Wounded ex-soldiers to be first in line for federal government jobs

OTTAWA – The Harper government has tabled legislation to ensure soldiers released from the military for medical reasons get priority for other federal jobs.

It’s a move one national union says is meant to take the sting from accusations that troops are being dumped before they can qualify for pensions.

Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino says when the law is enacted, it will move qualified veterans to the front of the line, ahead of civil servants displaced or laid-off by a cascading series of budget cuts.

“They have to be qualified for those jobs,” Fantino said in an interview with The Canadian Press. “We’re talking about qualified people, in the circumstances that they are medically released, having a priority, absolutely.”

Soldiers let go for medical reasons have had access to federal jobs since 2005, but there was no guarantee in law and they could only take jobs turned down by other federal employees.

“We’re trying to work this so that veterans truly will have a much smoother transition into jobs, not only into governments jobs” but private sector, said Fantino.

The Conservatives, who make much of their support for vets, have been under fire recently about the increasing number of wounded soldiers discharged before they have the 10 years service that gives them a pension.

Fantino wasn’t able to say whether those soldiers will be able to transfer their accumulated military pensionable into the federal civil service, and described the new initiative as “just one more helping hand.”

But the union representing approximately 14,000 defence workers said the new legislation looks more like a “knee-jerk reaction” to a political fire that needed to be put out.

John MacLennan, president of the Union of National Defence Employees, said he supports integrating veterans, but it should not be done at the expense of civilian employees who’ve already been dislocated.

“They should take care of their existing workforce,” he said.

Just how many jobs would be available to former soldiers is a matter of debate given the Harper government intends to cut as many as 19,000 jobs from the federal payroll, said MacLennan, whose union is an arm of the Public Service Alliance of Canada.

“We have outside contractors filling a number of our jobs,” he said. “There is certainly enough work for both our members and veterans if the government is committed.”

National Defence would be a logical employer for many ex-service members but it, like the rest of the federal civil service, is in upheaval and transition, said MacLennan.

The Harper government recently announced as many as 4,800 military and civilian staff at National Defence could find themselves doing other work, training for new positions or perhaps even out of a job over the next four or five years.

It’s part of a so-called defence renewal strategy.

But Fantino also underscored efforts of Conservatives to convince corporate Canada to employ veterans.

Annually, about 250 ex-soldiers fall into the category of not qualifying for a Canadian Forces pension. That is out of approximately 1,500 to 1,700 who face medical release each year.

The new legislation applies to soldiers released on or after April 1, 2012, and extends the amount of time they have to apply for federal from jobs to five years from two years under the current system.

The troops, some of them missing limbs and mentally scared from their service in the Afghan war, are being let go under the military’s universality of service rule, which requires all members to be physically and mentally fit to deploy at a moment’s notice.

The bill arrived as the opposition NDP renewed the attack in the House of Commons on Thursday over the release policy.

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