Edmonton soldiers head to Wainwright for 'large-scale' exercises despite COVID-19

Soldiers are beginning to arrive in Wainwright, Alta., this week for two large-scale exercises that are going ahead despite surging COVID-19 cases in the province.

Brigade prepared for worst-case scenario, commander says

Members of a unit from the 1 Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group take part in a recent exercise. Up to 2,500 Edmonton soldiers will participate in two large-scale exercises at CFB Wainwright this spring. (1 Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group)

Soldiers are beginning to arrive in Wainwright, Alta., this week for two large-scale exercises that are going ahead despite surging COVID-19 cases in the province.

Up to 2,500 Edmonton soldiers from the 1 Canadian Mechanized Brigade will participate in Agile Ram and Maple Resolve in a training area at Canadian Forces Base Wainwright in eastern Alberta. Setup begins this week, and the exercises are expected to wrap up in June.

"We just cannot afford to lose these large-scale exercises because as a [brigade], that is how we go on operations, whether home or abroad, and we just degrade our ability to do that if we don't go," said Col. Wade Rutland, commander of 1 Canadian Mechanized Brigade.

As of July 1, the brigade will move from "build phase" to "contingency phase" which means it could be deployed at any moment for unforeseen commitments, Rutland said.

Last year's Maple Resolve, which usually sees up to 5,000 soldiers involved, was cancelled due to uncertainty around COVID-19.

But Rutland said the army has learned a lot over the past year and feels prepared to manage the risk of gathering for training even as Alberta faces a third wave of COVID-19 with the more infectious variants now the dominant strains of coronavirus. 

Prepared for worst case scenario

"We have made our plan for the absolute worse case — that every soldier shows up as an asymptomatic case of variants or not. So we're going in thinking that the person next to you could or does have COVID," he said.

The emergence of the variants, which are proving to be a greater risk for younger people, shows that every person needs to be vigilant, he said.

Col. Wade Rutland, commander of the 1st Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group, says exercises come with COVID-19 risks, but the greater risk is sending soldiers on a mission without proper training. (Cpl. Wes Pfneisl/3rd Canadian Division Support Base)

The army has prepared for every scenario, whether it's one case or a large outbreak that would require a unit, cohort or even the entire exercise being shut down, Rutland said.

In addition to cutting the number of participating soldiers by half, Rutland said, there are a number of other measures in place to curb transmission of the virus.

Soldiers attending the exercise were told to spend a week in functional isolation before departing for Wainwright.

Transport to Wainwright will see less-full buses and trucks, Rutland said.

On arrival, soldiers will be tested and stay within their cohorts of 10 to 30 people until the results come back. If a soldier tests positive, there is a plan for isolation, testing and contact tracing. They will sleep four people per tent that usually holds 10.

Once soldiers arrive in the range training area where the exercise will be held, they'll stay there until it's time to be sent home. Only a few soldiers will be allowed onto the base itself in order to deal with things like laundry. No soldiers will be permitted to go into the town of Wainwright.

Rutland said he understands why people would be concerned about the scale of the exercise, but added that when people envision a group of 2,000 gathering, they think of something like a football game. And that's not what it looks like during a military exercise.

"You will not see people in any sort of mass like that," he said.

During the past year the military has learned a lot about COVID-19 and has been able to do a lot of its normal training functions, Rutland said.

When 500 Canadian soldiers recently attended a training exercise at Fort Polk, La., none had to be pulled off the field because of COVID-19, he said.


Paige Parsons is an award-winning Edmonton-based reporter. She can be reached at paige.parsons@cbc.ca.


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