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The last Canadians involved in the NATO training mission in Afghanistan (CCTM-A) board an American Chinook helicopter on March 12, 2014 as they leave the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan. (Master Corporal Patrick Blanchard/ Combat Camera)
The last Canadians involved in the NATO training mission in Afghanistan (CCTM-A) board an American Chinook helicopter on March 12, 2014 as they leave the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan. (Master Corporal Patrick Blanchard/ Combat Camera)

Ottawa defends fit-to-serve rule that advocates say deters ill soldiers from seeking help Add to ...

The federal government is defending the Canadian Forces’ fit-to-serve rule, which has led to the expulsion of nearly 7,000 ill and wounded members over the past five years – many of them Afghanistan war veterans who wanted to remain in the military.

The policy known as universality of service has long been criticized as too stringent, forcing out members as they cope with job-related injuries and mental illness, such as post-traumatic stress disorder. Veterans’ advocates argue the rule – which requires soldiers, sailors and air force personnel be capable of deploying at all times – deters some ill soldiers from seeking help, because they worry they’ll be discharged from the military.

A Canadian Forces working group has been studying the issue for more than two years, but change does not appear on the horizon. In a statement of defence submitted in response to legal action from injured veteran Louise Groulx, the Liberal government maintains the military’s employment standard is not discriminatory and is supported by the Canadian Human Rights Act.

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Lawyers for the government also argue that the rule doesn’t demand military members be capable of serving in combat. Rather, they need to be “fit, employable without significant limitations and deployable for operational duties.”

Ottawa’s legal position buttresses comments made by General Jonathan Vance, the Chief of the Defence Staff, earlier this year. In May, Gen. Vance told The Globe and Mail there are many reasons the standard cannot be dropped, even for those who have been permanently injured in the line of duty, such as on the Afghanistan mission, but are still able to perform a job in Canada. “We are a small armed forces; everybody’s got to be able to pitch in all the way.”

Ms. Groulx’s lawyer, Corey Shefman, called the requirement that all 60,000-plus regular force members be ready to deploy any time “ridiculous.” He noted that there are many military jobs that don’t involve serving overseas.

“The Canadian Forces, like every other employer, needs to make reasonable accommodation for these soldiers and veterans,” Mr. Shefman said. “The Canadian people and the Canadian government owe a duty to our soldiers and our veterans for the risks that they put themselves in every day and for the service that they are giving to the country.”

Before becoming an air force instructor and aeromedical technician, Ms. Groulx was a medic and served in Haiti in 1995, part of Canada’s contribution to a United Nations mission. Her last job, which was based in Winnipeg, involved teaching pilots how to deal with medical emergencies and was unlikely to ever require her to work overseas, Mr. Shefman said.

The air-force instructor suffered a serious spinal injury in 1999, while participating in a military baseball game. She underwent six surgeries over 14 years, but was left with mobility problems, according to her statement of claim. She also experienced depression and PTSD, the claim adds.

While she returned to work and wanted to remain in the Forces, she was medically released in June, 2009. The retired master corporal’s lawsuit alleges the Forces’ universality-of-service rule violated her Charter rights.

“The fact is this is the 21st century. The American air force managed to put a double-amputee pilot back in his fighter jet and flying missions. If they can do that, I don’t see any good reasons why the Canadian Forces can’t put a person like Louise … in her non-deployable position,” Mr. Shefman contended.

The Forces’ universality-of-service working group was created in response to concerns that the rule was forcing too many ill and wounded members out of the military. The group last met in September to review findings from focus groups, and is scheduled to meet again in November, said military spokeswoman Jessica Lamirande. The focus groups helped identify “common and essential minimum operational standards” for Forces members, she said. It’s unclear when the review will wrap up.

Medical discharges hit a 17-year high in the 2014 fiscal year, with 1,908 personnel deemed unfit for duty – a 52-per cent increase from the year before, according to figures provided by the Forces. Last fiscal year, 1,533 members were dismissed from the military for medical reasons, which is far higher than before the Afghanistan war. Between 1999 and 2002, no more than 722 personnel were expelled in a single year.

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