Canada’s fighting poor are fighting mad

From the archives: Canada’s troops are suffering--and angry
Jane O'Hara, with Susanne Hiller, Brenda Branswell, John DeMont, John Nicol, Stephanie Nolen, Shanda Deziel, Lucianna Ciccocioppo and Cindy Harnett


This story was originally published in Maclean’s April 13, 1998 issue:

A sailor aboard HMCS Calgary starts canvassing for the United Way­—and discovers that 11 members of the ship’s company cannot make a donation because they are actually receiving benefits from the charitable agency. At Canadian Forces Base Edmonton, a private gets up in the pre-dawn hours every morning to deliver newspapers in order to help support his wife and three children. In Esquimalt, a military wife says she actually looks forward to her husband’s six-month tours of duty at sea­—because the money saved by not having to feed him at home brings the family a small step closer to making ends meet. These are some of the stories of the men and women who have chosen a career in the Canadian Forces. They are Canada’s fighting poor and they are fighting mad­—angry that their noble career choice has also meant hardship and deprivation. “We put our troops in jeopardy when we don’t give them enough money to support their families,” says former vice-admiral Chuck Thomas. “Soldiers have never been rich­—but I’ve never seen it like this.”

Neither has Cory Robinson. A second lieutenant at CFB Moose Jaw­—the home of the Canada’s precision-flying Snowbirds­—he finds himself facing an enemy far tougher than he had imagined when he first set out to try to earn his wings. It’s not the battle lines in some foreign war zone that frighten him­—it’s finding himself and his family on the breadlines here at home. Unable to look after his wife and two children on his annual $30,000 salary, Robinson at one point moonlighted as a security guard at Moose Jaw’s Town and Country Mall for $5.75 an hour. “Every evening, I put on a really bad suit with a terrible clip-on tie and chase teenagers,” he says. “I’m an officer so I’m supposed to project a better image. But there I was a mall security guy. I had to suck in a lot of pride to do that.”

Two months ago, Robinson was one of about 125 air force personnel who filled the officer’s mess at CFB Moose Jaw and testified before the parliamentary standing committee on national defence and veterans affairs. Since October, the committee has been holding a coast-to-coast inquiry into living conditions among Canada’s military­—and hearing heartbreaking stories from members of the army, navy, air force, and their spouses. The scope of the complaints­—almost all of them from enlisted personnel and lower-ranking officers­—has ranged from low pay and squalid housing to soldiers having to buy their own boots when posted to Bosnia. “It’s disgusting,” commented Reform MP and committee member Art Hanger after visiting CFB Edmonton’s army base in late January. “Some families are living in trash that not even prisoners would live in.”

The conditions have not only outraged the travelling politicians, they have shocked long-serving military members who have seen their share of hard times in the service. “The members of the military have become the working poor,” says Thomas, who joined the navy in 1954 and resigned in 1992 as the head of the maritime command. Much of the decline is due to the friendly fire of downsizing. Over the past seven years, the number of troops has been slashed from 86,000 to 60,000. Salaries were frozen, promotions stalled as workloads increased­—while the military budget was brought down to a projected $9.4 billion this year from $12.8 billion.

Master Cpl. William Tremblay of Petawawa, who is pictured on this week’s cover, could be a poster boy for the changes. Currently a radio operator, he has been stalled at his rank for the past 10 years. Even after 16 years’ experience­—and with five UN tours under his belt­—Tremblay, 35, says he still makes only $38,000 a year, $2,000 less than the starting salary for most municipal policemen. “Wrong place, wrong time” is how he laconically describes his situation. “I should be a sergeant by now­—it’s frustrating.”

Like every other fighting force in the world, the Canadian military has been trained to serve in silence, to accept hardship and wear it as a badge of courage. But, as revealed in interviews with Maclean’s, the strain of trying to raise families in a military still wedded to a tradition­—and salaries­—of single men is starting to show. That accounts for much of the anger also encountered by the committee­—and the thousands of pages of testimony attesting that the 30,000 men and women in the lower ranks­—from private to master corporal­—are more tightly strapped than a rucksack on an infantryman.

In Esquimalt, the West Coast naval base outside Victoria, sailors joke that B.C. stands for “Bring Cash.” At Cold Lake air force base in Alberta, chaplain Kelly Bokovay says he has seen airmen “pass the hat in the hangar” to raise money so an impoverished colleague could fly home to his mother’s funeral. Cpl. Bernard Sarazin, an air force technician at CFB Moose Jaw, came to the committee hearings bearing his personal financial statements from 1993 to 1997. The documents indicated that Sarazin now makes $360 a year less in take-home pay than he did in 1993 while holding the same rank. “The numbers are there,” he said emotionally. “I didn’t even take into consideration how the cable bill, the power bill, my car insurance and everything else has gone up.”

Although millions of Canadian civilians and their families find themselves in equally dire financial straits, the situation is magnified for the military because of the unique demands of the service. There is no civilian equivalent. Soldiers can be called away from home­—even from a honeymoon­—at a moment’s notice. On duty, whether it is stacking sandbags during last year’s Manitoba flood or rescuing shut-ins during January’s ice storm in Eastern Canada, they can work up to 20 hours a day. And unlike the Hydro workers they toiled along-side during the storm­—some of whom made $85 an hour­—servicemen are not paid overtime.

Nor are most civilian employees forced to accept constant and costly postings that uproot spouses and children from friends, family and schools. And there are dangerous tours of duty­—the Persian Gulf, Iran, Haiti and the former Yugoslavia­—that call some members of the military away for up to 200 days a year. “It does not do a lot for morale,” says Wil Wilmot, the base financial counsellor at CFB Esquimalt. “We’re paying these kids to put their lives on the line, and in some cases they could be making more on welfare.”

For military members with families, the long absences can be devastating for those left behind. Andrea Grant, who has two children and is married to a leading seaman at CFB Halifax, lives in a cramped apartment in the city’s north end and says she sometimes cries herself to sleep when her husband is at sea. “At first when we had the kids, we thought it wasn’t an ideal situation, but he’ll get a big raise and we’ll be able to live comfortably,” she told Maclean’s. “Pipe dreams. I would tell a woman considering military life today to run away while you can.”

The sound and fury coming from the lower ranks has been duly noted by the military leadership. Within 24 hours of each parliamentary committee session, Gen. Maurice Baril, the chief of the defence staff, receives a written summary on his desk at National Defence Headquarters in Ottawa. He has heard the complaints before. “I’m not surprised at all what they’re saying,” Baril told Maclean’s in a disarmingly cheerful, avuncular way. “In order to keep the good people in the Canadian Forces, we must be competitive with the outside world. We have to give them a standard of living­—not the highest in the world­—but we have to give a decent living to our people.” And Defence Minister Art Eggleton said in an interview that the complaints were going to be given a high priority within his ministry. “I find the conditions our military are living under unacceptable,” says Eggleton. “There are very difficult economic conditions for a lot of them. But we have limited resources and we have to do it within a framework we can afford.”

Late last year, partly in reaction to the committee hearings, Eggleton announced a series of pay increases amounting to nine per cent over two years. Baril asserts that while the raises are small, taken together they are still better “than a frozen mukluk across the mouth.” But Master Seaman Mario Couture, stationed at CFB Esquimalt, told Maclean’s they were “a slap in the face.” Another soldier added that the pay lowered rather than raised morale. “It was just enough to piss us off,” he said. Intensifying the bitterness were the performance bonuses given last October to the military brass­—officers from colonel on up pocketed an extra five per cent of their salary if they got a good rating. “You don’t hold some people down as a means of bringing other people up,” argued Eggleton in defence of the bonuses. “You bring everybody up, that’s the best way to go.”

Yet despite the cutbacks and downsizing, the closing of 15 permanent bases, the low pay and the career stagnation, for the past seven years the Forces have been busier than at any time since the Korean War in the early 1950s. Canadian soldiers, sailors and airmen have taken part in 17 different operations of wildly varying scope at home and abroad since 1989. From Oka to Rwanda, from the Saguenay floods to Somalia, Canada’s fighting forces have been asked to do more while receiving less. In 1995, for example, soldiers, on average, saw active duty six out of 24 months, instead of the traditional 36 months. “They are becoming an old army of very tired young men,” says Admiral Thomas. “They’ve been doing a much more rigorous rotation with not much relief before they’ve gone back in again.”

But while the foreign deployments are hard on marriages, they also pay well­—anywhere from $330 to $1,442 a month on top of a regular salary. Increasingly, financially hard-pressed soldiers are acting like mercenaries, volunteering for duty just for the money. “It is hard on them and it is hard on their families,” says Padre Mac Burke, a Roman Catholic priest who has been counselling soldiers on CFB Edmonton for the past five years. “But they see it as a way out of debt. I’ve had a number of soldiers tell me that they don’t want to go again, but they do it to pay off their bills.”

Burke’s small wooden chapel on the base reveals the depth of the problem. One room is set aside for prayer, another serves a more material function: an emergency food supply for the dozens of needy military families at the base who can’t make ends meet. Some observers say that the resulting frustration is undermining the very essence of Canada’s once-proud military. Scott Taylor, the editor of Esprit de Corps, a military magazine devoted to the interests of the common soldier, says that troops no longer trust their superior officers to take care of them. And Taylor, whose magazine documents waste and mismanagement by the military brass, claims that if the situation is not corrected, the command structure is in danger of crumbling. “The soldiers are not going to rise up and kill their officers,” he says. “But it’s the peacetime equivalent when they speak out to the parliamentary committee. They are going over the heads of the officers to the politicians.”

In fact, according to a recent internal Canadian Forces poll, 83 per cent of the military has lost faith in the leadership. That feeling was further reinforced in December when Lt.-Gen. W. C. Leach, the head of the army, told the parliamentary committee that he was unaware that some members of the lower ranks needed food banks to get by. “Was I paying attention to this fact?” asked Leach rhetorically. “I guess I have to say no.” The statement dumbfounded committee member Leon Benoit, a Reform MP, given that one of his colleagues only needed to place a single phone call to discover that 13 military families in Winnipeg were relying on food banks.

Leach further shocked the committee when he admitted that Canada’s soldiers were wearing clothes that had been around since the 1960s. “My son has a better winter coat than my soldiers do,” he said. Other testimony revealed that some Canadian soldiers now serving in Bosnia found their army-issue combat boots so inferior they bought their own for $240 at hunting-goods stores. Although the Forces are now in the process of spending $150 million on new clothing, Taylor thinks it may be too little, too late. “When you can’t trust these guys to provide you with the basics, why would you entrust them with the decisions which put your life on the line,” says Taylor, 37, who served in the army from 1982 to 1986.

There have been calls, meanwhile, for military leaders to institute a new family policy to reduce the stress on troops and their dependants. When the committee visited CFB Valcartier, northeast of Quebec City, in February, Capt. Suzie Rodrigue, then the base’s chief of psycho-social services, pointed out that the military hierarchy has not kept up with dramatic changes in Canadian families. Military families now include single parents (both men and women), married servicemen and servicewomen and more dual-career couples. Like most civilians, military fathers now want to be more involved with their kids, and many military spouses want a chance to work outside the home. That change has been lost on the military brass. “In the Canadian armed forces, the family is still perceived as the traditional family where the wife would follow her husband anywhere,” said Rodrigue. “Values have changed, but what have we done to adjust to that?”

Sitting in his office in department of national defence headquarters, Baril told Maclean’s that running the military in the 1990s­—with the increased demands of families and the participation of women­—is a far more complicated and costly exercise than it was in the past. Military structures and institutions were never designed with the modern family in mind. Until the 1970s, the military largely attracted 17-year-old single male recruits who wanted to see the world and learn a trade and who could manage to survive on a corporal’s salary. Now, military recruits also include single women, married men and women ­—many with children­—or single parents, who come in burdened down­—and stay in for years with no appreciable improvement in their situation. That, according to military historian Desmond Morton, is a recipe for disaster. Morton believes the military should stop selling itself as a lifelong career and instead take in people in their 20s who will leave in their 30s. “They should get them young and let them go when they’re young,” says Morton, “before the complications of family life become intolerable.”

For military wives, the army slogan “There’s no life like it” has taken on a darkly ironic twist. They have never had it easy: 200 years ago, the wives of British soldiers were referred to as “regimental baggage.” Today, the spouses of Canadian military are listed as “dependants” on their military identification cards. For the purposes of moving, they are grouped under the category of “dependants, furniture and effects.” At CFB Moose Jaw, Capt. Linda Tomlinson told the committee that although most men think nothing of the term, most women find it offensive. “To list spouses right up there with the toaster,” she said, “may leave one with the perception that they are merely an object and not a person.”

Dual incomes would, of course, relieve much of the financial stress within military families. But women married to military personnel often face an insurmountable problem: trying to find full-time work. Given that most Canadian bases are located in remote areas, women have almost no chance of finding a full-time job. Even in more desirable locations like Edmonton or Victoria, employers shy away from hiring military spouses­—knowing that families could be transferred else- where at any time. For professional women like pharmacists, teachers or accountants, the qualifications they received in one province are often useless when they are shipped to a new base in another province. “There’s really no work for these women,” says Morton. “And they are not enchanted at the idea of joining the other women in the curling league.”

In Moose Jaw, Suzanne O’Rourke, a military spouse, told the committee that after fruitlessly spending eight months looking for work, she was advised by Canada Manpower to take all the addresses where she had lived off her resume. They were a sure giveaway, she was told, that she was a here-today, gone-tomorrow military wife. Others had much the same story. “I’ve been here for six years,” military spouse Lynn Cooper testified. “I’ve probably applied for 40 jobs and in 38 of them the employer said, ‘When will you be leaving?’ I didn’t get any of them.” The situation has created enormous frustration for spouses who are either unemployed or underemployed and end up, according to Cooper, “swinging doughnuts at Tim Hortons”­—or making do on a single­—usually low­—military salary.

Housing conditions, meanwhile, especially in subsidized permanent military quarters (PMQs), only increase the resentment. The parliamentary committee has been deluged with horror stories. In Edmonton, one woman testified that after her basement flooded with 20 cm of water, a base health inspector who came to check told her the house was “uninhabitable.” A corporal told the members that when he moved into a PMQ near the base, he discovered that the windows didn’t close­—but was told in a letter from the Canadian Forces Housing Authority that “it would not be prudent to replace the windows” because those PMQs would eventually be demolished.

But such complaints are nothing new. Seventeen years ago, retired major-general Frank Norman was asked to do a study of military accommodations. Norman had an intimate knowledge of his subject­—in his 27-year career, he had made 22 moves, and everywhere he went “the curtains never fit.” Norman says that the complaints he heard 17 years ago still ring true today. What happened to his study, and his recommendations, among them that the military turn maintenance over to civilian contractors? “We were told they didn’t want our advice,” says Norman. “We were asked to wrap up our work. Our report was shelved. I was mad as hell about it.”

But the bottom line is still money­—or, more precisely, the lack of it. In January, a survey was conducted at CFB Bagotville in Quebec to develop an economic profile of the 1,000 families who live on the base. The results did not make for a pretty picture; they showed that the average family of four was trying to get by on a single-income salary of $38,000. According to other military figures, 25 per cent of those now leaving the military do so because they cannot support a family.

The military has made some effort to help: since 1991, Military Family Resource Centres have been operating across the country to help families cope with financial pressures, postings and deployments. But over the past two years, Joan Simard, director of the Bagotville resource centre, has seen a 100-per-cent increase in calls for help. “I see all the problems that exist in civilian life,” she says. “But these problems are occurring more frequently in the military and more severely because of the pressures of military life.” Last week, as Canada’s busy troops fanned out to help with flood relief efforts in Quebec and Eastern Ontario, those pressures were again in evidence­—and showed no signs of receding.