several veterans working inside the federal bureaucracy.

Most were reluctant to go public. They say they already stand out too much, but all of them wanted to talk to me about their experiences.

I talked to one former soldier turned public servant who was injured in Afghanistan when he was just 24 years old. He's now in his early 30s and suffers from several physical and mental health injuries. This veteran is highly specialized and does valuable work. But he says since people he works with found out he served in Afghanistan, they walk on egg-shells around him.

 

Several veterans who now work in government tell me the public service and military culture just don't mesh. They say the public service doesn't really recognize their military experience and certification.

 

Another veteran, named Al, says he was harassed on his public service job. He says inappropriate comments at work made him feel uncomfortable. He told me about one occasion that stands out. He was having a bad day and a colleague quipped, "Baby killing getting at you?" Al let his co-worker know those kind of comments were very hurtful. Another co-worker said she couldn't believe Al was such a big tough military guy but couldn't handle a comment like that.

 

But not everyone's experience is negative. I spoke with one former intelligence officer who now works at CSIS.  He, too, suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. He says so-far his employer is great...His job is a good match for him and he's glad he's had a smooth transition from Canadian Forces member to civil servant.

 

Veterans like Al say that's what needs to happen - if you're going to put former soldiers on a priority hiring list for jobs in the federal bureaucracy, make sure they're background is a good fit for the environment of the department they're joining.

 

 

 

 

Who's Lobbying who?

Later this summer, the city of Ottawa will start developing its own lobby registry.

That means any business person or lobbyist who's trying to influence a city decision would have to publicize their meetings or discussions.

 

I called several Ottawa builders and developers who hadn't even heard that this new registry was being considered. So they didn't know what it might mean to them.

 

Well, it might mean a lot.

 

Some of the people I spoke with work very closely, very often with city government. In some cases, their main customer is the city of Ottawa. As the prime minister's former chief of staff and lobby registry guru, Guy Giorno, told me, "It's certainly something that the Ottawa business community should be focused on because it will have an impact on them."

 

For example, let's look at Lansdowne Park's proposed revitalization by the Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group. It's a multi-million dollar project that city staff supports. Giorno notes: "There are a lot of people in the city who would have been interested to know who was actually paid to influence those decisions."

 

While this new city registry will include the lobbying of city councilors, it's unclear whether it will also include the influence applied to city staff.

 

Bureaucrats develop the policy in this growing municipality -- policy that is presented to council for debate. If this registry is going to have any value, interaction between staff members and businesses will need to be acknowledged too.

 

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