House of Commons Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs (ACVA)

Needs and Issues Specific to Indigenous Veterans

16 October 2018

Gary Walbourne



Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen.

I wanted to once again thank you for inviting representatives from this office to appear before your committee to discuss issues that are pertinent to current and former members of the Canadian Armed Forces and their families.

Joining me today are Robyn Hynes, Director General of Operations, and Amanda Hansen-Reeder, Acting Director - Systemic Investigations. Both Ms. Hynes and Ms. Hansen-Reeder were actively involved in the development of the report AND if I can’t answer your questions, I’m sure they can.

Your study on the Needs and Issues Specific to Indigenous Veterans will serve to inform both public discourse and government decision-making moving forward. I believe that the recommendations contained in my recent report on the Canadian Rangers titled: The Factors That Impact Health Care Entitlements and Related Benefits will serve as a valuable guidepost for this important discussion surrounding the health and wellness of our “Eyes and Ears in the North”. I am also pleased that our office published our report in 5 Indigenous languages, a first for our office.

My office launched this systemic investigation in 2016 after preliminary research of the Canadian Rangers organization found several areas of concern in the determination of appropriate type of Reserve Service, concerns with the absence of a requirement for medical examinations for Rangers prior to enrolment, and a lack of awareness on the part of Canadian Rangers with regard to their entitlement to Canadian Armed Forces health care treatment and employment benefits.

Our dedicated team of systemic investigators traveled extensively to conduct in-person interviews with Rangers, Ranger instructors, Chaplains, Commanding Officers, members of the Canadian Ranger National Authority, Canadian Forces Health Services, Joint Operations Command, various branches of Chief Military Personnel, Health Canada, Veterans Affairs Canada, and more. Well over 150 interviews were conducted, often in remote locations, in order to ensure that the voices of these constituents were heard and understood.

Before proceeding to the findings and recommendations of my report, I wanted to take a couple of minutes to speak to the uniqueness of the Canadian Rangers as members of the Canadian Armed Forces. This uniqueness is rooted in cultural, geographical, and socio-economic circumstances.

First, there is no doubt that the Canadian Ranger organization and Junior Canadian Ranger program have a positive impact on northern and remote communities. The transfer of traditional knowledge from Elders to youth is embedded, valued, and relied upon for mission success. The structure: from enrolment to promotions and beyond, is decided upon by the community. This model binds the Canadian Ranger organization and Junior Canadian Ranger program in core principles of honesty, integrity, learning and purpose.

As testimony to the importance of the traditional knowledge and skills that Canadian Rangers bring to the Canadian Armed Forces, they are NOT subject to a compulsory retirement age. Many Canadian Rangers, in every sense of the word, end up being “Rangers for life”. Whether it is a critical search and rescue mission, a patrol, or a large-scale Arctic Sovereignty mission; knowledge of the land, coastline, and climate can literally mean life or death for young members who have not yet become intimately familiar with their surroundings. Simply put, Elder knowledge is a heck of a value proposition.

In order to satisfy operational requirements and to maintain the importance of traditional knowledge within their force structure, Canadian Rangers are not subject to some physical and age requirements. For example, there is no mandatory retirement age for Canadian Rangers. This allows Elders to continue playing an important role within the organization past their 60th birthday. Additionally, they are not subject to meet the Universality of Service principle related to physical fitness as Regular Force or Primary Reservists are during their careers. While the Canadian Rangers’ medical requirement on enrolment is to be physically and psychologically fit to perform foreseeable duties, a medical examination is not required. These unique conditions are essential to making this organization work, and after a thorough examination of the organization, I personally believe it wouldn’t work any other way.

What we have seen in our review of the Canadian Rangers is that the policies that serve us well in downtown Ottawa may not serve us well in the northern and remote locations that are served by these members. Try issuing a cheque to a Canadian Ranger in a community where there is no bank at all, or to fill out a form online where the closest Wi-Fi hotspot is a thousand kilometres away. That Ranger, by the way, may not speak, read or write in either English or French.

This uniqueness was factored into the findings and recommendations contained in our report; and by virtue of this committee studying the needs and issues pertaining to this community, you as members will no doubt frame your recommendations accordingly.

Of the findings contained in our report, there are a few standouts that I believe are especially relevant to your study.

They are:

-  Canadian Rangers’ illnesses and injuries are not being consistently reported or adequately tracked.

-  Additionally, we found that: Canadian Rangers’ access to health care, particularly specialized medical services, is affected by the fact that most live in remote and isolated areas.

-  Finally: Most Canadian Rangers are not aware of their Canadian Armed Forces health care benefit entitlements. Further, 89% of those interviewed did not know they were eligible for benefits administered by Veterans Affairs Canada.

These findings led to my office to make 4 evidence-based recommendations carefully aimed at the need to better inform the Canadian Ranger community not only of their health care entitlements but also to emphasize the importance for Rangers to report their injuries; identifying barriers to access these entitlements; and developing and implementing a service delivery model that is responsive to the unique needs of these constituents. Our office also provided recommended timelines for the implementation of these recommendations.

In the coming months, our office will issue a report card on the progress of the Canadian Armed Forces’ implementation of these recommendations. This report card will be published on our website so all Canadians can track the Department’s progress on these important issues.

Some of the findings contained in this report, as well as the ability for the Canadian Armed Forces’ to implement the recommendations contained therein, are firmly tied to the under-resourcing of the Canadian Ranger Instructor cadre. The current ratios of Canadian Ranger Instructors to Rangers and Junior Canadian Rangers are simply untenable. If we compare the ratios contained in our December 2017 report to statistics recently provided to us by the Canadian Armed Forces – an “apples to apples” comparison – the current average ratio of full-time staff to Canadian Ranger and Junior Canadian Ranger is 1 to 41, compared to 1 to 36 in 2017. If we isolate these ratios specific to just the Canadian Ranger Instructors, the ratio has jumped from an average of 1 to 176 in March of this year, to 1 to 183 this past September. The ratio at the 1st Canadian Ranger Patrol Group, based in Yellowknife, is 1 to 239.

The large administrative burdens on this group of individuals heavily impacts their ability to educate and support Canadian Rangers in their patrols. The Department has clearly indicated to our office that it recognizes this burden and is working to alleviate the overall workload. Our office will continue to track their progress in this regard.

What is clear is that a surge of effort is required to better educate and inform the Canadian Rangers on how they can and should be supported during their daily operations, and should they become ill or injured as a result of those activities. Knowing that they are well-supported by both their chain of command as well as their health care providers will improve efficiency of operations and morale moving forward. It is my hope that the recommendations contained in my report are implemented swiftly, and the responses from both the Minister of National Defence and the Canadian Army have been encouraging to our office.

Ladies and gentlemen of the committee, before my team and I take questions, I wanted to once again thank you for your efforts to provide evidence-based recommendations to government relating to the Defence Community. Your efforts do not go unnoticed.

On your trip up north, speak not only with those who are paraded on front of you, but those who are behind the scenes. In the Ombudsman’s office, we are often privy to what I call “the ground truth”. We hear buzzwords and fancy initiatives that might not translate to action on the ground. Sometimes there is, but many times there is not.

We know because we still get calls, emails, letters, AND in-person communications from these individuals. Evidence doesn’t lie.

We are now free to answer any questions you may have.



Thank you, members, for your questions, and for indulging me for 2 minutes at the end of this meeting.

Ladies and gentlemen,

As many of you are already aware, I have decided to retire from this position as of October 31 of this year. The reasons for this departure are both personal and professional. Therefore, this will likely be the last time I appear before this committee, or any parliamentary committee, for that matter.

I am proud of the work that the office has done during my four and a half years as Ombudsman. During this time, we have published 14 reports, as well as a comprehensive submission to the Minister of National Defence for the Defence Policy Review. Our office has made a difference. Our recommendations are well-reflected in Strong, Secure, Engaged, and in recommendations that your committee and other parliamentary committees have made over that time. Many of the recommendations have been implemented, and I am confident that even more will be implemented in the future.

I stand behind all the recommendations I have made over my four and a half years as Ombudsman. I am confident that they are the best way forward. As I have said quite publicly, some have not been implemented based on personalities rather than practicality. That is sad. The second we let personalities interfere with what is right for those who wear the uniform in service to Canada, we begin to lose the plot.

As I have stated in my farewell message, I have pushed as much as I can, and as much as the system can take.

The Department of National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces have my recommendations, they know which are not implemented, or partially implemented. If personalities are set aside, they will know what to do with them, and the Defence Community will be the better for it.

In the end, I know that we will end up where we need to be.  The intermittent years of inaction or implementation will mean more heartache for members, but eventually we will get there. We have to get there.

I remind the incoming Ombudsperson, whether that person is acting in the position on an interim basis or appointed through the regular Governor in Council process, that this is not a popularity contest.  Follow the evidence, trust no one, and follow the money.   As an office of last resort, when people get to us it is because they already feel chaffed by the system and have nowhere to turn. Impartiality, confidentiality, and objectivity are the core tenets of your responsibilities, they are not to be taken lightly, and your actions will be observed and judged accordingly. Accountability begins and ends at the top.  

Finally, and most importantly, I am incredibly proud of the 65 public servants of this office that serve the Defence Community tirelessly. We have members of our team that have been there since the lights were turned on 20 years ago. They are professional, respectful, and devoted to the work they do on a daily basis. I am in awe of their ability to focus on the tasks at hand, and do it with a grace and humility scarcely matched anywhere in government. To them I say: Thank you, for everything.

Thank you again, and thank you Mr. Chair, for the invitation.

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