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Archived - Fit to Serve: Universality of Service and Related Support Programs

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BG–11.006 - March 25, 2011

In the civilian workplace, employees are generally obliged to perform only those duties specified in their job description. In contrast, military service is comparatively open-ended. The Canadian Forces (CF) principle of Universality of Service holds that all personnel must be capable at all times of performing a broad range of general military tasks, common defence and security duties, in addition to the specific duties associated with their occupations.

The Universality of Service principle is also known as the “soldier first” principle, identifying the men and women of the CF as members of the profession of arms first – before they are identified as pharmacists, logistics officers or pilots. Every member, regardless of their military occupation, or whether their place of work is a desk, a ship or the cockpit of an aircraft, must meet the Universality of Service standards in order to remain in the CF.

The Universality of Service standards

All CF personnel must be able to do the following basic tasks:

  •  fire and maintain a personal weapon;
  • conduct nuclear, biological, and chemical drills;
  • fight fires;
  • administer first aid, including CPR;
  • communicate using a radio; and,
  • prepare written military correspondence.

To be considered deployable, CF personnel must be able to do the following:

  • deploy on short notice to any geographical location, in any climate;
  • work irregular or prolonged hours;
  • function effectively on irregular or missed meals;
  • travel as a passenger in any mode of transportation;
  • perform under physical and mental stress; and
  • perform with minimal medical support.

Additionally, because strength and endurance could mean the difference between success and failure in a military operation, CF personnel must be more physically fit than the general Canadian population. In order to meet the Universality of Service standards, CF personnel are required to undergo an annual physical fitness evaluation, known as the CF EXPRES test, where they must meet a minimum physical fitness standard.1

A legal basis

Universality of Service has a legal basis. It is imposed by section 33(1) of the National Defence Act, which states that all Regular Force members are “at all times liable to perform any lawful duty.” The legislative imperative means that a member who cannot “at all times … perform any lawful duty” may not serve in the Regular Force except during a carefully limited period of recovery from injury or illness as a period of transition out of the military and into civilian life.

Exceptions to Universality of Service standards are few: CF personnel under the age of 18 may not be deployed to a theatre of hostilities, but they must remain fit enough to be able to deploy upon reaching age 18. Chaplains are not required to perform any duty other than those pertaining to their calling; accordingly, they are exempt from the requirement to perform general military duties and common defence and security tasks. However, chaplains are required to be medically and physically fit, and deployable.

Section 33(2) of the National Defence Act foresees that Reserve Force members “may be called out on service to perform any lawful duty other than training at such times and in such manner as any regulations or otherwise are prescribed by the Governor in Council.”  Since the Primary Reserve is given the role of directly supporting the Regular Force, operational effectiveness requires these Reservists to meet the Universality of Service standards.

Personnel in other Reserve subcomponents – the Cadet Organizations and Training Services (COATS), the Canadian Rangers and the Supplementary Reserve – are only required to meet the minimum operational standards associated with Universality of Service if they are serving with the Regular Force or Primary Reserve.2

Medical release

The CF remain committed to supporting ill and injured personnel as they progress through recovery, rehabilitation and return to work. At the same time, the CF are required to take those measures necessary to field a ready, operationally effective force in the defence of the nation. Illness or injury can make it challenging for a CF member to meet the Universality of Service standards, as can poor physical fitness. Fitness programs and routine evaluations ensure that military personnel maintain the required level of physical fitness.

Ill and injured personnel are given the time they need to recover before any administrative action is taken with regards to their career. When the member's medical condition is stable, a permanent medical category is assigned, which may include medical employment limitations (MELs). Members who are assigned MELs of a temporary nature, or permanent MELs that do not put the individual in breach of Universality of Service, are permitted continued service with the CF. Essentially, a member will be identified as belonging to one of the following categories:

  • Meets Universality of Service. Those who are assigned MELs of a temporary nature, and meet Universality of Service standards, or will likely meet them in the near future, will return to full service in their previous occupation.
  • In breach of Universality of Service (employable and not employable). Those who are assigned MELs that place them in permanent breach of the Universality of Service standards, but who are employable in some capacity and wish to remain in the CF, may be retained for up to three years. This transitional period of service will be engaged only if a personnel shortage exists in the member’s occupation, or there is a requirement for the member’s particular skill set; otherwise, the member will be transitioned to civilian life. Those who are not employable, or choose not to remain in the CF, may be retained for a period of up to six months. In preparation for release in both instances, CF members are entitled to a range of career transition services and care provided by Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC), the Service Income Security Insurance Plan - Long Term Disability (SISIP - LTD), and several programs available through various CF agencies prior to release.
  • Severely ill or injured. Those who are assigned MELs that place them in permanent breach of the Universality of Service standards, and who are severely ill or injured with complex career transition needs, may be retained in the CF for a period of up to three years, starting when the medical employment limitations have been confirmed by the Director of Medical Policy. These individuals work one-on-one with a multidisciplinary transition team to develop a tailored and flexible plan that features comprehensive health care, social and transition support.In preparation for release, they are entitled to a range of transition services and care provided by Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC), the Service Income Security Insurance Plan - Long Term Disability (SISIP - LTD), and several programs available through various CF agencies prior to release.

Regular Force and Primary Reserve members who have a medical condition that precludes their return to normal duty in a timely manner may be posted to the Joint Personnel Support Unit (JPSU) and assigned to one of its component parts - an Integrated Personnel Support Centre (IPSC). The JPSU provides a CF/VAC integrated “one-stop service” for ill and injured CF personnel and their families by facilitating access to care and support while personnel reintegrate into military life or explore new civilian employment options. It supports both Regular Force and Reserve Force ill and injured personnel who are currently serving or in the process of a medical release, and caters to both referrals and walk-in clients in addition to those with longer-term medical issues. 3

As Table A demonstrates, about 1,000 Regular Force personnel have been medically released in each of the past five years.

Medical Releases From
the Regular Force,
Year Total
2010 775*
2009 1,023
2008 1,073
2007 979
2006 1,150


On average, 5,500 Regular Force members leave the CF on an annual basis. Most people who leave the CF do so on a voluntary basis, not as a result of medical release. This annual attrition is a factor contributing to the constant renewal of CF personnel.

Severely ill and injured personnel

In March 2011, the Minister of National Defence announced a new career transition support policy for severely ill and injured CF members who can no longer serve in the CF due to MELs that breach Universality of Service requirements. For each of these individuals, the CF will develop a tailored and flexible plan that features comprehensive health care, social and career transition support over a period of up to three years. The policy applies to full-time personnel, regardless of whether or not the illness or injury is attributable to service, and to part-time personnel, whose need for medical care is attributable to the performance of duty. Criteria to determine the length of time due to complexity of the transition needs will include severity of the injury or illness, psycho-social factors and functional limitations. An assessment of the transition complexity will be conducted, on an individual basis by an interdisciplinary team prior to the initiation of the administrative review process. Based on the results of the individualized assessment, the interdisciplinary team, together with the member, will develop an integrated and tailored transition plan, including individualized goals and projected timelines. Progress in achieving the transition plan goals will be monitored jointly by the CF members’ nurse case manager and IPSC staff.

Severely ill and injured personnel with complex career transition needs will benefit from more time to heal, adjust, and prepare for the future, while remaining members of the CF. This policy is designed to provide individualized assistance to those who need it the most and extend their access to flexible and comprehensive CF healthcare and social support while they prepare for a new chapter in their life.

Support programs

VAC and the CF partner at many levels to care for ill and injured military personnel and their families. VAC has the legislated mandate to provide care and support for military personnel following their release from the CF. When a member faces medical release, the CF work closely with VAC to establish a comprehensive, individualized management program including rehabilitation, vocational services such as job placement, financial assistance and emotional support to the injured CF member after release. The financial compensation available to Reserve Force personnel may differ in some instances.4

A. Financial support

  • The Canadian Forces Superannuation Act is the pension plan for all Regular Force personnel. It requires contributions from its participants, and benefits depend on the length of service.
  • The Long Term Disability Group Insurance Program, a feature of the Service Income Security Insurance Plan (SISIP), provides medically-released CF personnel, and those who meet the definition of totally disabled, with income replacement.
  • The Accidental Dismemberment Insurance Plan, another feature of SISIP, provides a lump-sum benefit to CF personnel who have suffered dismemberment, loss of use of a limb or loss of sight, hearing or speech that is attributable to military service. (This plan complements the Injured Military Members Compensation Act, which covers members for the same injuries suffered between 1 October 1972 and 12 February 2003.)
  • The Allowance in Lieu of Operational Allowances compensates for the loss of operational allowances paid to deployed personnel, in the event of a member being returned from deployment due to illness or injuries sustained in-theatre.
  • Income support programs available to former CF personnel under the New Veterans Charter include the Earnings Loss Benefit while they are participating in the Rehabilitation Program (and longer, if the person is unable to work after rehabilitation), the Supplementary Retirement Benefit, CF Income Support and a Permanent Impairment Allowance.
  • CF personnel and former personnel with a service-related disability may qualify for a VAC Disability Award, which is designed to compensate for the fact that an individual may experience the impact of a service-related disability or death in ways other than financial.
  • CF personnel or former members in receipt of a VAC Disability Pension or Disability Award may qualify for funding for long-term care in a community facility, or for access to the Veterans Independence Program, if the need is related to their pensioned or awarded condition. The program provides a number of benefits, including personal care, housekeeping and grounds maintenance benefits to assist veterans in remaining independent in their own homes.
  • The recently established Legacy of Care includes initiatives such as: barrier-free transitional housing, funding for care givers and wheelchair accessible transportation to medical appointments.
  • CF personnel can also receive assistance through various Funds such as Military Families Fund, IMT Military Casualty Support Foundation, SISIP Grant or Loan, Royal Canadian Legion Poppy Fund, Military Family Resource Centre (MFRC) Fund, Royal Canadian Navy Benevolent Fund, Unit Funds – Canteen/Chaplains, The Canadian Hero Fund and Wounded Warriors Fund.

B. Vocational support

  • The CF’s Vocational Rehabilitation Program for Serving Members allows eligible personnel with an impending medical release to participate a civilian vocational rehabilitation training program for up to six months.
  • Many CF bases and wings participate in the Second Career Assistance Network, which makes seminars, career counselling and access to a job bank available to personnel anticipating a career change.
  • The CF’s Skills Completion Program reimburses eligible Regular Forces personnel with 10 years’ service the costs of upgrading their skills and education in order to transfer to a civilian career.
  • The CF Transition Assistance Program (TAP) is accessible via a DND website.  TAP acts as an employment information portal and resource for CF personnel who are releasing, and includes a national list of civilian 'employer-partners' with direct links to their company websites. In addition, resumé and job posting services for TAP clients have been outsourced to several civilian agencies.
  • The SISIP Vocational Rehabilitation Program (VRP) assists medically-releasing CF members obtain the tools to transition to the civilian workforce.  The SISIP VRP will primarily build on existing skills wherever possible, however, if insufficient skills exist then re-training in a new field will be considered.  The SISIP VRP also provides employment preparation and job search for clients ready to transition into the civilian workforce.
  • The VAC vocational rehabilitation program will help a member determine whether it is possible to transfer their skills to another career. If not, the member may qualify for re-training support to help in obtaining suitable civilian employment.
  • VAC’s Career Transition Services offer workshops, career counselling and job searches to releasing or released Regular Force personnel, some Reserve Force personnel and their survivors.
  • Non Public Funds employment opportunities are available for CF spouses and dependents at Canadian Forces Support Units throughout Canada and Europe.
  • The CF have recently partnered with the Commissionaires, a premier national security provider, to provide meaningful employment to CF personnel who were injured in the line of duty.

C. Additional support

  • The CF Member Assistance Program provides external, short-term counselling to Regular Force personnel and their families, and to some Reserve Force personnel, who are seeking assistance outside military health services. The program is civilian-based in that it uses professional counsellors provided by Health Canada’s Employee Assistance Services.
  • The Operational Stress Injury Social Support program (OSISS) provides peer support to military personnel, veterans and their families affected by Operational Stress Injuries (OSI), which includes Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In addition to one on one peer support, OSISS also provides group support and outreach sessions to reduce the stigma attached to those suffering from PTSD/OSI and promote a wellness model and treatment adherence. A joint CF-VAC initiative, this program was founded by a group of CF veterans.
  • Another CF-VAC initiative that provides bereavement peer support is HOPE (Helping Our Peers by providing Empathy).  Launched in 2006, this program partners trained volunteers who have lived the experience of loss, with family members, spouses and parents who undergo a similar experience to provide caring support.
  • The Injured Support Network (ISN) enhances the functional readiness of injured and ill CF personnel by focusing on peer support strategies through which they can meet the requirements of Universality of Service and develop an independent and autonomous lifestyle.
  • Released CF personnel have access to the VAC Assistance Service, a confidential toll-free 24/7 counselling service delivered through a nation-wide team of professional counsellors. The service, which is provided through a Memorandum of Understanding between VAC and Health Canada, is accessed initially through a toll-free line.
  • The Soldier On Program, and the complementary Soldier On Fund, provide resources and opportunities for ill and injured CF personnel and former personnel to attain and maintain a healthy and active lifestyle through physical fitness and sport.
  • The expanded CF Medically Released priority entitlement came into effect December 31, 2005 with the implementation of the new Public Service Employment Act (PSEA). The priority entitlement applies to Regular Force and some Reserve Force members who are released due to a medical condition. As a person with a priority entitlement, these members will be referred and considered for public service to positions that are about to be staffed. Should they meet all essential qualifications as well as any conditions of employment, they will be appointed to the position.

One of the DND’s Director of Casualty Support Management (DCSM) duties is to serve the families of fallen CF members. On 12 May, 2010, the Public Service Commission of Canada (PSC) amended the Public Service Employment Regulations (PSER) to establish a new priority entitlement for the surviving spouses or common-law partners of CF members whose death is attributable to the performance of duties which occ

1. For more information on the CF EXPRES test, visit the Canadian Forces website Newsroom at

2. Regular Force personnel work full-time and have usually signed long-term contracts committing them to regular service. Primary Reserve personnel train regularly and may work alongside their Regular Force counterparts on a full-time basis. Other subcomponents of the Reserve Force are the Supplementary Reserve(former commissioned and non-commissioned members who could be called out in an emergency), Canadian Rangers (who constitute a military presence in isolated and sparsely settled areas of Canada) and the Cadet Organizations and Training Services or COATS (officers with administrative, instructive and supervisory responsibilities to the cadet program).

3. For more information on the JPSU, visit the Canadian Forces website Newsroom at

4. The Reserve Force Retirement Gratuity is a severance benefit for members of the Primary Reserve only. Reservists’ eligibility for compensation under the Accidental Dismemberment Insurance Plan is governed by the terms of the contract under which they serve. Reservists incapable of completing the terms of their contract due to injury or illness attributable to service are entitled to pay and allowances until the termination of their contract. Compensation for disability due to injury or illness is payable when disability continues beyond the termination of the class of Reserve service during which it occurred. VAC services and benefits are available to ill or injured Reservists on the same basis as they are to Regular Force personnel, subject to eligibility provisions applicable to both groups.

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