Letter to Wing Commander Cold Lake: Following Ombudsman’s Visit

03 May 2019

 

Colonel Paul Doyle
Wing Commander
4 Wing Cold Lake
PO Box 6550 Station Forces
Cold Lake Alberta T9M 2C6

 

Dear Colonel Doyle:

I am writing to follow up on our visit to 4 Wing Cold Lake from 25 February to 1 March 2019. I want to thank you, Chief Warrant Officer Nault, Lieutenant-Colonel Zimmerman and all of your team for extending such warm hospitality throughout our visit. We were pleased to meet with, and listen to concerns and positive feedback from military personnel, civilian employees, caregivers, and family members. Your sincerity and encouragement of all Wing personnel to engage openly with my team resulted in a very successful visit.

The purpose of this letter is to expand upon the debrief I provided to you 28 February 2019, and to highlight some of the concerns and improvements that we heard during our visit. I recognize that you and your staff are well aware of these issues, but I thought it would be helpful to detail them nonetheless and to offer you our assistant should you wish to follow up on any of these matters. I am a firm believer that collaboration can lead to long-lasting, positive change for the Defence Community.

Cost of Living/Housing

As was the case when my predecessor visited in 2012, this subject was raised in all town hall meetings during our visit. The cost of living in Cold Lake is a serious concern and has had a detrimental impact on the quality of life for Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) members and their families.

Despite a downturn in the local economy, housing and rental prices (including on-base) have been slow to follow suit. As a result of the high cost of living and lack of affordable housing on- and off-base, some CAF members reported having to secure additional part-time work in order to make ends meet.

Issues surrounding Canadian Forces Housing Agency (CFHA) were also discussed at all town hall meetings. There was considerable frustration over shelter charges and the manner in which they are calculated and determined. Many members states that the average charge for a Residential Housing Unit (RHU) is approximately $1 100 per month. They felt that this was unreasonable given their poor condition. Many expressed dissatisfaction with the services provided by CFHA especially when there are health and safety concerns despite best efforts by CFHA staff. Further investment is required. My Office will be following-up with CFHA on these concerns.

Post Living Differential (PLD) and Home Equity Assistance (HEA):

Again, as in 2012, PLD was a consistent theme raised by all ranks. It was noted that the PLD rate for Cold Lake does not adequately reflect or compensate for the high cost of living and availability of services in that community when compared to other areas. The current PLD rate in Cold Lake is $319 per month, while CAF members in Edmonton receive $684 per month, despite their residing in a metropolitan area with greater access to affordable housing, services, and medical care. This discrepancy in PLD rates continues to adversely affect members and their families; remaining in Cold Lake for any length of time puts them at a continued financial disadvantage when compared to other serving members in military communities across Canada.

Members also expressed concerns related to equity losses incurred when there is a requirement to sell their home. In April 2018, the Canadian Forces Integrated Relocation Program directive was amended to allow members to claim up to $30 000 for home equity loss, as per the HEA benefit. However, due to a downturn in the local economy members posted to Cold Lake are experiencing greater losses, and feel that the HEA is insufficient and lacks flexibility.

While these are national issues that I will continue to raise personally with the Minister of National Defence, it is important that you remain aware that they are of significant concern to the members at 4 Wing. The longer these issues remain unsolved, the more CAF families will suffer financially.

Manning and Operational Tempo

We heard numerous concerns from CAF members relating to vacancies, high operational tempo, and the requirement to do more with less. While everyone seems to recognize this as a pan-CAF issue, it has important implications for recruitment, retention, and attribution of qualified members. Concerns regarding general fatigue is taking a toll on members and civilian employees.

Canadian forces Transition Group:

My team met with both staff and members posted to the newly-named Transition Group. The feedback we received was overwhelmingly positive, in terms of the level of service and support provided by the staff. A concern that was raised is the lack of clear policy for posting members to the transition group for early access recovery / transition supports. It is seen as a last resort, often due to operational requirements, rather than considering the member’s needs.

BGRS (formerly known as Brookfield Global Relocation Services)

Members raised serious and varied concerns relating to the services provided by BGRS. More specifically, the lack of a dedicated on-base relocation coordinator to assist and answer questions, a lack of responsiveness, incorrect or conflicting information being provided by BGRS representatives, long delays for compensation, poor communication, and a cumbersome, overly bureaucratic process.

Our office has also heard similar concerns over the past number of months and has been working to sensitize leadership to the problems faces by members across Canada. We have noted a positive development in the CAF’s decision to cease use of the problematic pre-loaded relocation cards.

Additionally, as outlined in CANFORGEN 039/19 – CAF RP (RELOCATION PROGRAM) SERVICE DELIVERY _ IMPROVEMENTS APS, the CAF is making key changes to improve relocation services, effective April 1, 2019. Trust that this office will continue to monitor this issue closely and raise concerns as needed.

Screening Criteria for Cold Lake – Semi Isolated/ Medically Isolated Posting

Cold Lake is considered a semi-isolated posting. Members spoke at length about the screening process and suggested it be refined and improved with an assessment that will take into consideration a greater number of factors. A more holistic approach in evaluation the entire family unit’s needs, well-being and financial situation should be explored; this may prevent future hardships currently being experienced by many.

It was also frequently mentioned that members posted to Cold Lake are being advised by their career manager to expect to stay in that location for at least ten years. The members associated this to the fact that no one wants to move to Cold Lake and will purposely “DAG” red. Some mentioned that even when they “DAG” red they are sent anyways for operational requirements. Others felt that a posting to Cold Lake was a punishment and still others truly enjoy the area.

Mental health care workers also stated that they are receiving frequent requests for Cost Contingency Moves as members are having a difficult time adjusting to the change in quality of life (limited access to services, financial duties, securing employment, the cost of living and isolation).

Hiring Process

This subject was primarily raised by the mental health and medical care providers, as well as civilian employees. They noted that a “hiring freeze” or “controlled hiring” resulted from the centralization of staffing at National Defence Headquarters. This has caused delays in hiring and as a result, have lost good candidates as they end up finding employment elsewhere.

According to Wing Staff, this has resulted in reduced flexibility in short- and long-term staffing as well as significant delays in staffing positions overall. Consequently, we were told that remaining staff face a much heavier workload as they assume additional roles and responsibilities. It was clear that improved HR support is necessary to support your team.

Medical Care

Lack of resources or difficulty in accessing services both at 4 Wing and in the community was outlined as a challenge, especially for francophone members and their families. It is a great concern for family members as they listed some of the obstacles this presents for them: they are required 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 they have a job, they are required to book an entire day off; and they will not be reimbursed should they decide to stay overnight in Edmonton. 

Daily transportation to Edmonton is provided by the base to attend such appointments; however it leaves Cold Lake early in the morning and the return trip from Edmonton leaves early afternoon. Many have said that this arrangement is not convenient for all as it’s hard to get an appointment with a specialist in that time frame. The issue of the policy regarding staff cars and carrying a family escort is something that I will be raising with the Military Personnel Command.

Medical staff also expressed concerns regarding the lack of policies and procedures surrounding medical car for Cadets during the cadets camps. This is something that we will take-up with the Surgeon General and the Commander National Cadet and Junior Canadian Rangers.

Infrastructure and Equipment

During our visit, concerns were reported about the aging infrastructure. For example, we heard about broken windows, extremely cold work conditions, broken pipes, and asbestos. We were also advised of the lack of basic equipment, such as an insufficient number of tuques, mittens, ruck sacks and sleeping bags.

Civilian Employees

My team and I had a very productive session with 4 Wing civilian staff. While we heard a number of individual stories, reoccurring concerns were:

  • Issues surrounding classification and work descriptions; and
  • A lack of transparency regarding staffing processes.

Overall, civilian employees felt that they are the consistent element at 4 Wing, as they are not posted out every few years. However, they often feel undervalued and lack recognition.

Colonel Doyle, I would like to say that many of these concerns echo complaints we have heard across the defence Team. Some of these issues will feed into our systemic reviews and are part of my engagement with the senior cadre within the DND/CAF. I should also note that my team received 14 individual complaints or requests for additional information during our visit. While I have not outlined these above, in order to ensure absolute confidentiality, we have reached out to those individuals in order to assist where and as required.

I also recognize that some of these issues and challenges you are confronted with are outside of your control. Overall, the sum of all the issues that are experienced in the unique locale of Cold Lake is greater than the parts individually. That being said, I encourage you to continue pushing as hard as you have been to address the local concerns at your Wing. Please do not hesitate to contact me or our office should you require assistance.

I would also 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 Wing Visits Officer, Tammy Bright Burden, who provided excelled support and facilitation for our visit.

Sincerely,

 

Gregory A. Lick.
Interim Ombudsman

 

c.c.:

Lieutenant-General Al Meinzinger
Commander of the Royal Canadian Air Force

Lieutenant-General C.A. Lamarre
Commander of Military Personnel Command

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