OTTAWA — The Canadian military took families of fallen soldiers to Kandahar and even flew them to repatriation ceremonies without the proper financial authorization, a practice that was suspended Tuesday along with a myriad of other benefits and perks.
A recent spending review uncovered that National Defence has doled out a series of bonuses and cash expenses that are outside existing federal Treasury Board guidelines.
The embarrassing gaffe was revealed Tuesday by the military’s second-in-command, who promised to quickly push for regulations to be rewritten to include a host of items that have cost the treasury “tens of millions of dollars” over the last five years.
“We’ve got to stop. We’ve got to sort it out as soon as possible,” Vice-Admiral Bruce Donaldson, the vice chief of defence staff, told a snap news conference at National Defence Headquarters.
The benefits fall into four general categories, including bonuses for out-of-country postings, separation allowances for soldiers with long-term assignments away from families, travel costs and expenses paid for relatives of soldiers killed overseas.
A spokesman for Defence Minister Peter MacKay said late Tuesday that the department will continue to do what it can for the families of fallen soldiers in the interim.
“Any next of kin travel or transport to repatriation ceremonies will be covered by DND during the period that the CF works this out,” said Jay Paxton.
The army has conducted dozens of compassionate visits to Kandahar Airfield, where relatives of fallen soldiers take part in memorial services. Those flights were not clearly defined in spending guidelines.
Donaldson says other benefits were also not spelled out in detail and it unclear how long it will take to get changes made.
It’s unclear whether any of the expenses will be clawed back, but Donaldson said the military is seeking retroactive approval for what has spent.
He said no one will see a pay reduction as a result of the error, which affects what are considered ancillary benefits.
Up to 7,000 members of the regular and reserve force are regularly receiving those perks, but Donaldson said it should have minimal impact on troops in Afghanistan.
Many of the housing and travel benefits involve reservists who’ve been called up to replace full-time soldiers posted overseas.
He said members receiving the perks are “not to blame,” but it’s yet to be determined whether there was any negligence on the part of defence bureaucrats.
The Defence Department has launched a full-scale investigation into how the oversight occurred, but the vice chief said the last five years have been a busy time with the Afghan war and the authorization to change the wording of the regulations wasn’t done.
“I wouldn’t want to prejudge the outcome of the investigation,” said Donaldson.
“The object of the investigation is to give us the basis for deciding whether further action needs to be taken.”
The Defence Department has long struggled with how to deal with some of the compassionate expenses and obligations its faced since fighting exploded in Kandahar in 2006.
Defence bureaucrats discovered early in the war that the burial stipend for fallen soldiers was thousands of dollars short of what was necessary to cover funeral expenses. It took them almost a year to draft changes for Treasury Board, which were only enacted after a public outcry involving families that had been stung.
Similarly, the military found some troops killed overseas had complicated extended families, many of whom were allowed to come to repatriation ceremonies even though Treasury Board guidelines didn’t cover them. In some instances, the department found the cash in other programs and other cases outside agencies, such as the Military Families Fund.
Former chief of defence staff, retired general Rick Hillier, set up the fund specifically to cover expenses not paid for by the federal government.