This piece was first published in the Hill Times on May 31, 2017.
They have been called our “best kept secret.” Will the current government’s defence policy review and decades of tight-fisted budgets continue to relegate the centres that serve our nation’s military and veteran families to social and fiscal obscurity?
It has been more than 30 years since the current 32 Military Family Resource Centres (MFRCs) began to take shape. The initiative was born in opposition to the failure of Canada’s military bureaucracy to acknowledge the importance of military families, long labelled dependants.
Spouses who showed bravery that even the military had to begrudgingly admire, fought in the courts and political arena to have a say in how the military affects the lives of military families.
Arguably, spouses still have little voice on military matters affecting the lives of their families. MFRCs were not created, and arguably still do not operate, to address their needs. Although mandated to be “managed independently of the chain of command,” reality still hinders MFRCs’ arm’s length aspirations. As Dr. Deborah Harrison, Canada’s leading expert on the impact of military life and culture on families, points out in her 2016 book, Growing up in Armyville, MFRCs are still an “arm of the CAF [Canadian Armed Forces] and, as such, their overriding goal is the operational readiness and retention of CAF members.”
True, each MFRC operates as a charity, governed by a board that must include at least 51 per cent civilian spouses of military members. However, military members often sit on or observe board meetings. Their mere presence can intimidate civilian board members or potentially influence the hiring and firing of MFRC staff. Facilities such as daycare centres, space for youth and family education, job search and training, recreation, and peer support are located on and provided by military bases. Base commanders often contribute around 10 per cent of the operating budget for their respective MFRCs, a much-needed amount that can be removed at whim.
The majority of MFRCs’ budget is provided through the Military Family Services (MFS), headquartered in Ottawa. MFS controls allocation of funding which has not increased since 2012. In an email response, MFS refused to provide a breakdown as to how the nearly $28-million is assigned.
Last year, Ottawa reportedly stopped funding MFRCs’ operation of their own websites, perhaps the major conduit to provide information to families in need. Instead, Ottawa has centralized all MFRC websites under a larger umbrella for military members including fitness, healthcare, financial assistance, mental health, retail operations, insurance, sports, ski clubs, curling, golf, etc. The result: military families are reconsigned by modern technology to their historical position of insignificance. At least two MFRCs—Halifax and Victoria (Esquimalt)—maintain dedicated, informative, and accessible websites, emulating MFRC’s “by families, for families” founding philosophy.
Initiative, flexibility, and adaptability of civilian spouses and remarkable MFRC staff have allowed them to provide valuable services to military members and their families. A 2015 Veterans Affairs pilot program that funded seven MFRCs to assist medically releasing military members and their families will be expanded to all MFRCs, but only for those who leave the military after April 2018. Callous fiscal management continues to deny MFRC services to the vast majority of Canada’s 600,000 veterans and their families including severely disabled veterans and their families who need the most help.
In a telephone interview, Deborah Harrison explained that the military has “little interest in so-called ‘damaged goods,’” such as civilian spouses seeking divorce or civilian family members suffering spousal or child abuse. Most civilian spouses sacrifice career advancement, education upgrading, and the family and friend connections that most Canadians take for granted. After supporting the military member through years of unrecognized and unpaid support, once separated, spouses are denied access to MFRC services. Those suffering abuse, Harrison pointed out, fear stigma when they contemplate seeking MFRC services in the first place, as they accurately recognize the problem of “career costs to the serving member.”
Deborah Harrison’s 2002 book on violence against women in Canadian military communities, The First Casualty, led to an apparently short-lived CAF “Family Violence Action Plan” that included “substantial policy developments.” Tellingly, the 2004 CAF guide on how to operate MFRC’s did not mention the word “abuse” or the provision of services with respect to family violence. The supervisor and coordinator guidebook Take a Stand! for dealing with family violence in the military, instructs independent MFRC staff “contacted by the media … to refer enquiries to the appropriate local or national [CAF] public affairs officer.” Not one MFRC website has readily identifiable links to help victims of violence.
Quoted in a media release, Chief of Defence Staff, General Jonathan Vance said, “the health and well-being of all Canadian Armed Forces members and their families is my highest priority.” To a Parliamentary committee he explained “everybody is treated the same in terms of if you become a casualty, if you are hurt, if you need any support. Certainly, the families are supported the same”.
This is disingenuous, but an honest mistake for any member of a culture, unlike any other, that imbibes rhetoric with life and death ramifications. Honour, duty, bravery, respect, integrity, commitment, and sacrifice have fed and energized the military soul for generations. For a military member, such heavy words mean something. However, meaning something and doing something substantially tangible are difficult to bridge for any organization but especially for the military.
“Every organization has an opportunistic orientation to its employees’ families”, Harrison explains. “What makes the military unique is its policies of unlimited liability and universality of service. These policies make the way in which the military organization fails its families much more tragic and poignant.”
The mission has been and still is the highest priority. Mission takes precedence over peers, self, and especially families. This is why MFRCs are managed by a relatively unimportant section buried in Ottawa’s massive defence bureaucracy. The section is managed by a colonel, outranked by every general, who heads up any other unit, thereby making greater claims on not just operational but fiscal priorities. MFRCs, at $28-million annually, account for less than 10 per cent of the CAF Morale and Welfare Services budget. Families are valued far less than one maritime helicopter that cost well over $100-million in 2003.
In the meantime, military families are foisted upon provincial and territorial healthcare and education systems that are woefully unprepared to deal with the unique demands military service places upon them. The U.S. and the U.K.—but not Canada—have allocated extra funding to compensate regional and local institutions for the greater needs of military family members.
Highest priority families must beg for money to operate MFRCs with dedicated but highly underpaid staff. A quick look at charitable returns on Canada Revenue Agency’s website highlights MFRCs’ desperation. Three quarters of MFRC staff at most if not all 32 centres, including full-time positions, earn less than $40,000, without benefits or pension. They serve the families of military members with the richest pension and health benefits in Canada. It is not surprising that MFRCs have employee retention problems.
None of this makes rational sense. Modern military spouses are less likely to tolerate the indignity of being treated like third-class passengers on the military voyage. Less family support for the military member is a leading reason why military members leave the Forces. As for the military lifeblood, recruitment, children of military members are 100 times more likely to serve than other Canadians. It is never a good idea to shoot holes in your own boat.
MFRCs have come together to ask for modest and stable increases in their precarious funding and to enshrine a commitment in the upcoming defence policy review scheduled for release June 7, 2017. They deserve and require far more than this.
The war in Afghanistan mobilized the support of Canadians for our military. At the same time, the military and politicians did all they could to keep the suffering of military families hidden from the same Canadians. Canada’s history is framed and buttressed by the heartbreaking struggles of military families. It is largely these heartbreaking struggles that keep the Canadian military operating.
Sean Bruyea, Vice-president of Canadians for Accountability, has a graduate degree in public ethics, is a retired Air Force intelligence officer and frequent commentator on government, military, and veterans’ issues.