Is it time for Canada’s mil­i­tary to union­ize?


Through­out my mil­i­tary ca­reer and be­yond, any talk of a mil­i­tary as­so­ci­a­tion, or union, as an or­ga­nized con­tract-ne­go­ti­at­ing body rep­re­sent­ing the rank and file was dis­missed as “ab­surd” — of­ten prompt­ing images of out-of-con­trol, pot-smok­ing, paci­fist, in­sub­or­di­nate sol­diers de­fy­ing or­ders.

Yes, our mil­i­tary may serve next to union­ized, pro­fes­sional, sober mu­nic­i­pal and provin­cial po­lice, the Coast Guard, Cana­dian Bor­der Ser­vice Agency and the Cana­dian Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Se­cu­rity Es­tab­lish­ment, to name a few. But that is be­side the point, ap­par­ently.

Equally ir­rel­e­vant, it seems to de­trac­tors, is the fact our Armed Forces serve over­seas along­side the union­ized mil­i­taries of coun­tries such as Ger­many and France.

But are ini­tia­tive such as that of Ot­tawa lawyer and re­tired colonel Michel Dra­peau to draw up a pe­ti­tion for a Mil­i­tary Pro­fes­sional As­so­ci­a­tion of Canada a rad­i­cal step into the un­known? Or are they a lon­gover­due nod to western demo­cratic cul­ture and mil­i­tary re­al­ity?

The ul­ti­mate de­ci­sion to cre­ate a mil­i­tary pro­fes­sional as­so­ci­a­tion will have to come from the rank and file. Do the sol­diers, sailors and air per­son­nel feel they de­serve a col­lec­tive le­gal voice over work­ing con­di­tions, rights when dis­abled, fam­ily and spousal ben­e­fits, griev­ances and ca­reer pro­gres­sion?

Or should we con­tinue to leave ul­ti­mate re­spon­si­bil­ity for car­ing for the rank and file to the 20-some­thing lieu­tenant just out of univer­sity or the pedan­tic staff-of­fi­cer cap­tain or ma­jor fo­cused on pro­mo­tion and de­ter­mined not to upset the colonel?

Be­fore any in­formed de­ci­sion can be made, neg­a­tive and fac­tu­ally in­cor­rect per­cep­tions of a mil­i­tary pro­fes­sional as­so­ci­a­tion need to be iden­ti­fied and shot down.

• A pro­fes­sional mil­i­tary as­so­ci­a­tion does not and never will be about our mil­i­tary hav­ing the right to strike. As with po­lice, fire and bor­der ser­vices, a union­ized mil­i­tary would have to in­stead move to me­di­a­tion and ar­bi­tra­tion if con­tract ne­go­ti­a­tions reached an im­passe.

• Mil­i­tary union­iza­tion is never in­tended to give mil­i­tary per­son­nel the right to refuse a law­ful op­er­a­tional com­bat or­der. To do so would not only be a crime un­der the Na­tional De­fence Act but also de­feat the whole pur­pose of a mil­i­tary union, which is to work within, and not against, op­er­a­tional ob­jec­tives of the or­ga­ni­za­tion. Union­ized fire­fight­ers are not op­posed to fight­ing fires. Union­ized po­lice are not op­posed to fight­ing crime. Union­ized op­er­at­ing room nurses want surgery to be a suc­cess.

• Hav­ing a pro­fes­sional mil­i­tary as­so­ci­a­tion would not turn its mem­bers into paci­fists. By way of com­par­i­son, we don’t have any con­cerns that ag­gres­sive and out­spo­ken unions rep­re­sent­ing po­lice have ren­dered them re­luc­tant to draw their weapons. If any­thing, po­lice unions have some­times been blamed for pro­tect­ing and ra­tio­nal­iz­ing the ac­tions of overly ag­gres­sive po­lice of­fi­cers.

• When dis­cussing a mil­i­tary as­so­ci­a­tion with serv­ing of­fi­cers and veter­ans, the con­ver­sa­tion of­ten moves to pre­vi­ous en­coun­ters with in­di­vid­ual, al­legedly in­com­pe­tent union­ized Euro­pean mil­i­tary per­son­nel. I do not doubt those sin­gled-out cases omight be true. But was that a prod­uct of their mil­i­tary union or in­di­vid­ual short­com­ings and that of their com­man­ders? Is our non-union­ized uni­form mil­i­tary an in­com­pe­tence-free zone?

None­the­less, per­haps per­haps our in­fantry sol­diers, sonar op­er­a­tors, port in­spec­tion divers and com­mu­ni­ca­tion re­search op­er­a­tors, to name a few, are not in­tel­li­gent or ma­ture enough to find a pro­fes­sional bal­ance be­tween col­lec­tive pro­fes­sional em­pow­er­ment and their op­er­a­tional com­bat du­ties.

Robert Smol served for more than 20 years in the Cana­dian Forces. He is an ed­u­ca­tor and writer in Toronto. [email protected]

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