Ombudsman writes to Base Commander on visit to CFB Halifax

8 April 2015

Captain (N) Angus Topshee
Base Commander
CFB Halifax

Dear Capt(N) Topshee:

I am writing to follow up on my visit to CFB Halifax and 12 Wing Shearwater from March 2-6, 2015. During this visit, my staff and I were pleased to meet with and listen to concerns and positive feedback from military personnel, civilian employees, caregivers and military family members. I appreciated the time and the openness with which we were met by everyone, particularly given the high tempo of operations in both locations.

I would like to take this opportunity to expand upon the end of visit debrief I gave you on March 5, 2015.  In particular, I would like to highlight some of the concerns that I heard during my visit. I recognize that you and your staff are aware of these issues, but I thought it would be helpful to detail them nonetheless and to offer you my assistance should you wish to follow up on any of these matters. I am a firm believer that collaboration and sharing best practices leads to long-lasting positive changes.

Pay and Benefits

Throughout the visit, a consistent theme heard in all town hall meetings was the issue of pay and benefits.  While members recognize that, in the past, there had been significant efforts made to raise pay and benefit levels, I heard clear frustration with perceived erosions in the commitment of the CAF, and government, towards military members and their families. Members specifically named Post Living Differential, the administration of Home Equity Assistance, Integrated  Relocation Program and Intended Place of Residence, the costs and quality of CFHA housing, new parking costs, and increases in deductibles for certain medical-related items.   

Additionally, there are concerns with the administration of pay and the audit of files. Specifically, it was noted that errors are common and are difficult to have rectified. Also, significant frustration was voiced in respect of the audit and reclamation process for overpayments. Overpayment audits are noted as coming very close to actual retirement dates. The manner, in which the request is communicated, along with the speed of the request for the return of monies, causes significant stress in the life of the member.

Medical-related Issues

There is significant concern amongst the medical staff relating to the ability to fill public service positions with qualified medical practitioners. Not unlike other locations across Canada, retirements are occurring within the medical group and there is a significant need to replace those individuals in a timely fashion.  There are concerns about access to national pools and processing times that I will be raising under separate cover with Ms. Cynthia Binnington, Assistant Deputy Minister (Human Resources – Civilian).

In addition, the medical staff noted there are trade shortages in Physician Assistants, and case management levels are above the national case management standard, requiring the overload to be managed in primary care.

I was also advised that there needs to be more effort put towards unit leadership education of mental health issues that are not related to operations.  Staff advised that there has been a 50% increase in the requirements of the addictions program since 2001.  One causal factor noted was pre-existing conditions before the member was enrolled, resulting in greater effort by the Chain of Command to deal with the issues either medically or administratively. 

Lastly, I was made aware of an issue related to the requirement for baseline medicals for certain members of 12 Air Maintenance Squadron, Shearwater.  While I am advised that the medicals have been approved, there is an implementation issue with no available Physician Assistants to complete the requirement and, as a result, blood samples will have to be sent to Montreal for testing. There are worries within the group that the costs will be an impediment to completing all of the required medicals.

My office has been reinforcing the requirement for members to have regular health assessments since 2008.  I would also support the requirement for any specialist medicals for those working with hazardous materials.  I would be more than willing to further assist the leadership at 12 Wing should there be any impediments to meeting this important medical requirement. I have directed my staff to look further into the issue to see how the situation is being addressed nationally.

Civilian Issues

There were three issues that dominated the discussion in our town hall with civilian staff. The first, as was heard in virtually every meeting during our visit, is the costs for and access to parking.  Specifically, the civilian employees feel that CFB Halifax is being singled out to pay for parking while other bases are not.  Further concern was expressed that parking passes are not available for those with under 5 years of service. They identified that this group would mostly be comprised of younger employees with lower rates of pay who would have to seek other, potentially more expensive, locations to park.  

Additionally, as we discussed in our last meeting, there is an issue of civilian employees not being permitted to park overnight or for multiple days while on sea trials. Employees noted that having their cars “booted” is a cause of significant dissatisfaction as they have paid for a parking pass and there is no other place to leave their vehicle. I was pleased to hear that you have identified a parking solution that should address this specific concern. Of note, during my town hall meetings I committed to publishing parking rates for other DND/CAF locations on the Ombudsman website.

There were sincere concerns expressed about the future of the training program for Employee Assistance Program Referral Agents.  Employees expressed that with the operational tempo remaining at a high level on the base, the program is a valuable and needed resource.  They appreciate that MARLANT leadership paid for training for the last year, but are concerned that the program will be phased out when it continues to be needed.

Lastly, there are concerns about the future of alternate service delivery on the base. This is a source of stress for the civilian employees and there is an impression that individuals could be training their potential replacement staff. Union representatives underscored the concern.

Joint Personnel Support Unit (JPSU)

There were three primary concerns raised in our meeting with the JPSU staff.  The first is gainful employment for the member when a medical employment limitation has been issued or administrative processes are underway. Second, the use of Imposed Restriction (IR) and Intended Place of Residence (IPR) provisions for those members who will have a high probability of receiving a permanent medical category and will eventually be released. Lastly, Reserve Force Compensation issues were raised. 

As we discussed during our meeting, there is an impression that some unit leadership are choosing to “land” members with Medical Employment Limitations (MELs) and not continue to employ them, where appropriate, even after the posting to the Integrated Personnel Support Centre (IPSC). There is also the impression that some units try to post members with administrative issues to the IPSC.  I realize that you have committed to gainfully employ those with MELs at the base level; however, I was told that there is further education to be completed with unit leadership about how those with MELs or administrative issues should be employed.

Secondly, some believe that more risk should be taken with the use of Imposed Restriction or providing the final move when it is in the members’ interest and in support of their health and transition to civilian life. It was suggested that these two provisions – IR and IPR – could be used on a case-by-case basis when it is becoming clear that a member likely will not meet universality of service and will eventually be released.  Officials realize that this requires risk on the leadership’s part, but they believe that there is merit to the use of these provisions on a case-by-case basis.

Reservists were also a cause for concern in many of the town halls as well as the JPSU. Specifically the understanding and administration of Reserve Force Compensation causes problems for those seeking care.  My office is in the final analysis of a full report on this issue and we hope to release this report during the summer of 2015. 

Military Family Resource Centre (MFRC)

It was a pleasure meeting with the MFRC staff, both in Halifax and Shearwater, during our visit.  It is clear that the staff is dedicated to the support of members and family through all of the programming and enthusiasm they provide every day.

During some of our town halls, access to temporary and full-time daycare for family members was noted as a need for groups who are located in Halifax for short periods of time (2-3 years).  Concerns were raised that those who are more permanent to the area use all the positions and those who are incoming to the area for a short-term basis have no access for their children. Members also communicated a need for temporary daycare positions during, and immediately after, moves.

In discussions with the MFRC staff, we were advised that there is no shortage of positions in the private daycare market in the Halifax area. Traditionally, the more permanent members of the Halifax defence community have greater access to the MFRC spaces and want stability in daycare teaching for their children.  In respect of the temporary day care assistance, it would seem that better communication on the availability of temporary care at the MFRC could be done as the MFRC does provide short-term, daily care. Staff advised they can also try to address specific needs when they have some advance notice of the requirement, and they did commit to communicate better on this issue.

Transition was a theme from the families and in all of the town halls combined. Difficulty in understanding and navigating the process were clearly noted as causes of stress on the member and the family.  Extensive paperwork, timely access to both medical and Veterans Affairs case managers, consistency in messaging and understanding the differences between the Pension Act and New Veterans Charter provisions are clear sources of frustration. These are common issues to many across the country and the reason that I and the Veterans’ Ombudsman have begun a joint investigation into the process from the notice of release to the point a member becomes the responsibility of Veterans Affairs Canada.  We expect to report on this investigation over the next year. 

Accessibility to, quality of, and upkeep of the base housing was a source of great frustration. Family members are concerned about the differences in heating costs, the level of insulation, and quality of repairs from contractors. I will elaborate further on this issue in the section on infrastructure.    

Finally, the issue of parking was raised at the Halifax MFRC as well.  Specifically, there is an issue related to availability of accessible parking for the staff who require it and the availability of parking for staff. There is at least one staff member, and likely more, who requires accessible parking at this location.  I understand that the Treasury Board policy requires specific ratios of accessible spaces to number of overall spots.  You advised that you were unaware of this situation and will endeavour to address the issue as soon as possible.

As well, we were advised that the number of allocated parking spaces for staff is insufficient for the number of staff in this location.  They told us that while there is a surplus of available parking for MFRC users that goes unused every day, there is significant shortages for those staff who want to purchase a parking pass.  These individuals have taken to parking on the side streets, resulting in residents leaving notes on their windshields indicating their unhappiness with the parking situation. 


Canadian Forces Housing Association (CFHA)

In my final discussion with you I noted that my meetings with CFHA officials were not completed due to scheduling issues.  That said, I am continuing to follow this file as members and families did raise the quality and availability of housing stock in the Halifax/Shearwater area as a problem. 

Officials advised that the housing stock was built predominantly between 1949 and 1952.  As such, it is old, not up to contemporary standards, and recapitalization of the housing is not anticipated in the foreseeable future.  Nevertheless, there is a waiting list for access. 

Families raised issues with the cost of rent and fuel for a home that is quite old and in need of upgrade. Additionally, there is clear frustration and lack of understanding surrounding the difference in Vote 1 and Vote 5 upgrades. Comments were made regarding the ability of the neighbour to get a garage while the family in question waits for a basement or roof repair.

Also, the differences in service provision across the country from CFHA causes frustration in understanding what can and cannot be completed and what a member will or will not be charged for potential repairs. While CFHA Halifax advises they do not charge tenants for most items that are natural wear and tear, other CFHAs across the country may, and this can cause hesitancy in seeking repairs for fear of not having the money.

Additionally, given the growing cost of living in Halifax, CFHA officials anticipate that their wait lists will grow, especially those with large families or lower salaries. As the housing stock continues to age there will be limited amounts of money for upgrades and repairs. 

Finally, there is a difference in some of the information that was provided by CFHA staff on service provision and what members and families have advised in terms of timeliness and completion of repairs.  While CFHA officials advised their contractors are small and very attentive to the completion of repairs, family members who spoke to us do not have that impression. You may wish to explore the dichotomy of these perceptions further, especially in Shearwater.

Shearwater Infrastructure

Concerns were raised in the Shearwater town halls about certain aging buildings (the tower and others) that are raising health and safety issues. Specifically, there are concerns about asbestos.

I understand that a Hazardous Materials Survey of Building SH38A was completed in March 2013 and that some items were identified to be in poor condition.  Given the concerns expressed in the town halls, I would encourage dialogue with members who work in the affected areas as to the state of the building and the way ahead for remediation.

In closing, I would like to thank you and your leadership team for your commitment to the men and women who serve under your command. I recognize that some of the issues and challenges you are confronting are, to some extent, outside your control.  That being said, I encourage you to continue pushing as hard as you can to address the local concerns.  Please do not hesitate to contact me or my Office should you require assistance.

I would also like to thank your staff for the assistance that was provided during our visit.  In particular, I would like to recognize Lt(N) Joe Chaput, LS Nicole Daniel, and Capt Jennifer Dunn. All went above and beyond in their support and were invaluable to making our visit a success.


Gary Walbourne


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