‘Everybody’s looking for help’

Sgt. Brandon Parr of the North Saskatchewan Regiment gives a lecture at the Prince Albert Armoury during an open house on Wednesday, April 4. The open house was one of several held across the country as the Canadian Armed Forces aims to bolster recruitment. -- Jason Kerr/Daily Herald

It’s Wednesday night, and 17-year-old student Uliks Ibishi is listening to a lecture.

However, it’s not about English or History or any of the other courses a high school student might study. Instead, Ibishi is one of roughly a dozen North Saskatchewan Regiment reservists getting classroom instruction at the Prince Albert Armoury.

“I like the challenging aspects,” says Ibishi, who will graduate from St. Mary High School in the spring. “The physically challenging aspect is probably my favourite part as well as the things we get to do, which is pretty cool, like some helicopter stuff. I know at the end of this month we’re about to do a patrol competition and there are helicopters involved. The training aspect of it is pretty cool.”

Ibishi was born in Kosovo, but moved to Prince Albert at age three. He’s lived here ever since, but his family has a history of military service. At age 15, he started thinking about a career in the military.

Joining the reserves in Prince Albert was his first step, but he hopes to join the regular force full-time after graduating this spring. He says the military has plenty to offer young people.

“It’s a very inclusive force,” he says. “We accept everybody.”

Recruits like Pvt. Ibishi are a welcomed addition to the Canadian Armed Forces, but they’re also in short supply. In February, the Department of Defence (DND) estimated that Canada’s Armed Forces would be short 15,225 regular and reserve force personnel by the end of 2024. Defence Minister Bill Blair called the shortage “a death spiral” for the military, and the Armed Forces began modernizing and increasing recruiting efforts.

That includes a series of Open House initiatives hosted by armouries across the country. The Prince Albert Armoury hosted one on Wednesday night, with more activities planned for Saturday.

“We’re trying to focus on recruiting and bump up our numbers a little bit,” says Sgt. Linwood Williams, a member of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry and the only full-time reservist based in Prince Albert. “The whole army is in dire straits and we’re trying to make it more feasible and more appealing to everybody.”

Linwood was born and raised in the Prince Albert area. He made frequent trips to the Prince Albert Armoury in his youth for cadets, graduated from high school in Shellbrook, and joined the army in 2012.

He spent nine years with the Princess Patricia’s second battalion in CFB Shilo, and another two at the Third Canadian Division Training Centre as an instructor before returning to Prince Albert. He’s worked at a variety of tasks during his career, with one of the biggest coming in 2015 when he returned to Prince Albert as part of the reserve unit that helped battle wildfires in northern Saskatchewan.

Linwood says it’s difficult to say why the Armed Forces are struggling to recruit new members, but notes it’s not just a Canadian problem.

“I don’t think it’s just the army,” he says. “I think there’s a lot of struggling happening in western society—not just our country. It’s the (United) States, the U.K., everybody.”

Linwood says the job isn’t for everyone, and that limits the pool of potential recruits. The Prince Albert Armoury has about 20 part-time reservists, and Linwood wants to see that number increase to a full platoon of 35.

He’s proud of his service, and grateful for the variety of experiences the army gave him.

“I’ve absolutely loved my career,” he says. “I’ve got to do so many cool things that I never would have got to do. I got to see all kinds of parts of the world. I feel like I got to make a difference.”

The staffing shortage extends to every area of the military—and that includes the recruiters themselves.

Sgt. Mark Calow is a part-time reservist based out of Saskatoon who previously worked in recruitment from 2017 to 2022. On April 1, he signed a short-term contract to work full-time in a depleted recruiting office.

Calow says recruitment struggles are not unique to the military.

“It seems like everybody’s looking for help, but there’s a lot of people looking for work as well,” he says. “I don’t know where the disconnect is, but absolutely the Armed Forces is in a staffing shortage right now across the board—reg force and reserve, the full-time and the part-time. Why that is, I’m not sure.”

Calow joined the Army Reserves in high school and originally intended to go full-time after graduation. However, he wasn’t interested in moving his family around every three to four years, something that’s common with the regular force, so he went part-time instead while pursuing a civilian career.

In 2009, he deployed overseas in Afghanistan where he served on a provincial reconstruction team that provided armed escorts for government and non-government agencies helping rebuild the country. On Wednesday, he was in Prince Albert to speak with prospective recruits who attended the open house.

“As a recruiter, we’re trying to put someone into a position they’ll excel at (and) they’ll enjoy,” he says. “I don’t want to (say), ‘oh, I have a need here and I need to fill this person into this need.’ It’s always asking them questions. What are you looking to get into? What do you want to learn?”

Despite the recruiting challenges, Calow is optimistic the military can bump up its numbers with the right message. He joined the army to be part of something bigger than himself, and he’s confident young Canadians still find that idea compelling.

“I think that resonates with the new generation,” he says. “It kind of went away and I think it’s back. (It’s) ‘how can I be of service to my country, (and) my fellow citizens,’ that kind of thing. I think those are the kind of people who are attracted to the Armed Forces. That’s what attracted me.”