Federal government turns to private firm to find jobs for veterans

Canadian military veterans

The Liberal government has quietly awarded a contract worth nearly $10.3 million to an Ontario company intended to help soldiers make a smoother transition into civilian work after leaving the military.

The decision to hire Agilec, made in December but not announced publicly, displaces the non-partisan charity Canada Company, which has been doing the work for a number of years.

Right now, 7,000 former and serving military personnel are registered with Canada Company. Of those, the charity is actively working with 1,500 to find them jobs within its network of 300 private sector companies.

Agilec will take over the work on April 1 and there's uncertainty in the veterans community about what that will mean — especially for those already in the current system.

The decision comes as MPs on the House of Commons veterans committee study the issue of post-service transition.

Veterans Affairs Canada confirmed the contract was awarded to Agilec in a statement to CBC News. A department spokesman expressed confidence that the company, headquartered in Oshawa, Ont., will provide services based upon "individual needs."

It's not clear how much experience the company has in dealing with military members, or whether its services will extend beyond career counselling and resume-writing to offering members solid contacts with potential employers.

Veterans Affairs spokesman Marc Lescoutre said the aim of the overall government program is to "highlight" the unique skills military members can offer employers. He said that the company's "services would be provided by qualified career counsellors who have a deep understanding of military life and culture."

He did not describe the company's qualifications for the work or detail how much it's prepared to do to line veterans up with civilian employers.

Veterans need 'details,' says retired lieutenant-general

A spokeswoman for Agilec declined comment and referred all questions back to the federal government.

Agilec used to operate under the name Northern Lights Canada and rebranded itself in late 2015. It has done a lot of work for Ontario's Liberal government, according to provincial records, and also has held several federal contracts.

It also did some human resources work for National Defence under its former name, according to federal records.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government has been taking a political pounding over issues related to veterans.

Lately, it has come under fire because of a lawsuit filed by veterans who were injured in Afghanistan over the issue of lifelong pensions. Trudeau recently defended his government's decision to fight the lawsuit, claiming that the veterans involved "are asking for more than we are able to give right now."

The fact the government has said so little about this new contract worries some observers.

Retired lieutenant-general Walter Semianiw said veterans signed up with Canada Company are wondering how they will affected — and they're getting little information from Agilec and the government.

"I would have hoped, as a veteran, we would have been given the details of what this new company is going to do from the government," said Semianiw.

Making sure veterans have jobs and a steady income post-service is a key element in tackling both the homeless crisis among ex-soldiers and the mental health issues that can lead to suicide, said Semianiw, who served as a senior official in Veterans Affairs.

"Transition is the most important piece of this puzzle," he said. "The consequences of not getting it right can be immense."  

Canada Company was one of three companies to bid on the contact.

The charity's CEO, Blake Goldring, would not comment on the contract award itself. He said his organization, which has found jobs for 3,000 veterans, will ensure a seamless handover to Agilec.

'Nobody gets left in a lurch'

"We are committed to doing the right thing for all our members and employer partners," he said, adding his company has been in touch with Agilec to offer resources and tools to ensure things go smoothly.

"We're going to make sure nobody gets left in a lurch."

The Liberal government has struggled with the problem of connecting veterans with jobs.

Just prior to the last election, Anna Gainey, president of the Liberal party, cited the online job-hunting service Monster Canada as a tool the federal government could use to help veterans find work.

"We believe that a military skills translator can be an effective and valuable tool in helping veterans transition to civilian life," Gainey wrote on Oct. 6, 2015, in a letter obtained by CBC News.

"Armed Forces members are some of the most highly trained, professional members of our society, and tools like a military skills translator can help them to determine how to translate the skills they already possess and determine which skills they need to build upon to successfully transition to civilian life."

Gainey stopped short of making a firm commitment and the highly innovative proposal — which would have used software to match veterans with suitable civilian jobs — eventually was dropped.