Critics blast Ottawa's post-military jobs program for sidelining medical discharges

The Liberal government's newly redesigned program to help soldiers make a smoother transition into the civilian workforce is not intended for those who have their military careers cut short for medical reasons, newly released federal documents reveal.

Instead, the Career Transition Services plan is "aimed at a broader, healthy population" of ex-soldiers who voluntarily choose to leave or retire, say documents obtained by CBC News under access to information law.

The news confounds critics who say many of those being let go for medical reasons are the ones most in need of career guidance.

One of the documents — a briefing note dated July 4, 2017 and prepared in advance of last spring's relaunch of the program — said the coaching and job placement services are meant to support veterans "who leave the [Canadian Armed Forces] for reasons other than injury or illness."

Rehabilitation first

For those who are wounded, the note says, the "most appropriate" avenue is the separate rehabilitation and vocational assistance program — which is mostly geared toward health care and re-education opportunities, not finding a new job.

A spokesperson for Veterans Affairs Canada denied the program is closed to the medically released and insisted it is there to help all ex-soldiers.

"It does not at all exclude those who are ill or injured from taking part," said Emily Gauthier in an email response. "Rather, it was designed for a broader audience, including those veterans who are not ill or injured, to assist all veterans with transition to life after service."

An audit two years ago by the evaluation branch of Veterans Affairs pointed out in blunt terms how important it is for veterans — especially those being forced out of the service for medical reasons — to have a civilian job lined up.

More than one in five members of the military — 2,214 out of 9,941 released in 2017 — are let go on medical grounds, according National Defence statistics.

Retired lieutenant-general Walter Semianiw, a former senior official at Veterans Affairs Canada, said he "finds it extremely difficult to understand why the government would agree to such a program."

Many veterans released on medical grounds are not disabled to the point where they are unable to work, and shuffling them into rehabilitation and vocational training at the outset is not fair, he said.

"It makes no sense to me," said Semianiw.

The healing power of work

A successful transition to the civilian workforce, with a regular paycheque, is seen by many experts as critical to mitigating both the epidemic of homelessness among veterans and the military's ongoing crisis of mental illness and suicide.

One of the changes recently announced by the Liberal government involved allowing veterans to access career transition services throughout their lifetimes.

That means ex-soldiers — once they're healthy again and perhaps re-trained — could take advantage of the career services. Others argue that it's too late at that point.

Conservative veterans critic Phil McColeman said the government's decision puts the most vulnerable ex-soldiers at a disadvantage in their new lives from the outset.

"It's absolutely shocking," he said. "Shouldn't we be lining them up for success? Government policy is saying we want the strong and the healthy to proceed right out the gate instead of helping these people make a transition into meaningful work."

Last winter, the Liberals hired Agelic, an Oshawa, Ont.-based company, to provide career guidance to veterans looking for civilian jobs under a $ 10.3-million contract.

Gauthier said up to 1,000 ex-service members and their spouses have been approved to receive services under career transition.

It is not clear, though, how many have found jobs under the new program.

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