Ombudsman visits Edmonton

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Article / January 18, 2017

By Ashley Materi, 3 Cdn Div Public Affairs

Between November 29 and December 2, 2016, the civilian ombudsman for the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) and Department of National Defence (DND) held multiple “town hall-style” meetings in Edmonton. Six bilingual meetings were held throughout the week, catering to different demographics including senior and junior ranks, civilians, and military spouses.

Gary Walbourne, who has been in his role for two and a half years, does these visits annually in order to raise visibility amongst military members in order to reinforce to them that the ombudsman’s office is there to advocate for them.

 “We try and have it so that each group in and of itself is not encumbered by the chain of command or someone looking over their shoulder and giving them the opportunity to speak freely and voice their concerns,” he says.  “We do hold them all separately just so there’s a level of comfort on behalf of the members so they can have those conversations without the fear of reprisal.” 

Of the 1,791 new cases that the office received in the 2015/2016 fiscal year, 38 per cent of them were regarding benefits. Harassment and medical issues each accounted for ten per cent of the cases while issues including housing, posting and pay issues are also frequent. Walbourne says that most of the issues are common across Canada, though there are economical and regional differences as well.

Other disturbing concerns came up during the town hall meetings as well. After a survey released by Statistics Canada on sexual misconduct and a report released by the Surgeon General of the Canadian Armed Forces on suicide mortality in the CAF were both published that week, these issues were especially pertinent. Walbourne acknowledges that these are important issues that need to be brought into the limelight and addressed, but follows that up with his belief that they are being taken seriously by Chief of Defence Staff General Jonathan Vance and by the Minister of National Defence.

I think it should be seen that we have an issue that has a negative impact on the organization, but we’re also tackling it,” says Walbourne.   “We didn’t get here overnight, and we’re not going to get out overnight.” 

However, the ombudsman has concerns regarding the methodology of the StatsCan survey on sexual misconduct in the CAF. He questions the decision to exclude civilian employees from participating in the survey. With about 24,000 civilians working for the DND, Walbourne says that the survey doesn’t give the whole picture without them included.

 “I’m cautiously optimistic that I believe we’ve started down the right path,” he says.   “My concerns would be expanding the survey, doing it more frequently, and including everyone in the community. I’ll continue to harp on those points until it’s fully inclusive.” 

 

Walbourne encourages all members of the CAF community to reach out for support if they need it;  “We’re there to listen. 

Despite the high-profile issues that are consistently in the media that shine a negative light on some aspects of the CAF, Walbourne adamantly supports the organization as a viable career option with “tremendous opportunity.” Though the controversial issues grab headlines and get attention, he says that the CAF is taking positive steps to address these concerns and change the culture of the organization for the better.

 “I think Canadians need to know that the CAF are in pretty good hands,” says Walbourne.   “There are good people at the head of this organization trying to do the best that they can to get us away from these issues, so let’s give them some time to do their job.” 

For members who want to contact the Office of the Ombudsman with their concerns or comments, there are a variety of ways to do so. In addition to the toll-free contact number (1-888-828-3626), online form and social media options, Walbourne’s office recently released a live chat option. The live chat option is available from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. (EST) Monday through Friday, though the ombudsman is working to complement this system by instituting a calendar option that enables members to choose exactly when they would like to be contacted by a member of the ombudsman’s office.

Walbourne encourages all members of the CAF community to reach out for support if they need it;  “We’re there to listen.” 

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