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Canadian Forces ask for business support to allow reservists to fill critical mission gaps

As the number of missions the Canadian Forces are asked to undertake at home and abroad increases, the gaps between the number of positions needed, and the number of positions filled in the Forces, have made that a hard challenge to meet.

Brigadier-General Steve Graham, Commander 3rd Canadian Division, while providing a mission update to Calgary’s business community on Nov. 16, made a very specific ask to help solve that talent gap: support us by supporting reservists.

“What I hope to do today is to convince you that it’s in your interest, that it’s in all of our interest, to let them go either overseas on an international mission, or domestically here in Canada on an exercise in support of one of the many different things that we do to look after fellow Canadians,” Graham said.

“What I can guarantee you is that when you let a soldier go to take the course, participate in an exercise, deploy on an operation, the individual who returns to you, returns to your company, will possess new skills have new abilities and have new experiences that you could not have given them.”

At issue, said BGen Graham, is the operational need for 16,000 soldiers in 3rd Canadian Division, with just 10,000 full-time and reservists to complete those missions.

“So 10,000 probably still sounds like a lot. It’s not. First of all, half of them are reservists. They’re part time, they have civilian jobs, and many of them work for you whether you know it or not. They may or may not be available on any given day, depending on what’s happening in their lives,” he said.

“Many of the other soldiers I’ve got are not deployable for a variety of physical or mental injuries. Others are not yet fully trained. They’re doing support jobs, such as looking after our bases are helping us recruit new folks.”

He said that over the past summer, the brigade has deployed more than 2,000 personnel internationally, and more than 1,200 to B.C., Alberta, and the Northwest Territories to address disasters in those provinces.

“That’s one-third of the force right there. It probably took close to that number again, to train and logistically support all of those people. Starting in May 2024, we will deploy about another 2,500 overseas again, over the next two years,” Graham said.

“At the same time, I need to maintain 1,000 people on short notice to move for any emergency here at home or around the world. So no 10,000 is not enough.”

Among the operations in 2024 being undertaken by 41 Canadian Brigade Group, which is based in Calgary, 60 soldiers will be deploying to the UK to provide training to Ukrainian soldiers to aid in their defence against Russia’s illegal invasion, 50 soldiers will be deploying to Latvia to deter Russian aggression against that NATO member.

Further operations in 2025 and 2026 will see 41 Canadian Brigade Group soldiers involved in providing training to soldiers in Lebanon and Jordan as part of Operation Impact.

Benefits outweigh the drawbacks

Ed Straw, Alberta Chair for the Canadian Forces Liaison Council, said that there is an understandable fear by businesses that when they hire reservists, that they will see that employee immediately deployed for a long-time.

But that fear didn’t really match with the reality of how reservists are deployed on exercises or missions, he said.

“You have to go into it thinking that this person is not going to leave tomorrow. Generally, they would [leave] for smaller periods of time for training than they would for long deployments,” Straw said.

He said that there was an element of patriotism involved for businesses, beyond the skills that they would receive in return from highly trained reservists.

“You have to think about what they’re giving back to the country when they’re deployed out to do things. We expected them to help enforce fires and floods and those things, and to support the country,” Straw said.

He pointed to programs that also provide one-time financial benefits to employers, as an additional way to cover some of the costs of reservists leaving a business for a short time.

Jason Hatcher, the incoming chair for the Calgary Chamber of Commerce and a principal with Navigator, said that the connection between business and the military wasn’t always obvious, but that the message from BGen Graham was an important one.

“It’s such a symbiotic and mutually beneficial relationship. And that’s about what today was about, getting that message out about the skills that are acquired when we allow our employees to go out and work with in the reserves,” Hatcher said.

“We can’t wait till there’s an emergency, whether it be a natural disaster or events from climate change, or whether it be some of the world events that we see going on right now. The time is now, and we need to be there to support our military. We need to make a strong message to government that we expect that support to be given consistently.”

A role for business to help fill talent gaps with technology

Among the topics brought up by BGen Graham during the mission update, was the increasing sophistication of some of Canada’s geo-political rivals and the danger posed by individual nations who do not believe in a rules-based international order.

“Russia attacked a neighboring country in Europe, which started in 2008 when Russia invaded Georgia, continued in 2014. But the seizing of Crimea and the Donbass region is now a full out war in Ukraine. We are witnessing a level of violence and destruction and human suffering not seen in Europe since World War Two,” he said.

“They possess the world’s largest nuclear arsenal, and they have the ability to strike its enemies at very long range. This war has underscored the importance that NATO plays in the 21st century.”

He also pointed to the growth in sophistication in weapon delivery from North Korea, and the growth in drone technology in Iran—a technology that has been used by Russian forces in Ukraine.

He also pointed to the gap between Canada and China, which sees China—not an Arctic nation—being able to deploy a nuclear-powered ice breaker to clear northern maritime routes while Canada has no such capabilities.

Sundeep Kahrey, Vice President of Business Development at Tacteris Systems—a local Calgary based defence industry business—said that the general’s speech was on point for what is happening in the world currently.

“We often lose sight of the fact that the geopolitical landscape has shifted right under our feet, and it’s easy to feel secure. We’ve got United States and we’re surrounded by oceans, but I think in some sense, we’re in a more precarious situation than we’ve ever been,” Kahrey said.

“I think attrition and the ability to recruit is a huge problem at [Department of National Defence], and so engaging with businesses and getting them to support reservists is one aspect of that.”

He said the other aspect to addressing the issue was to employ technology as a force multiplier, to help bridge some of those gaps in staffing or force capabilities.

“If you can’t fill that many seats, then perhaps you can fill that with less people, and then have software that really enables you to do much, much more. And that’s been our philosophy for the 10 years that we’ve been in business,” Kahrey said.

He said that the opportunities to address real international challenges exist right here in Calgary and elsewhere, but there needed to be a shift in perception of how the Canada views the defence industry.

“We need to, as a nation, be addressing these things. It can no longer be just ‘that’s an East Coast industry,’ it’s a national level industry with a national level effort.”