Providing security, in more ways than one

By Michael Lea, Kingston Whig-Standard                                     

Canadians recognize that military veterans can have a hard time transitioning back into civilian life, but one part of society that can help provide them with a job needs to do more, said Bill Sutherland, the national chair of the Commissionaires, the more modern name for the Canadian Corps of Commissionaires.

The Commissionaires, many of them military veterans, are charged with providing security for the federal government and could benefit if another potential employer played a larger role, he said.

“We encourage the private sector to step up. One of the best ways to honour today’s veterans for their sacrifice and service is to hire them.”

Sutherland was responding to the results of a survey that stated two-thirds of Canadians believe veterans are having trouble finding jobs when they leave the military, and more respondents than ever consider the support veterans are getting inadequate.

Locally, retired lieutenant-colonel Michael Voith, the CEO of the Commissionaires’ Kingston division since 2012, said that when it comes to private companies hiring his men and women for security duties, too often the problem is the bottom line.

The security industry is very competitive, he explained, and the companies in it are trying to keep their costs as low as possible.

“It is a race to the bottom in terms of paying their employees,” Voith said.

Minimum wage is common in the industry, he continued.

“We don’t pay minimum wage. We refuse to do that. We always pay above minimum wage.”

That can put them at a disadvantage when it comes to competing for a contract.

“Some companies only look at the bottom line. They don’t necessarily look at the quality of people they are getting,” Voith said.

Voith believes the Commissionaires provide a higher quality workforce than the norm, but some companies just aren’t interested in anything more than the cost.

“They are just happy with whatever the cheapest price will offer,” he said. “That is always the dilemma we face.”

Voith, who has spent 33 years in the military in command and staff appointments, said that since the Commissionaires is a not-for-profit company, they give back 90 per cent of the money they make to employees in wages and benefits.

“That’s one of our commitments to our employees, to make sure they are paid as well as we can in the security industry. So you will find our wages tend to be higher than our competitors’. We have benefits that most of our competitors don’t have.”

The largest private sector employer of Canadian veterans, the Commissionaires currently have about 20,000 employees on the payroll.

“Nobody hires more veterans than the Commissionaires across Canada. That is our focus,” Voith said.

The work they do depends on the part of the country they are in but includes guarding businesses, institutions or installations, carrying out monitoring or surveillance, doing threat and risk assessments, bylaw enforcement, identification and fingerprinting services and security training.

The original Corps of Commissionaires was founded in 1859 by Edward Walter, a retired captain from the Crimean War, who was looking for a way to help British Army veterans make the transition back to civilian life.

He convinced friends and acquaintances to hire them and started out with just seven veterans.

The corps didn’t start up in Canada until 1925 as a way to help veterans of the First World War who found themselves with no social safety net after leaving the army.

It began in Montreal and then opened up branches in Toronto and Vancouver to provide either transitional or permanent jobs to veterans, mainly in the security field guarding government institutions.

By 1948, the Commissionaires had expanded across the country and by 1982 had 10,000 employees. Currently, there are 15 divisions across Canada in all provinces and territories.

The Kingston and region division, which began in 1947, covers Cornwall to Oshawa and north past Smiths Falls and Perth.

There are between 600 and 700 men and women in the division.

“Our mandate is to provide employment for retired members of the Canadian Forces and the RCMP,” Voith said.

Half of them are former military members while the rest were once police officers, from the correctional service or the Ministry of Natural Resources.

Refuting the notion that all Commissionaires are grey-haired former soldiers, some of the current members are newly graduated from police or justice programs at colleges, joining up so they can gain some security experience while waiting for a police job to open up.

Others have no military or police background at all and simply want a job in the security industry.

People come to the Commissionaires for a variety of reasons. Some have retired after a career in a high-pressure job in the military and want something a little less stressful. Some may have had trouble finding a job after getting out.

“We are certainly one of the safety nets,” Voith said. “If you want to work, you can come work for us.”

There are both full-time and part-time positions.

“We cater to people’s requirements.”

Those requirements could result from the former soldier having PTSD or other injuries.

“We do whatever we can to help them,” Voith said. “Veterans have always come back from wars with injuries. We have always had to deal with those issues. So they are not new to us.”

Those needs came front and centre with the soldiers coming back from Afghanistan.

“We cycled through a lot of soldiers and there are a lot of injuries, whether it is physical, emotional or mental issues, so we certainly reach out to those people, and if they need work we are here to provide work for them,” Voith said.

Part of their benefits package includes support programs for employees with family issues or a need for counselling. Veterans also have support through Veterans Affairs.

“A fair number” of soldiers from Afghanistan are now with the Commissionaires.

It can either be a transition service for them until they can find something else, or it can be long term.

Some Commissionaires have been on the job for 40 years, Voith said.

“There is no one mould. It is personality-dependent.”

All the needed training is provided for new Commissionaires.

“We probably have the best training for security guards of any company,” Voith said.

They go over and above the mandatory 40-hour course required in Ontario.

“Because we are the security provider for the government of Canada, we have to provide enhanced training above and beyond what is required for ordinary security guard companies.”

That means another 16 hours of training that provides a higher level of expertise, plus additional training that may be needed for specific sites, such as a hospital or university.

“We are very keen on providing training and this complements the training these people already have from being in the military,” Voith said. “It provides a great security guard compared to just the basic training you would get in accordance with the Ontario legislation.”

The Commissionaires are not armed.

“We are not policemen. We are security guards. We are there to observe and report.”

However, in other parts of the country, such as Western Canada and the Maritimes, Commissionaires do many non-core policing jobs that are normally done by officers in Ontario, he explained. That could include being detention guards, doing photo radar or guarding crime scenes. That helps municipalities defray some of their policing costs.

In Kingston, Commissionaires can be found on the army base, at the Royal Military College, Queen’s University, city libraries and City Hall.

Most of it is government work, with few private companies hiring them. The number of contracts from the private sector is higher outside of Kingston.

“We are the security provider for the government of Canada, but we also have lots of commercial contracts as well, and each contract has its own unique requirements.”

Some are high-tech, where they are monitoring cameras; others are more basic and include doing access control into the facility, whether it be a factory or government building.

“So it really varies,” Voith said. “At the end of the day, you can have all the technology you want, but at some point in time you have to have a man in the loop, you still have to have actual people providing some sort of oversight of the technology as well.”