Anyone who has ever been on a long journey with children (or the impatient) lives in constant existential dread of the four cursed words: “Are we there yet?” They can come at any point in the journey, appear only once or every 30 seconds, and are often followed by a long litany of complaints and moaning. As we enter our third COVID year, our planet has been asking this question a lot. We have been double vaxxed, boosted, distanced, masked, locked down, tested; we have learned the Greek alphabet and know more about the numbering of viral variants than our high school biology teachers ever thought possible; we have endured lonely summers and seemingly endless winters; and through it all we have asked, “Are we there yet?”
I believe the Spring of 2022 will be when we finally arrive at our post-COVID destination. Our masks will fall away. We can hug people not in our bubble again. We can go to a club and dance. But it will also mean that we can go back to the office. We can sit next to co-workers. We can meet in-person with Clients.
I have been thinking about this a lot lately, and what it will mean, not just for our members in Atlantic, but for the Department as a whole. I have always said that COVID-19 gave us a number of positive changes – it forced VAC to finally upgrade our network to a reliable standard, it eliminated a lot of useless processes based in tradition instead of need, and it proved that just about every job at VAC could be done remotely – but it has also had a host of negatives, the associated mental health crisis being just one of them. It is this mental health pandemic that will be with us for years, if not decades to come. And it is this mental health crisis that our Union must focus on if we are going to properly represent our members and not be swamped by a host of “disciplinary measures” grievances.
But we are also in a world that is constantly spinning, sometimes a little too fast. Since writing the above words less than a week ago we went from hope for an end to COVID to an illegal and immoral invasion of Ukraine by the Russian Federation. We now have the constant risk of the conflict spilling over into neighbouring NATO nations, thus thrusting us into yet another world war. Such a calamity would have massive impacts on our country and our department – a war on this scale would see our members processing a massive amount of disability and death claims, a physical and psychological nightmare on a global scale.
Mental Health Champion
As UVAE’s Mental Health Champion, I have been quite busy since our Convention. I am happy to report that I have an excellent working relationship with the Department’s HR Advisor responsible for Mental Health, Jill Turner. Jill and I have a pre-scheduled monthly meetings to keep each other updated on mental health projects we are working on, separately and together. In terms of joint projects, we are working on the following:
- PSAC/Treasury Board Joint Committee on Mental Health Mechanisms
During the last round of bargaining, PSAC and TB signed a Memorandum of Understanding (PA Agreement, Appendix R, Page 164[e]/174[f]), acknowledging that certain members within the PA group, working in certain Departments, are at a much higher risk for exposure to trauma. VAC was identified as one of those Departments. The Committee is tasked with 1) identifying the positions at risk for trauma exposure, and 2) cataloging the support mechanisms, be it a training program or operational practice/policy, for mental health in their department. To assist us in this task, we formed a Joint VAC Mental Health sub-committee, which includes both UVAE representatives and a manager from each directorate.
While some positions were plainly obvious as having a risk of trauma exposure (Case Managers, for example), in the course of our study other less obvious positions came to light (ATIP Advisors). To date we have identified 96 position titles within VAC that have at least some risk of exposure to trauma – far more than we ever expected!
We are now in the process of collecting mental health resources from the various directorates and divisions within the Department. As we collect these resources, we are assessing them to determine if they are intended for prevention, incident response, or long-term support, as well as a dozen more data points required by the National Committee.
Jill and I have agreed that the work of our committee will not just focus on the data required by the National Committee. We plan to collaborate with the Safe Workspace Centre of Expertise to develop a mental health risk assessment tool to assess the risk of trauma exposure for each of the 96 identified positions. We will also use our support mechanism list to conduct a gap analysis to identify the areas where resources are lacking.
- Trauma Informed Leadership
In June 2021 UVAE and VAC partners to take a Trauma Informed Leadership course. The reviews were mixed. Despite this, there have been a number of positive outcomes from this training. In December 2021 the UVAE NEO took a second course, “Trauma Informed Union Leadership”, from a different provider. This provider had actually worked at VAC as a Case Manager before moving into private practice and was able to tool the course to specifically address the realities of VAC and UVAE work. In January 2021 Jill and several VAC HR employees took a course called “An Introduction to Trauma-Informed Approaches”, offered by Canadian Innovation Centre for Mental Health in the Workplace (CICMHW), which the employer found far superior to the June 2021 course.
Jill and I are now collaborating on a 2-tier Trauma-Informed Leadership program for all VAC Managers and Staff. Tier 1 will be the CICMHW, intended to provide a foundational understanding of trauma and how it can be caused by workplace events, or otherwise present itself in the workplace. Tier 2 will be a VAC-specific course that focuses on prevention and intervention techniques and best practices. We hope that this training program will become a mandatory part of all managerial learning plans, and will help to shift the focus from discipline to support.
- UVAE Mental Health Priorities
In June 2020 UVAE provided the Employer with a list of 25 action items, divided into 6 priority groups. These were identified as the most urgent mental health needs in the Department. There has been some movement on some of the individual items, but to date the Department has not formally responded to our priorities. For months now all inquiry as to the status of their response is that it is with some directorate or another for their comment, or with someone for review, or anywhere other than with the Deputy Minister for action. This is sadly indicative of how little the Department thinks about the state of mental health in the workplace. Despite years of survey data showing a critical need for urgent action on numerous mental health fronts, the Department instead is choosing to bury their head in the sand and pretend that everything is fine. As UVAE Mental Health Champion I continue to press the Department at every opportunity to take action and make Mental Health a priority.
That said, we have made some progress. On April 1, 2022, the UVAE priority calling for the removal of “Call Time” limits will be rolled out to all NCCNs at VAC. This will remove a significant stressor from NCCN staff, giving them the time they need to provide quality service to our Veterans without feeling the need to rush just to beat the clock on every call.
RVP Training and Education
For the past several years I have been using “Rosetta Stone” to improve my French language skills. I will be perfectly honest and state that I am not pleased with the results. While online testing of my written and oral comprehension is pretty good (I could get A levels), my ability to speak and write in French remains abysmal. A friend recommended that I try my hand at a few other languages to see if it is a language issue, or an Edwin issue; and the results were surprising. I have learned that I have quite a bit of difficulty learning the Romantic Languages – French, Spanish, Italian, etc. – those based on the Latin root language. But I am very proficient at learning Germanic and Cyrillic languages. While I may never be able to converse clearly in French, I am happy to watch documentaries in German or finally understand the lyrics to my favorite Russian alt-rock band.
The other educational undertaking I have completed is the “Indigenous Canada” course offered by the University of Alberta (https://www.coursera.org/learn/indigenous-canada). I very highly recommend this course for everyone as a way to help to decolonize our Nation, our Union, and ourselves. This is a 12-module self-paced online learning program that walks the learner through the history, culture, art, and trauma of our Indigenous neighbours. It is an unbiased and unafraid telling of the true Canadian history.
Member Representation and Regional Issues
I currently have 6 active cases before me, 4 of which are long-term issues that I have been working on for many years. I am fortunate that in Atlantic we have a good working relationship with Management, and we are well positioned to resolve most issues before they deteriorate to a formal grievance process.
Unfortunately, the relationship with some members of Senior Management, the Director General of Field Operations in particular, is not as cordial. It has taken our Component 2 years to finally get another Field Operations LMCC meeting. Less than 48 hours before the meeting the DGFO informed the Union that she was unilaterally changing the make-up of the LMCC and would not be inviting the Area Directors to attend. This is completely against the spirit and letter of the law, but not at all surprising. At our meeting 2 years ago, when I asked a direct question to the Area Directors, the DGFO refused to allow them to answer. During this LMCC meeting the DG was very dismissive of our concerns, going so far as to say that the Union was wrong, that the Department did not have to consult with the Union when making operational decisions, and that they would not reconsider their decision. As an RVP representing several very busy area offices it is disconcerting to see the DGFO completely disregard the concern of the Union, and in turn, the FO members that we represent.
I was also very concerned by the decision of the DGFO to transfer UVAE member work to PIPSC members, under the guise of “streamlining” workload. Specifically, this is work related to the assessment and administration of special benefits under the Pension Act. Because of the decision of the DGFO, instead of hiring more UVAE members to address the workload issue, the work has been transferred to the Field Nursing Officers to adjudicate, who will be contracting out the assessment portion. I am absolutely opposed to any decision that will result in the contracting out of Union work. Sadly, the DGFO seems perfectly happy to contract out work as a way to address the ongoing issues with staffing and workloads.
Conclusion Union work is not always easy or fun. I have always said that the most effective Union is the one that ends up with nothing to do. Unfortunately, we are not there … yet. I have an excellent team in Atlantic Canada. My Local Executives are highly engaged and dedicated to the members of their local. But there is still a lot of work to do. And as things change, in the department and in the world, the work sometimes seems to grow faster than we can manage to keep up. This week I have been coming back to the famous poem by William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming” (https://poets.org/poem/second-coming ). There is one line that has always chilled me to the bone. “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” The past two years have shown us our best and worst sides. At times things do seem to have fallen apart. Mere anarchy seems to be loosed upon the world with increasing frequency. But I do still have hope. As long as we are united and stand in solidarity with those who need us, we can work together to make a better workplace, and better community, and a better world, not just for ourselves or those like us, but for everyone, with equity and justice for all.
Regional Vice-President, Atlantic Region