OTTAWA—Canada’s air force has been hiring foreign pilots to fly its front-line transport aircraft, maritime patrol planes and fighter jets, citing an inability to recruit Canadians to fill seats in the military cockpits.
As debate rages about temporary foreign workers allowed into Canada to fill jobs in sectors like the service industry, it turns out that the Canadian Armed Forces has also gone abroad to fill its own labour needs.
Citing a “labour shortage,” the military has been recruiting pilots from foreign countries — notably the French and British air forces — to work in Canada and train Canadian pilots but also fly on operational missions around the globe.
The foreign fliers are being pressed to fly many of the aircraft in the air force fleet, including the CP-140 Aurora maritime patrol aircraft, the C-130 Hercules and CC-177 Globemaster transport jets.
The transport pilots are being hired for “pilot training as well as global strategic and tactical air transport.”
The labour market opinions that were prepared by the Defence Department in order to proceed with the foreign hires outline the needs of the air force.
A Royal Air Force pilot from the United Kingdom with experience in anti-submarine warfare and long-range sovereignty patrol missions was sought to fly the CP-140 Aurora.
“With minimal training he will be employed as a CP 140 Aurora aircraft commander where his experience will be used to help train new RCAF long range patrol crews,” read the labour market opinion.
Another RAF pilot with experience on the CC-177 Globemaster — a transport aircraft also flown by Canada’s military — was brought onboard as an instructor.
A pilot from the Hungarian Air Force was hired as an instructor to train student pilots in the Canadian Air Force.
Other pilots experienced in air-to-air refuelling operations were sought from the Royal Air Force to fly the CC-150 Polaris jet, which is used as both a transport and a refueller.
In each case, the air force says it was forced to go abroad to hire personnel to fill a position it was “unable to fill through normal recruiting and training.”
However, the military says it is trying to recruit Canadians to serve as pilots.
“Canadians are regularly recruited as Pilots and will continue to be recruited and trained through the (Canadian Armed Forces) well established Officer and Pilot training programs,” reads one labour market opinion.
The air force has hired 24 former foreign military pilots since 2012, including 19 from the United Kingdom, two from Hungary, and one each from Germany, France and South Africa, said Maj. James Simiana.
“Those hires are complementary . . . to the hiring and training of Canadian pilots that is also taking place,” said Simiana, a spokesperson for the air force.
But Gilles Hudicourt, a pilot with Air Transat who obtained the labour market opinions, says the air force has gone abroad to find experienced pilots to avoid the cost of training Canadians.
“They pretend . . . that they’re actually going after some new skill,” Hudicourt told the Star. “They’re doing it to save on training money.”
Hudicourt has previously complained about the influx of foreign pilots allowed into Canada to work for charter airlines, like Sunwing, as well as helicopter companies, which he says takes away jobs from Canadians.
And he says that applies to the air force when it hires military pilots from abroad to fill empty seats in its cockpits.
He said the immigration rules are meant to permit organizations to hire abroad to fill a labour need “when there is no qualified Canadians to do the job,” Hudicourt said.
“You’re not allowed to do it to save money,” he said.
“They’re just taking these guys because they were already trained and it’s just going to be cheaper for national defence . . . it doesn’t seem right to me,” he said.
The air force says it takes about seven years — and $2.6 million — to train a pilot to fly the CF-18 fighter jet.
In background material provided to the Star, the air force concedes that cost is a big factor in hiring former military pilots since the experienced aviators require little training and can be put to work immediately, filling gaps that “could not otherwise be filled in the short to medium term.”
On Friday, Employment Minister Jason Kenney unveiled changes to the temporary foreign worker program to address concerns that it was driving down wages and leaving Canadians unemployed.
While the changes focus mostly on low-wage, low-skilled entry level jobs, Kenney’s overhaul does touch on the issue of foreign pilots.
No longer will airlines be allowed to make it a requirement that would-be pilots hold a type rating for a specific aircraft since the airline can provide that training.
As well, the airline will have to present a transition plan outlining its strategy to reduce its reliance on foreign pilots while increasing its complement of Canadian pilots.
“There was a consensus that there is no shortage of Canadian commercial pilots who could be trained to fly specific types of aircraft,” reads a briefing note.
It wasn’t clear whether the changes would affect the air force’s use of foreign pilots.