Ombudsman Follows Up on Visit to Cold Lake

June 6, 2012

Colonel Patrice Laroche, CD
Wing Commander4 Wing Cold Lake
P.O. Box 6550
Station Forces
Cold Lake, Alberta T9M 2C6

Dear Colonel Laroche:

I am writing to follow up on our outreach visit to 4 Wing Cold Lake from May 14-18, 2012. During this visit, we were pleased to meet with and listen to concerns and positive feedback from hundreds of military personnel, civilian employees, caregivers and military family members. We certainly appreciated the reception we received and the openness with which we were met by everyone at the Wing.

I would like to take this opportunity to expand upon the verbal briefing that we provided to you before departing Cold Lake. While at 4 Wing, we received 30 individual complaints on a variety of issues, which we are pursuing right now. With this letter, I would like to highlight some of the broader and recurring concerns that we heard during our visit. I recognize that you and your staff are aware of these issues, but I thought it would be helpful to document them and to offer our assistance in following up on these matters. As we discussed, I will also be posting this letter on our website in order to keep our constituents better informed of our operations and activities.

I. Cost of Living

Problems associated with the high cost of living in Cold Lake were raised in all of our meetings and town hall sessions during our visit. We were told that, as a result of increased production in the oil and gas industry in the area, the local population has grown, wages for those outside of the Defence community have risen and costs for most goods and services have increased dramatically. Moreover, as a result of these changes in the local community, the cost for a Residential Housing Unit on Base has also increased as rent adjustments are driven by changes in the market. 

As costs increase across the board and military salaries remain relatively constant, Canadian Forces members and their families at Cold Lake informed us that their quality of life has been significantly eroded. Indeed, a number of members informed us that they had to take on two or more part-time jobs in order to make ends meet. Some told us that they no longer could afford a telephone, cable or Internet services. Others said that they have had to sell treasured belongings, keep their kids out of hockey and other activities, dip into their Registered Retirement Savings Plan (RRSP) funds and even claim bankruptcy in order to feed their families and meet other financial obligations.

It troubles me deeply that some Canadian Forces members and their families are having to make these types of sacrifices in order to serve their country. I will be raising these issues, and many of the following issues in this letter, with the Minister of National Defence in order to find a solution to these unacceptable conditions.

II. Post-Living Differential

During our meetings and town hall sessions at 4 Wing, a significant number of Canadian Forces members raised with us serious concerns related to Post-Living Differential. It was widely noted that the Post-Living Differential rate for Cold Lake does not adequately reflect or compensate for the high cost of living and the lack of services in the community when compared to other areas. For example, we were informed that the current Post-Living Differential rate in Cold Lake is $319 per month, while Canadian Forces members in Edmonton receive $684 per month even though they reside in an area with greater access to more affordable housing, services, and medical care.

It is clear to me that this considerable discrepancy in Post-Living Differential rates is having an adverse impact on all Canadian Forces members and their families posted to Cold Lake. Not only are many of them forced to make difficult sacrifices to survive their posting to 4 Wing, but they are at an obvious (and long-term) disadvantage when compared to other serving members in military communities across the country.

III. Canadian Forces Housing

A large number of Canadian Forces members and their families raised serious concerns about their Residential Housing Units. We were informed that the average monthly charge for a Residential Housing Unit is approximately $1,100, which many found to be unreasonable given the poor condition of their units.

In town hall sessions and smaller meetings, members described to us having to sign a waiver acknowledging that their attic contained asbestos and that they were not to disturb the area. Others mentioned a waiver they had to sign advising them that, should their basement flood, the Canadian Forces Housing Agency would not be responsible for damages to their personal belongings. Some told us of the “ungrounded” stickers on their electrical outlets which rendered them dangerous to use. Others mentioned that they had to leave their water running continuously from November until April in order to prevent their pipes from freezing. I informed the Cold Lake representative of the Canadian Forces Housing Agency of these very serious health and safety concerns and asked that they be addressed immediately.

At 4 Wing, we also received a number of complaints related to the services provided by the Canadian Forces Housing Agency. A number of individuals noted that the agency does not provide  “after hour” services and that requests for repairs are often left unanswered or are completed by inexperienced contractors. Others complained that as soon as a repair is done or an upgrade completed, they are charged more for the housing unit. They feel this is unfair as the repairs or upgrades only serve to bring the housing unit up to today’s standards. 

IV. Specialized Medical Care

During our visit to 4 Wing, a number of members of the Cold Lake Defence community highlighted the challenges they faced in accessing specialized medical care. Although there is a clinic at the Wing that caters to the routine medical issues of military family members, all other care is referred to Edmonton. This also applies to Canadian Forces members as well.

Military families told us that they are required to drive more than three hours each way to attend specialist appointments in Edmonton. Some have more than one child and, therefore, have to bring all of their children with them. If family members have a job, they have to take an entire day of vacation/leave. In addition, families told us that they are only reimbursed $58 for gas, which is half of what the allocation used to be. They also told us that they are not reimbursed if they decide to stay overnight in Edmonton.

We were informed that daily transportation to Edmonton is provided by the Wing to attend such appointments. However, we were told that this transportation leaves Cold Lake at 6:00 a.m. and the return trip from Edmonton departs at 1:30 p.m. It was widely noted that this arrangement is flawed as it is difficult to get an appointment with a medical specialist in this time-frame. Base transportation also does not work for families with small children as car seats are not permitted on the bus. 

Also in terms of specialized medical care, it was noted that there is no longer a psychologist or psychiatrist at 4 Wing for Canadian Forces members. We were told that these two individuals recently left Cold Lake and that patients requiring these services will be referred to Edmonton. Finally, we were informed by health care providers that there are no francophone mental health care services available for members of the Defence community. 

V. Hiring Process/Staffing

During our various meetings and town halls, mental health and medical care providers and civilian employees expressed significant frustration with the difficulties they have encountered in filling vacancies and hiring civilian employees. Many claim this is due to a  “hiring freeze” or  “controlled hiring” that has been imposed at Cold Lake. We were informed that good candidates are being lost as a result of delays in the staffing process, a great deal of which is caused by the requirement to send all staffing requests to Ottawa before a process can be launched. Vacancies and staffing delays have led to a heavier workload for those currently occupying a position and to the hiring of more casual and contract workers.

As has been the case across the country, civilian employees also informed us of their concerns related to the classification of positions. In particular, many claimed that there was a significant discrepancy between the classification level of a job in Cold Lake and the classification of the same type of job in Ottawa (e.g., a CR-04 in Cold Lake doing the same work as an AS-01 in Ottawa).

I will be raising these staffing issues with the Assistant Deputy Minister (Human Resources – Civilian) in the near future in order to see if they can be addressed.

In closing, I would like to reiterate my serious concerns regarding a number of issues that are having a very negative impact on the Defence community at Cold Lake, most notably the high cost of living, insufficient Post-Living Differential and the poor state of military housing. It is clear to me that people are suffering and that changes are desperately needed.

It is also clear to me after my many meetings and town hall sessions at 4 Wing that you and your senior leadership team are absolutely committed to the welfare of the men and women who serve under your command and that you have been attempting to address these very serious issues, many of which are, at least to some extent, outside of your control. I encourage you to continue pushing as hard as you can to address these and other concerns at 4 Wing. As I mentioned, I will be following up with the Minister of National Defence in order to address the broader issues and concerns that were raised with us while we were in Cold Lake.

I would like to thank you and your staff for your help in the organization and implementation of a very successful outreach visit. In particular, please extend my appreciation to your Wing Visits Officer who went above and beyond the call of duty to facilitate our visit.


Pierre Daigle

c.c.: Lieutenant-General André Deschamps, Commander of the Royal Canadian Air Force

 Cynthia Binnington, Assistant Deputy Minister (Human Resources – Civilian)

 Rear-Admiral Andrew Smith, Chief of Military Personnel

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