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Canadian soldiers walking toward rugged terrain in Kandahar, Afghanistan.Louie Palu/The Globe and Mail

A former U.S. Air Force psychiatrist says he and other foreign-trained professionals could ease the shortage of mental health professionals in the Canadian military, but have been repeatedly turned down when they apply.

Credentials are at the heart of the dispute.

Dr. Arthur Keith, who immigrated to Canada in the 1990s, is licensed to practise in Ontario, but was rejected by the private company that handles some of the military's medical care.

He has filed a complaint of discrimination against the defence department and his case will be heard over the next five days, starting Monday in front of a Canadian Human Rights Commission tribunal in Toronto.

Keith claims that the Canadian military policy singles out for exclusion foreign-born and foreign-trained specialists because it requires an extra level of certification.

"The Canadian Forces can't find enough psychiatrists and it's quite a shame they're taking the position in this human rights matter that they are, instead of re-examining their own policy," he said.

At issue is the government's requirement that psychiatrists not only be certified by a provincial College of Physicians and Surgeons, but also be recognized as a specialist with the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada.

The Royal College oversees the medical education and professional standards of specialists, but membership is not universal or mandatory in each province across the country.

No one at National Defence was immediately available to comment on the record, but an official who was not authorized to speak to the media said on background that Canada —like the U.S.— has standards it expects doctors to meet, and specialist certification by the Royal College is one of them.

Keith was turned down by Calian, the private contractor working for National Defence, in 2008 because he lacks Royal College certification.

He was rejected even though he spent three-and-a-half years as a psychiatrist in the U.S military, has a private practice in Ontario, and is registered with the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology.

A series of internal defence documents show the Canadian military has found recruiting new psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers to be a struggle. The briefing notes say pay scale in some markets and the unwillingness of some recruits to relocate to remote military bases, such as Cold Lake, Alta., are among the obstacles.

One of the openings Keith applied for was at Cold Lake, but he was turned down.

The official at National Defence pointed out that specialist certification with the Royal College is something "most hospitals will demand."

But, in his written submission to the human rights commission, Keith points out that with the influx of foreign doctors and specialists, alternate systems of recognizing credentials are taking hold and that is something National Defence doesn't take into account.

Keith did take the Royal College two-part exam, but did not pass.

In his submission, he presented statistics that suggest foreign-born physicians are more likely to fail the test because they're writing it later in life than Canadian physicians and the exam is structured more for students in residency.

His lawyers argue that the defence policy "is having a disproportionately negative effect on foreign-trained psychiatrists who are qualified to practise as psychiatrists in Canada."

Keith emphasized that his human rights complaint is against National Defence policy, not the college.

Court records show the defence department was forced into the unusual position of having to subpoena documents from Calian in order to aid in its defence before the tribunal.