The Auditor-General of Canada says there is a risk that inadequately trained reservists may endanger soldiers' health and safety on a deployment such as a peacekeeping mission to Africa.
The government is preparing to announce what it bills as a major return to Canadian peacekeeping and there is widespread expectation that this could include a sizable contingent of soldiers to a particular dangerous and deadly United Nations mission in the West African country of Mali. More than 105 peacekeepers have died there since 2013, including 69 from "malicious acts."
Reservists, or part-time soldiers, serve alongside regular troops in deployments. For instance, army reserve soldiers completed 4,642 deployments to Afghanistan, where 16 of them died and 75 were wounded in action.
Auditor-General Michael Ferguson appeared before a Senate committee on Tuesday morning to follow up on a spring, 2016, report that revealed the weak state of Canada's army reserve – with major shortfalls in training, equipment and preparedness. His report, released in April, said the military budgets for about 21,000 full-time and part-time reservists but can count on only an average of 13,944 trained and attending soldiers.
Asked about whether unfit reservists could jeopardize themselves or others in a deployment such as African peacekeeping, Mr. Ferguson said, "We identified that there is such a risk."
The military tries to mitigate this by providing reservists extra training before deployment.
But the Auditor-General said his office has found that there can still be cases where reservists do not receive sufficient training. "It might have been physical fitness or it might have been training on individual weapons – so that can create a risk and that risk is then a risk to the safety of the individual and, in fact, could be a risk to the safety of the whole unit."
In the course of the study, auditors asked to see the Department of National Defence system that tracks the training and readiness of soldiers. "According to the system, it was 7 per cent of them were up to date on their handling of their own personal weapons; 55 per cent of them were up to date on their physical fitness," Mr. Ferguson told the senators.
He said that when auditors asked DND why the reservists appeared to be so unprepared, "the response we got from National Defence was, 'The information in that system is not reliable.' "
He said this means that the military is relying on individual unit commanders to decide if their reservists are ready to be deployed "and they're not really tracking in enough detail" whether these troops are prepared.
His spring report also noted significant shortfalls in equipment and instruction for reservists.
Mr. Ferguson said his office found many reserve units were not given clear instructions "on what they were supposed to be training for."
He said the Canadian Armed Forces should establish a minimum level of skill and training for all soldiers, regardless of whether they are in the reserve or the regular force, "before they would be allowed into that sort of dangerous theatre."
The Army Reserve has more than 120 units across Canada.
A spokesman for the Department of National Defence said no ill-equipped reservists will be sent abroad. "The bottom line is that we would never deploy members who aren't trained, ready and equipped to meet their mission in service of Canada," Daniel LeBouthillier said.
He said the DND is taking steps to improve the training and readiness of reservists, including doing a better job of ensuring units get the funds they need, boosting recruitment and retention strategies, fixing gaps in training and trying to provide more equipment for this part-time force.