A new wave of job notices is going out at National Defence Thursday as the department absorbs big spending cuts to help the Conservative government climb out of deficit.
The vast majority of the 172 workers who will receive "affected" notices are at Canadian Forces Base Montreal, where 145 positions are impacted. Receiving a notice does not necessarily mean a person will be laid off. The union representing defence workers received advance notice of the letters, but the department did not indicate to the union how many positions it plans on eliminating.
"We didn't see this coming," said John MacLennan, President of the Union of National Defence Employees. Mr. MacLennan said the affected positions represent direct service to the Canadian Forces.
According to the union, the affected staff are primarily mechanics who work on tanks and armoured personnel carriers.
"These are not back-office jobs," he said, taking issue with Finance Minister Jim Flaherty's claim that cuts would only affect "back-office stuff."
"These are front-line workers that overhaul and repair the engines, make sure the turret's working, the gun's working on it, the cannon's working on it," he said, warning that the government will be losing the corporate knowledge that it paid for in terms of staff training.
Julie DiMambro, a spokesperson for Defence Minister Rob Nicholson, would not confirm details of the notices.
"With the mission in Afghanistan winding down, the civilian workforce that was brought in to backfill for deployed military members is being reduced and the Department will make every effort to ease the impact on affected employees," she said in a statement.
National Defence received about $20.1-billion in approved funding during the fiscal year that ended March 31, 2013. A recent report from the department's Deputy Minister, Richard Fadden, indicates that one quarter into the current fiscal year, spending is down about 9 per cent.
The 2012 budget announced $5.1-billion in permanent government-wide cuts by next year, of which $1.1-billion was to come from National Defence.
More than two years have passed since Lieutenant-General Andrew Leslie – now retired and volunteering as an adivsor to Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau – issued a detailed report on how the department and the Canadian Forces could save money.
Mr. Leslie's report on "transformation" in July, 2011, received a cool reception from military brass. The report found the staff size of DND and the Forces at headquarters had increased 46 per cent from 2004 and 2010 and that the department was spending too much on Ottawa-based contractors and consultants.
The report recommended trimming levels of bureaucracy – what he called the "tail" – in order to prioritize spending on the front-line military – or "teeth."
The report found the department was spending about $2.7-billion a year on contracts to consultants and contractors, employing at least 5,000 people.
It would appear from the department's latest spending update that the government is cutting back on contractors, although the union warns that Thursday's cuts will lead to more outsourcing.
The 2012 federal budget required DND and the Canadian Forces to find $692.4-million in savings this year and $1.1-billion in permanent annual savings by next year.
After the first three months of the current fiscal year, the department reported that 44 per cent of the year's targeted savings have been achieved. A departmental report says this was done through "administrative efficiencies, reducing reliance on contracted services and rebalancing the workforce."
The government is attempting to find savings while maintaining CAF regular force strength at 68,000, with an additional 27,000 reserves. The government's most recent estimates for civilian personnel indicated a slight decline from 25,408 this year to 24,814 in 2015-16, but those figures came with a footnote stating that "these planning figures may be further reduced."
Former Chief of Defence Staff Rick Hillier weighed in this week about the current changes at DND.
"It's a massive, massive challenge and the cuts are enormous," he told CTV's Power Play on Monday. Mr. Hillier retired from the Canadian Forces in 2008.
He expressed concern that without reducing the size of the Forces, the cuts will come to training and operations budgets.
"And that means soldiers will sit in garrison and ships will remain tied up at the dock and airplanes won't fly and I think you have to balance that," he said, recommending that Ottawa shrink the Canadian Forces down to 50,000 personnel.