A primer on Canada’s patchwork of rules for reservist leave

While governments across Canada are introducing a slew of changes to leave policies for reasons related to emergency situations, illness and domestic violence, one area tends to get less attention: the needs of reservists in the Canadian Forces.

As with many areas of employment legislation, the rules often differ across the country. At the federal level, the Canada Labour Code entitles a member of the Canadian Armed Forces, who has worked six consecutive months with an employer, to an unpaid leave of absence to participate in operations, duties and annual training or to recover from an injury or mental-health issue resulting from military activities.

In Alberta, reservists are eligible for unpaid, job-protected leave after working for the same employer for 26 weeks. The time on leave counts as part of the employee’s years of service. More specifically, reservists in the province can take up to 20 days per year of unpaid leave for training and as long as necessary for domestic and overseas deployments.

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Reservists in Ontario, Prince Edward Island, the Northwest Territories, Nunavut and Yukon are eligible for unpaid leave after six months of employment. In Newfoundland and Labrador and New Brunswick, employees are eligible for their first leave after six months of employment but they have to wait 12 months after returning before leaving again. Any subsequent leaves fall under the same rule, with a required 12-month wait after returning from each period away.

In Quebec and Nova Scotia, reservists have to have worked continuously for one year before being eligible for leave, while Manitoba requires seven months of employment and Saskatchewan mandates 13 weeks. British Columbia is the only province with no continuous employment eligibility rule for reservist leave.

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Some provinces and territories differentiate between leave for annual training and active duty. New Brunswick offers 30 days, for example, while Quebec and Yukon both provide 15 days for annual training leave.

When it comes to unpaid leave for active duty, most provinces and territories don’t have frequency or duration restrictions. Quebec, however, caps active duty leave at 18 months and mandates that any worker who’s away for longer than 12 weeks has to work for one year before leaving again.

In terms of giving employers notice before going on leave, the standard is four weeks in Alberta, British Columbia, New Brunswick, Quebec and all three territories. The standard is reasonable notice in Manitoba, Nova Scotia, Ontario, Prince Edward Island and Saskatchewan, while Newfoundland and Labrador requires the longest notice of any province at 60 days.

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Employers are also able to create their own leave policy that can go beyond the basic rules and rights laid out in the provincial and federal legislation. In fact, the Canadian Armed Forces provides guidance on writing a policy through a step-by-step guide on its website. It suggests that putting a policy in place shows support for current and future reservist employees and provides a competitive edge due to the benefits of having them on staff.

Having such a plan in place is a good idea, says Lt.-Col. Bruce Mair, a liaison officer with the Canadian Forces Liaison Council and formerly the commander of the Lincoln and Welland Regiment, a reserve unit with the Canadian Army. Mair, who also works for the Niagara Regional Police Service, says his civilian employer adopted the Ontario reservist leave legislation and felt that was enough.

“That was an easy way to do it, and they knew if they adopted that, they wouldn’t go afoul of the legislation. So I think a lot of companies do that. But yes, it’s a very good idea, simply because people want to be treated fairly and equally,” says Mair of organizations with specific policies in place.

Some employers, like Garian Construction Ltd. in Tusket, N.S., choose to deal with reservist employees on the basis of good faith and communication, rather than having a policy in place. “The person we have that’s a reservist came to us as an apprentice carpenter,” says president Ian McNicol. “And then he had made me aware, I believe in his application process, that he was a reservist. I didn’t really know what that meant as far as what it would mean being an employer of a reservist.”

McNicol notes the worker would approach him for time off as needed and says the company has always been able to accommodate the requests. Employing a reservist has been beneficial and valuable because the employee is mature and came to the position with pre-existing leadership training, says McNicol.

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Leadership is the biggest benefit to employers that have reservists in their workforce, says Mair. Other benefits include increased motivation and an appreciation for the employer, something he experienced after returning from a tour in the Middle East in 2011. “It was a nice little break from work, so I was re-motivated to go back to work. I had a sort of sense, and I think a lot of soldiers would have this sense, that I owed the company something for letting me do that,” says Mair.

He adds that since it was a training mission, he was able to return to Canada and apply for a position with a training unit at his civilian job as a police officer, which was a benefit to his employer.

Ultimately, while the applicable provincial and federal legislation is the minimum required by an employer around leave and job protection for reservists, Mair says the Canadian Armed Forces is careful about holding the rules over employers because it may make them reluctant to hire reservists in the first place. “We want to convince them of the value of it beforehand. And if absolute push comes to shove and they’re not convinced of it, then yes, you can bring that up. But the [Canadian Armed Forces], as a culture, tries to use that as a last resort,” he says.

Companies that employ reservists can apply for compensation to cover costs incurred while the reservist is away on deployment, such as hiring replacement workers, through the federal government’s Compensation for Employers of Reservists program.

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