Northern Sask. leaders discuss military response to help contain COVID-19 outbreak

Saskatchewan’s northern half of the province has been hit hard by COVID-19, as on Sunday afternoon, the province indicated more than 80 per cent of active cases, 99 of 122, are located in either the north, or the far north.

No request for military support from province at this time; some northern leaders say military not needed

This checkpoint has been set up at Green Lake, Sask., to track travellers in and out of Northern Saskatchewan. (Don Somers/CBC)

Northern leaders say it may be time to have a conversation about deploying the Canadian Forces to northern Saskatchewan to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

Earlier this week, leaders in Saskatchewan's far north said while many people are following public health orders in place, there are some who are still not getting the message, noting if case numbers continue to climb, "drastic and immediate" action will be taken.

Leonard Montgrand, a northern representative with the Metis Nation – Saskatchewan is one of the northern leaders who said the Canadian Forces may have a role to play in response to the pandemic in Saskatchewan's far north.

While the region is under tight travel restrictions, Montgrand said he's worried the virus will continue to spread between northern communities, at which time it will be even harder to stop, noting having the Canadian Forces in the region may slow the spread. On Sunday, officials said there were 81 cases of COVID-19 recorded in the far north alone. 

Protecting people the priority

Leonard Montgrand, a northern rep with the Metis Nation - Saskatchewan, says the presence of the Canadian Military in the far north may help contain the spread of a COVID-19 outbreak in the region. (CBC)

"If we had the Canadian Forces up here it would show the seriousness of the virus itself in the community. It might wake up some people and it will assist other communities to make sure they don't get the virus," he said. 

"I'm hoping we don't have to get to that point in time, but if it does, it does. If there's nothing else we can do, we have to look after the well-being of our community members, especially our elderly people and people with underlying health conditions." 

Alongside the outbreak in La Loche, the provincial government is dealing with three other outbreaks in the communities of Prince Albert, Lloydminster and Beauval. Saskatchewan's northern half of the province has been hit hard by COVID-19, as on Sunday afternoon, the province indicated more than 80 per cent of active cases, 99 of 122, are located in either the north, or the far north.

No ask from province at this time

On Sunday, Saskatchewan's Public Safety Agency said in a statement there has been no request from the province to activate the Canadian military, nor is one needed at this time. 

However, the statement noted Canadian Rangers, a branch of the Canadian Armed Forces reserves, are providing limited services, like hauling wood and grocery delivery, in the northern communities of Fond du Lac, Hatchett Lake, Wolliston Lake, Ile a la Crosse, and the Lac La Ronge Indian Band. 

A government map shows the number of recorded and active cases in the province of Saskatchewan as of May 3, 2020. (Government of Saskatchewan)

"The Rangers involved are residents of those communities," the statement explained. 

It also noted government officials, and Minister Responsible for First Nations, Métis and Northern Affairs Lori Carr, has been in "regular contact" with northern community leaders and are working to make sure everyone is informed. 

"The SPSA will continue to add additional resources in the coming days to support northern communities," the agency said in the statement. 

Some discussions taking place between MPs 

Conversations around the Canadian Forces preparedness to assist with the outbreak of COVID-19 in northern Saskatchewan have already started at the federal level.

At an Indigenous and Northern Affairs Committee on Friday, questions around federal response, including a military response, were by posed Gary Vidal, member of Parliament for the riding of  Desnethé—Missinippi—Churchill River, to Indigenous Services Canada Minister Marc Miller. 

Member of Parliament Gary Vidal said he feels military presence in the north would help ensure compliance with public-health orders in the region, but says there has to be some personal accountability as well. (Submitted)

Vidal said while people in northern Saskatchewan have to take some personal accountability in terms of fighting the spread of COVID-19, he feels having the military on the ground may help with compliance. 

"For some people that will work and for some people it won't," he said. "Would it help? Yeah, I believe it probably would. But the military, the Indigenous Services Ministry, those people, they have to determine what is the right level of crisis to deploy those resources, because they have to look after Canada as a whole."

Military support for Sask. First Nations not off the table 

Miller was unavailable for an interview with CBC News on this issue.

A statement from the minister's press secretary Vanessa Adams indicated that during the COVID-19 crisis, "the health and well being of Indigenous peoples is our sole focus." 

The statement indicated the federal government has been in close communication with Northern Inter-Tribal Health Authority and are monitoring personal protective equipment in the region, noting as of April 29, the authority had 2,035 boxes of gloves, 11,219 gowns, 8,306 face shields, 20,669 masks and 3,915 N95 respirator masks. 

Minister of Indigenous Services Marc Miller speaks at a press conference on COVID-19 in March. At an Indigenous and Northern Affairs committee meeting on May 1, Miller was asked about the government's response to the outbreak in northern Saskatchewan, including military readiness. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

"We are actively working with Indigenous communities to ensure necessary resources are in place to prevent and combat the spread of COVID-19, including with the Meadow Lake Tribal Council, and the communities of Clearwater River Dene Nation and English River First Nation to ensure necessary resources are in place," Adams said in the statement. 

She says the federal government is "exploring all options" to meet the needs of communities that require alternative resources, with the statement noting this includes, but is not limited to, military support.

 "We will continue to closely monitor the situation and work with the community leadership to address surge capacity needs," she said. 

Military not needed yet: Beauval mayor

Some northern leaders want to do their best to handle the outbreak on their own, without military support. 

"I'm confident our guys at the checkpoint right now are able to handle the situation, they've been doing it very good since day one," said Nick Daigneault, mayor of the Northern Village of Beauval. "I don't feel we would need to have to go to that regard quite yet, as long as everybody's co-operative, which they are right now." 

He said while the community is still on "high alert" he said the north isn't quite at that tipping point. 

"I think as a community we can handle this at this point," he said.

A statement sent to CBC from the Department of National Defence indicated that in partnership with other government departments, the Canadian Armed Forces "is always on stand-by to respond to emergencies in times of need," as requested by the Government of Canada. 

The statement explained that emergencies are first handled at the local level, then provincially, noting the Canadian Forces can be requested through the Government of Canada if an emergency "escalates beyond their capabilities." 

Any request from the provincial government has to be approved by Canada's Ministry of Public Safety, with the request detailing how much help is needed and where it will be targeted.

As of Sunday afternoon, Saskatchewan has conducted 31,572 COVID-19 tests.