Ice has begun to form, for the first time this fall, on the grounds of CFB Trenton in southeastern Ontario.

The typically Canadian winter weather is one of the main problems that needs to be tackled as part of a herculean effort to house thousands of Syrian refugees expected in the country by year's end.

They will be sent to military bases across the country, and CFB Trenton is the largest. 

The temporary accommodations the newcomers will live in are spartan — rows of double-decker bunk beds, more than 20 in each row. Washrooms and showers are in different buildings, as is the mess hall. Most of the buildings are — so far — unheated, meant mainly for warm-weather use for hundreds of air cadets who train at the military base during their school summer vacations.

CFB Trenton refugee housing

Many of the 25,000 Syrian refugees coming to Canada will stay on military bases. At CFB Trenton in southeastern Ontario, they will sleep on bunk beds in buildings that normally house air cadets while they are training. (James Murray/CBC )

Soldiers and civilian contractors have been working overtime to install external heating units outside the barracks and moving quickly to winter-proof the buildings, which look like extended versions of the portable classrooms that sit outside so many Canadian schools. Military staff were loath to comment on the work they're doing before Ottawa made its official announcement on Tuesday, but they seemed confident that the buildings will be ready in time.

Upon arrival, refugees will be checked for any obvious signs of disease and likely asked about histories of immunizations — the kinds of medical questions necessary before the Syrians can begin to move into Canadian society. Then it's off to the barracks. Presumably they won't be staying on base for long. It isn't clear whether or not they will be allowed to travel to the nearby city of Trenton to feel their first taste of freedom in — for some — years.

CFB Trenton heating units for Syrian refugees

The buildings that will house Syrian refugees at CFB Trenton in Ontario are normally used during for cadets during the summer, so soldiers and civilian contractors are working to install heating units for the winter. (James Murray/CBC)

It's unlikely they will be able to move around much on the base, home to some of Canada's most highly guarded collections of military hardware and computer systems. One thing is sure: Frigid weather aside, for the first time in a long time, they'll be safe. 

In addition to the soldiers, many others are involved in preparing for the refugees' arrival. Doctors, nurses, hospitals and public health officials are anticipating more pressure on Canada's already-stretched health-care system. But the local medical officer of health in CFB Trenton's region believes Canadians "will rise to the occasion."

'We're ready'

"I'm not saying there won't be a few wrinkles, with 25,000 refugees in the course of the month [across the country]," Dr. Richard Schabas, medical officer of health for Hastings Prince Edward Public Health, told CBC News about the Liberal government's plan. "But I'm fully confident that we'll be able to handle whatever we're asked to do."

Schabas said he hasn't been able to get some precise details he'd like, including exactly how many refugees are coming to the Trenton base and when they will arrive. 


Dr. Richard Schabas, medical officer of health for Hastings Prince Edward Public Health, says he's confident the health-care system can handle the influx of Syrian refugees. (CBC)

"Everything about this is unusual," he said. "This is being planned in real time. The important thing, though, is that we're ready. We've been preparing our staff, making sure that they've got some background on Syria [and] the kinds of medical issues we'll face ... making sure we're ready to provide the kinds of services that we would reasonably be expected to provide.

"I'm sure we will rise to the occasion as a country and show the world how welcoming we can be," Schabas said. "We can show the world how this should be done."