Canadian veterans win at UBC with program that points to better future

Growing up in small-town Alberta, Justin Holtham’s choices after high school were college or the trades.

The 19-year-old opted for neither. In 2003, with 9/11 fresh on his mind, he signed up to join the Canadian Armed Forces, serving for seven years, including two overseas tours in Afghanistan with the 3rd Battalion Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry.

While many of his peers worried about their GPAs and finding their way around a new campus, Holtham conducted village searches in a foreign land, looked for Taliban fighters and cleared IEDs.

In 2009, he left the military and found the return to civilian life a daunting experience.

“You just become lost,” said Holtham. “You’re not 18 or 19 going to school anymore. After spending years in the military, there’s no guidance. I didn’t know where to go, what I’m interested in, and what I can do.”

He sought assistance from Veteran Affairs’ vocational rehabilitation program, which offers returning soldiers career coaching, financial support and job-search assistance, but felt boxed in and going nowhere, like “churning butter,” he said.

In August, he heard about a new one-year pilot program at the University of B.C. that helps vets transition to university and civilian life as part of a broader initiative to create a veteran-friendly campus.

He packed his bags and drove more than a thousand miles from Edmonton to Vancouver.

Broader supports needed

According to Veteran Affairs Canada, there are 22,300 Canadian Armed Forces veterans aged 39 and below, making up about 22 per cent of total vets in the country.

Upon their return to Canada, some veterans head back to school, thanks in part to new federal education benefits for veterans.

Since its inception in 2018, more than 3,000 veterans across Canada have applied for the veterans Education and Training Benefit (ETB), which provides up to $80,000 for vets to attend post-secondary institutions.

You just become lost,’ Justin Holtham recalls of returning to civilian life in 2009 after serving six years in the Canadian Armed Forces, including two overseas tours in Afghanistan. ‘You’re not 18 or 19 going to school anymore. After spending years in the military, there’s no guidance. I didn’t know where to go, what I’m interested in, and what I can do.’

Gerry Kahrmann /


“We know they will be coming back to university, so with veterans on campus at UBC, we want to help make sure they are ready and that they are successful,” said Tim Laidler, executive director of the Centre for Group Counselling and Trauma based out of UBC, which is spearheading the university’s veteran-friendly campus initiative.

Giving veterans money for tuition and telling them to go back to school isn’t enough, said Laidler. There needs to be broader supports in place.

That support was lacking four years ago when Eric Lai, a former combat engineer injured in a friendly-fire incident in Afghanistan in 2009, was a finance student at UBC’s Sauder School of Business.

Between learning how to write academic essays instead of military memoranda and switching to book-learning from learning from practical experience, Lai found university a steep learning curve.

“Spending that much time in front of books felt unnatural,” said Lai.

One time, he was at the bustling student union building where student clubs and organizations have their offices, and was struck by the absence of anything for military veterans, as if vets made up the least visible minority.

It was surprising, he said, for a university that embraces diversity as much as UBC does.

“That cultural-sensitive lens we have towards so many sub-groups and demographics — that lens can be easily reapplied to our veterans as well,” he said.

Lai said he would liked to have a veteran liaison officer available to help new veteran students navigate the large campus, a dedicated space for veterans and more support from the university.

Trade schools do a good job of welcoming veterans, so why not universities, asked Lai. Especially at UBC, with its history of military service.

On Oct. 28, 1922, 1,200 UBC students marched in The Great Trek from downtown to the unfinished science building at UBC’s Point Grey campus to draw attention to overcrowding and the need to resume construction of the university after the First World War.

UBC Archives

The Great Trek

After the Second World War, half the university’s student body was comprised of veterans. That was realized nearly a quarter century after The Great Trek in October 1922, which paved the way for the establishment of the Point Grey campus and had been led by student leaders who were also returning vets.

Lai, who graduated with his undergraduate degree in 2017, went on to form the Post-Traumatic Growth Association, an Edmonton-based non-profit that works to provide grassroots support for veterans and first responders.

He is supportive of UBC’s current efforts to provide supports to veterans on campus he wished he’d had.

“Truly addressing veterans’ transitions isn’t just acknowledging what is needed in the economy and reapplying their skills in the civilian sector,” said Lai. “It’s about but how can we, as a community and institution, facilitate a transition that is meaningful towards veterans?”

Until recently, the university had no idea how many people on campus had served in the military.

Eric Lai, on the UBC campus last week, is a Afghanistan veteran who graduated in 2017. He supports the university’s efforts to provide supports to veterans on campus that he wished he’d had.

Jason Payne /


It wasn’t until a conversation between UBC President Santa Ono, who is familiar with veteran-friendly campuses from his experience in the U.S., and Dr. Marvin Westwood, founder of the Centre for Group Counselling and Trauma, that the university tried to find out. It sent out queries via emails and newsletters, identifying 75 veterans among its students, faculty and staff.

There is not much of a culture of veterans attending post-secondary in Canada, noted Laidler, a veteran who served in Afghanistan between his third and fourth years of studies at UBC.

Many seek jobs in law enforcement or as first responders or work in the trades or blue-collar jobs.

“For a lot of veterans, they have travelled the world, held heavy responsibility, made high-stress decisions in a lot of cultures, but they come back to Canada and their resume says they’re qualified to be a truck driver,” Laidler said.

That puts vets in a box and limits their capabilities.

“But what we have learned is a lot of veterans have expanded career interests,” he said. “They’d love to go on and have jobs that have a positive impact in social advocacy or non-profit networks. They just don’t have the credentials because they did not attend university.”

Specialized courses for vets

UBC’s one-year pilot program, which launched in September, offers specialized courses for veterans, including English and writing, interpersonal skills, counselling psychology and courses on human security and NGOs.

There were 21 people enrolled, ranging in age from 19 to 54, but one had to defer for a year after he was unexpectedly deployed to Ukraine. Some of the instructors have a military background, making it easier for the students to connect with them through shared experiences.

On a recent fall evening, Holtham and classmates Mackenzie Robinson and Dan Elliott gathered in a bright classroom at the Neville Scarfe Building on campus to talk about their experience with university life.

‘They get to hear about our stories and we get to hear about their experiences, so it’s actually a really good connection,’ Mackenzie Robinson says of one of his university classes, which has a mix of civilian students and veterans.

Gerry Kahrmann /


It’s Robinson’s second go in post-secondary. In 2010, he signed up for a full course load at a college just after returning from Afghanistan. It didn’t work out.

“It was too much,” he said. “I was in class with 18- and 19-year olds out of high school, and I couldn’t handle it. I had nobody around me who knew what I was going through.”

Another classmate, a veteran in his 50s, recalled breaking out in a sweat walking from the UBC bus stop to class, surrounded by hundreds of people in an unfamiliar place and second-guessing whether he belonged or was qualified to be there.

One of their classes has a mix of civilian students and veterans, an opportunity for the two groups to interact with each other.

“They get to hear about our stories and we get to hear about their experiences, so it’s actually a really good connection,” said Robinson.

The mix has the potential to become a politically charged minefield. There may be students who reject or question Canada’s missions abroad, or believe Canadian soldiers are “invading” other lands or may have Hollywood notions of what happens on overseas tours. 

The veterans interviewed for this story said they welcomed the debates, but hope the discussion does not become demeaning or derogatory towards veterans.

The program is designed to give veterans a taste of what university is like. At the end of the program, students will receive 15 credits that they can apply towards an undergraduate degree or use on their resume as they hunt for a civilian job.

Returned veteran Dan Elliott works on a question during class at UBC. Initially skeptical, Elliott is now thriving in the academic setting, and partially credits the location of the class in the faculty of education for helping him discover a newfound passion and career path.

Gerry Kahrmann /


‘Manna from heaven’

Outside of the classroom, the veteran-friendly campus initiative — which is funded by the Royal Canadian Legion and the university — takes a holistic approach to serving veterans, including providing family support, specialized mental health and counselling support, plus social and recreational opportunities.

The initiative also includes setting up a new UBC legion branch, the first branch to be established in B.C. in more than 25 years. The new legion, which held its founding meeting two weeks ago and is in the process of getting accreditation, will act as a social support hub, welcoming veterans and non-veteran students alike. It’ll also be a legion more suited to modern times, said Laidler, with a strong emphasis on health and wellness.

Some of the activities in the works include a ski trip in the winter, camping activities in the summer, participation in the long-standing UBC tradition of Storm the Wall and a barbecue with vets, their families and the university president.

Elliott, who had been working for the last decade making kayaks, described the program as “manna from heaven.”

Initially skeptical, he is now thriving in the academic setting, and partially credits the location of the class in the faculty of education for helping him discover a newfound passion and career path.

After the one-year program, he plans to continue at UBC to pursue education and become a teacher, said Elliott.

“It’s what people told me I should have done right after high school,” he said. “This is just so perfect. It’s ridiculous.”




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