26 June 2024

Canadians have heard a lot about the CAF’s dwindling recruitment numbers. However, this is actually a wider problem plaguing all of our defence, national security, and foreign affairs-related agencies. It is also an entirely self-imposed problem and, despite many claims to the contrary, it is not because there is no one signing up, or more appropriately trying to sign up. It recently came to light that CAF recruitment numbers are actually up and that the problem is in fact the CAF’s woeful inability to process these applications. Indeed the number of federal public service employees has increased by 40 percent since 2015 and yet the problem remains, suggesting things are not being well managed on this front.

This is part of a larger problem across not just the CAF but all these agencies. They are just God-awful at recruiting. As to why, one thing we don’t talk about enough in addressing these issues is the core problem, the human factor. It’s politic to stand with these people unquestioningly, and that impulse is understandable. It is therefore a rare exception that the people involved in designing and implementing the recruitment process are targeted. Instead, it’s the system or lack or resources that are pointed to. Ultimately if the recruitment system is failing (and it is) it is the people behind this system that are complicit in perpetuating that, objectively, broken system. If you have a good organisation, it’s because you have good people with good support and the inverse holds true as well. In the military they say “crap in, crap out”; you get what you put in. This is an idea Canadians really need to hold closer to their hearts.

I’ve been talking with colleagues close to/within Canada’s intelligence, security, and defence bureaucracies for years about how things have gone absolutely off the rails. The general sense that is shared among most of my colleagues is that the issue is systemic, meaning the institutional culture and the way things are structured is simply bad. They are inefficient, and lack critical overview, transparency etc. They promote bad results because they are dysfunctional.

For years we have been putting in crap and that’s what we’re getting out. Most of Canada’s top minds in these fields have nothing to do with these agencies and work outside of them. Many of them have at least one horror story involving attempting to get work with one of these agencies. The general impression from inside of it is that Canada collects poor candidates like it’s going out of style and tend to be very good at alienating and rejecting the best in their fields in this country.


Where all of this started for the CAF is, I think, easy to pinpoint, it was when Harper closed the recruitment centres and moved nearly everything online, many warned the numbers (particularly amongst the reserves) would fall. These projections have come to pass with startling accuracy, despite that no one in the Liberal Government has thought to suggest reopening them. As to why, that’s easy to answer, it would be expensive and politicians don’t do anything unless they have a proverbial gun to their head. For Trudeau’s Government this is particularly true of defence- and security-related issues.

The lesson is that it’s cheaper to maintain something than to build it from scratch, especially given their inclination towards privatization and cost-cutting. Trudeau has left them with a hell of a mess to clean up and I don’t envy the task. That said I think it’s worth repeating, now more than ever, that having nice things requires the will to go out and get them, you have to pay for them, and you need to spend money, time, and attention maintaining them.

Despite the CAF’s problems, I would still argue that in my experience they are actually among the better agencies in the Government at recruitment, a rather low bar. For most agencies pointing to the cause is more difficult than the CAF, in part because they are more removed from the public eye, their recruitment processes are more convoluted and more closely protected from public scrutiny. In many cases, Canadians are unaware these agencies face recruitment problems or how dysfunctional their recruitment processes are. How could Canadians know unless they had personally gone through it?

No one is able to shed light on it in part because when entering into one of these recruitment processes one is usually required to sign a nondisclosure agreement, I might be about to some of them. I doubt the government will notice. For what it’s worth, I emailed my experiences to the PM, the Public Safety Minister, the Minister of Defence and the heads of the NDP Conservatives, and Greens back in 2018. It was ignored by all.

Over the last few years, I have watched as both the RCMP and CSIS have been confronted with lawsuits over allegations of sexism, racism, unprofessionalism, or even just ineptitude. Frustratingly I continually see Canadians shaking their head in disbelief and asking why without ever being offered, or pursuing a real substantive explanation. The reality is we are facing a systemic failure that sees us promoting the recruitment of rotten apples. Were this not bad enough we’re missing the diamonds in the rough.

This all comes down to a major problem with culture. The Government appears (if their behaviour can be taken as any indication) to believe they are not required to invest anything into recruiting or their recruits and in return think it is reasonable to expect to get fantastic results. The attitude toward applicants is that they should come grovelling, be grateful the Government is willing to even speak to them, and generally expected to wait in the dark, usually for over a year. As if they won’t look elsewhere because the Government was their dream job, can afford to wait, and have no other options.

My Personal Experience

At this point, if you’re still reading you might ask what I am basing these conclusions on. Let me lay that out for you here. I have gone through the following recruitment programs, some I was rejected, others accepted. These include: the CAF reg force, before the recruitment centres closed; the Canadian Coast Guard, via their College; CBSA; CSIS; RCMP; DND for various positions, including a civilian Defence Intelligence Officer, and through their PORP (Policy Officer Recruitment program); the NSIRA through their PhD Recruitment Program; the Foreign Service through their general application, as well as various positions; and finally the CAF Reserve.

I was in the military for part of the Harper government’s era in power. I was training as a Maritime Surface/Sub-Surface (MARS) Officer in the RCN, but I washed out. I was simply mentally exhausted and lacked the support I needed. This cost the Navy wasted time, money, and a much-needed officer in what was even then a depressed profession. After I left the military and worked in the House from 2011–2015 as an advisor to Members of Parliament with two of the political parties (this included a deputy leader of one party) and saw these issues from that perspective as well, leaving me with some understanding of the House and Canada’s bureaucracy. I hold an MA in War Studies from the Royal Military College of Canada, a degree I held or was in the process of completing during all of these applications with the exception of the CAF and CCG. I now hold a PhD from King’s College London in Defence Studies which I possessed when applying to the last four positions I listed in the previous paragraph.

I’d like to try and describe what it’s like to apply to these agencies, and hopefully provide some insight on the way it currently ‘works,’ although I would say a more apt word would be ‘fail.’ I won’t offer a blow-by-blow as it would be far too lengthy, complicated and ultimately near impossible to follow. Instead, I want to offer a couple of examples to highlight the main issues as I see them and to give you a picture into some of the underlying problems behind what is going on.


Coming out of the Naval Officer program I was rejected right off the hop by the Coast Guard for not having grade 11 chemistry. I had two bachelor’s degrees at the time and had come from the Navy. This reflects, in my view, the Government’s obsessive box-checking and the removal of any human element that might inject common sense.


I was accepted to the RCMP but ultimately decided I did not want to pursue a career with the organization. This was largely due to the TWO-YEAR application process. During which I was subjected to some really weird application requirements such as a questionnaire that, among other strange things asked me if I had ever had sex with an animal. I started the process in September 2015 at the start of my final year at RMC while doing my MA with the thought I would go RCMP in 8 months when I graduated in May of 2016. Instead, I was a year into my PhD at King’s (September of 2017) when I came to the offer and withdrew my application.

I would also note that in order to apply you have to go out and get all your certifications like first aid and CPR yourself, instead of simply taking a day at Depot (RCMP basic training) and running the course. The military does this and their basic training is literally half the length of the RCMP… also in the military, you go to basic as a member whereas in the RCMP you get a flat rate weekly stipend and only receive a job offer after finishing depot. This might have changed since then but is another example of the Government not interested in investing in their recruits and putting the burden on the applicant in what is an increasingly competitive market.


I went through the entire CBSA process and made it to the final interview but was inexplicably rejected. The final interview process involves sitting with three superintendents and running through 6 scenarios. They are required to write down everything you say word for word.

The ‘explanation’ provided in a CBSA rejection email

When I asked if there were any specialised recruitment streams for individuals such as myself with unique experience and education. They revealed they had not seen my resume, were unaware of my background, and were only there for the purpose of administering these questions and writing my responses. They told me that no matter the recruit they need to spend two years at a border crossing (airport or land) meaning you could potentially have someone with special experience or skills being wasted in a booth instead of somewhere they could be better utilised. I later received a very short email with a rejection and this chart, which to this day I can’t understand as it seems to contradict itself. This highlights a further issue of one-way communication and providing no feedback to applicants.


CSIS started out quite normal with tests and interviews which were very reasonable. The third interview is when things went off the rails. I had applied for an Intelligence officer analyst position, (as opposed to a field agent). I wanted to do research, collect intelligence, draft reports, do briefings etc. In my first phone interview, I was told these were separate occupations. In my third interview, I was informed that all analysts are expected to become field agents. After a truly absurd role-playing scenario I was told by their recruitment representative that virtually no one passes their first time. Instead, most applicants are rejected several times and have to keep reapplying and going through the process. If true CSIS wastes time reprocessing people they already rejected until that individual learns to game the interview process and tell CSIS what they want to hear.

In discussions with the HR representative, it became clear that given my desire to do analyst work, I should be applying for a different position with ITAC. I asked that he transfer my application over to that position’s stream. He told me he could not do that, and I would have to go home, log on, withdraw my application, and reapply to the alternative position. When I went home to do that, I discovered that you can’t apply directly to that position and must first apply as an intelligence officer and then move over once in CSIS. This is borderline Kafkaesque but pretty par for the course with the government, HR and recruitment staff with no knowledge of their own recruitment processes because they have become so convoluted and worse in my opinion, no freedom of action to move applications into appropriate streams.

CAF reserve

I recently tried to reenlist in the CAF reserve, the artillery specifically. My hearing in my one ear is just above the minimum cut off for the CAF general entry requirements. The Reserve Medical Officer determined that I have, “a hearing impairment that does not meet the minimum hearing requirements.” Furthermore, that, “exposure to a military environment increases the risk of exacerbating [my] condition due to the noisy and austere environment in which the CAF frequently operates.” I went and got a note from my GP, an audiologist who did their own testing, as well as an ENT specialist. All argued that the RMO was incorrect, I did meet the minimum posted in the regs and I was at no greater risk than anyone else. I would also add at this point that both infantry and artillery actually have a lower hearing entry requirement that I cleared by a good margin. I sent in this information, the medical letters and testing, along with an appeal letter. Eventually (three months later) I received the exact same (word for word) letter from the RMO restating the exact same thing. It didn’t even actually acknowledge or explicitly reject my appeal.

When the RMO rejected my application, my file was automatically closed despite my right to appeal. When I appealed, I was informed by my recruitment officer that neither they nor I would be notified of the result. It was my responsibility to email the recruitment officer and formally request they reopen and examine my file to see if a decision had been handed down. Additionally, when I ran into problems there is no human I could speak to. The recruitment officer is prohibited from discussing the medical side of my application with me, despite acknowledging it was absurd, and there is no one on the medical side you can reach out to. The problem here that is part of the larger picture across the government is that communication is totally compartmentalised and totally one way. And additionally, as with CSIS recruitment staff lack knowledge of their own regs.


In my interactions with various Canadian agencies some standard trends seem to emerge across the board such as indefensible inflexibility, obsessive box-checking, as well as a lack of any real human engagement, freedom of action for recruitment personnel, or even basic common sense. Every agency does not want to talk to you, treats you as an irritation and just drops you random emails saying be here on this day or get kicked out, usually with a week’s notice.

One egregious example that springs to mind concerning the Foreign Service who notified me on a Friday at 16.00 of a test on Tuesday at 8.00, the date of my grandfather’s funeral. I was required to send evidence of that fact to request a rescheduled test date. They then notified me that I may or may not receive a rescheduled date “due to tight timelines and the high level of candidates.” It’s been almost a year and I have not been rescheduled, but of course, I have no one I can contact.

What is most concerning is that as this begins to damage the Government it seems they are increasingly leaning towards more of this hands-off automated recruiting. Hell, even the OPP don’t run their physical fitness assessments anymore and you have to film yourself running the 20-meter shuttle and send it in with your initial application. More and more the onus is falling on the recruit, the RCMP is particularly guilty of this in my opinion.

Most recruitment officers don’t know their agency or its system, worst of all the actual requirements and regulations well enough to perform their duties. Alternatively, they are hamstrung by an overly rigid system that leaves no room for human intervention. In my own personal assessment, which is admittedly anecdotal and should be treated as such, I found that people such as myself and the fellow applicants that I got to know through the process were falling through the cracks because these agencies are not talking to them but instead at them. This along with the obscene processing times is driving away the best talent.

Additionally, I would argue by their treatment of recruits that it seems the Canadian government does not think that, as an employer, it has to compete to attract the best talent. The idea that people should come in already trained up is a symptom of an epidemic of entitlement inside the Canadian Government. The old adage ‘you get out what you put in’ holds true. If Canada is unwilling to invest any time into people and expect them to already be skilled (especially when government wages are hardly competitive with the private sector, at least so far as security and national defence occupations are concerned where most applicants have MAs or PhDs) they are going to lose out on good people. Most will start to look abroad as so many of my compatriots have been compelled to do. The Canadian Government needs to be kicking down doors and chasing good talent.

In my view, it appears that the Canadian Government is not really interested in investing in recruits and it shows in the average age of their employees. It leaves one to doubt if they actually are trying to actively recruit in any meaningful way. Sure, each agency says they have new ‘proactive’ recruitment practices in place and make a big show of it so they can check the box and say “yep, we have that”, but in practice, not really. It’s more an HR wall then and HR well. If I’m wrong about it, if what these agencies were saying about their big forward-thinking recruitment practices and outreach were true, how do we explain the ongoing and worsening recruitment issues?

We’re facing one of the most profound generational shifts Humanity has ever witnessed. The rate of technological change has created a rapidly changing world where the generation gap between those just entering the workforce and those just leaving is so severe it’s often as if we are speaking different languages. This is only further compounded by our aging population and the demographic shifts we’re currently seeing, which are creating unprecedented problems. As this plays out we will incur massive strains inside national security as we see these agencies senior staff retire en masse without proper replacements ready to fill the void. The pool is drying up as the Government has not A) invested in promoting the type of education it requires, and B) not created viable employment pathways to a real career in the field for those who pursue this type of education.

The reality the Canadian Government has a closed-door attitude to applicants. Across the board, agencies are dropping the ball and putting our country’s security and future at risk. However, thanks to the benefit and advantage of their position of secrecy no one really knows what’s going on inside the gates. When we do learn about it, we have very little indication as to why these things are happening. I suggest it comes down to the human factor and a lack of both qualified personnel and qualified oversight.

Anyone who has dealt with a Canadian bureaucracy will hear the ring of truth to these comments. They don’t hire the best; they hire the path of least resistance, those who won’t challenge the status quo. That’s why you so often hear the complaint that there is no common sense in government, because it has been actively weeded out in favour of groupthink which is labelled as efficiency. This has led to unquestioning commitments to silly day-to-day operational questions while ignoring the big-picture purpose. I know of one example where all the senior regional directors for Public Health Ontario spent 2 hours on a teleconference to decide what colour their new post-it notes should be (I’m deadly serious).

For us to change course we need new people, to do that we have to dramatically alter the recruitment landscape. That starts at home by addressing the people we already have in place, by which I mean an accountability-based purge. Oversight is desperately needed. There is also a serious need for new blood, outsiders and independent thinkers that will challenge the system. That can’t happen until we end the ‘check the boxes’ bureaucratic and automated hiring practices that currently exist. If we don’t take radical action, it will get worse, the numbers are already showing us this. This is not just about efficiency, or better practices, or even giving the incoming generation a better shake. This is about national security. What we have been talking about here is defence, and national security. This is not the area where we can afford to remain complacent, as Canadians so often are. Our very survival as a nation will one day depend on how well-built these agencies actually are.


Feature Photo: Wikimedia Commons – Navy recruiting, Jarvis Building 1914, Wikimedia Commons, 2024

DefenceReport’s Analysis is a multi-format blog that is based on opinions, insights and dedicated research from DefRep editorial staff and writers. The analysis expressed here are the author’s own and are not necessarily reflective of any institutions or organisations which the author may be associated with. In addition, they are separate from DefRep reports, which are based on independent and objective reporting.


By Chris Murray

Chris is the Assistant Editor at DefenceReport and Senior Analyst. He holds a PhD is Defence Studies from King’s College London, an MA in War Studies from the Royal Military College of Canada, as well as both an Ba in Anthropology and an HBa in History from Lakehead University. He specialises in irregular conflicts, guerrilla insurgencies, and asymmetrical warfare. His areas of focus include the Caucasus, and Eastern Europe, but are primarily aimed at the Balkans. Chris is an Associate Member of the of The Corbett Centre for Maritime Policy Studies at King's College London, a Member of the Second World War Research Group at King’s College London, as well as an Associate of King’s College London. Chris has formally served as a defence and foreign policy advisor in the Canadian House of Commons to the office of a Member of Parliament. [email protected]