Canadian military assembles 'rapid reaction' teams to help with pandemic response

The Canadian military has mobilized 24,000 full-time and part-time members to respond to calls from provinces and northern Indigenous communities for help with pandemic measures, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said Monday.

Teams could deliver badly-needed medical supplies or render aid in remote communities

Members of the Canadian Armed Forces help two elderly people return to pick up some belongings in their flooded home in Sainte-Marthe-sur-le-Lac, Que., in 2019. The military has mobilized 24,000 members to take part in pandemic response measures. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

The Canadian military will mobilize up to 24,000 full-time and part-time members to respond to calls from provinces and northern Indigenous communities for help with pandemic measures, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said Monday.

The military's "rapid reaction" teams will be available for a range of missions, such as delivering medical supplies and supporting remote communities that may be vulnerable to COVID-19 outbreaks.

"When Canada needs our Armed Forces, they're always there," Sajjan said today during the daily ministerial briefing. "They've shown that in great times of difficulty, Canadians never face hardship alone."

At least 10 regular force units on bases across the country have troops and equipment set aside to take action. A few weeks ago, whole sections of the military were ordered to stay home and stay healthy in case they're needed.

"Those who wear the uniform will be there for Canadians when called upon," Sajjan said.

Chief of Defence Staff Jonathan Vance and Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan listen to a question during a news conference in Ottawa, Monday, March 30, 2020. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

The announcement is the first concrete indication the Liberal government is prepared to call on troops to deliver humanitarian relief, including medical assistance, within Canada.

The role of the Armed Forces in the COVID-19 crisis thus far has been limited to providing medical teams to screen evacuees from China, and to providing those people with isolation shelter at the country's largest military air base in Trenton, Ont.

At the moment, no formal requests for what's known as "aid to the civil power" have been submitted to the federal government, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Monday during his daily press briefing outside of his home at Rideau Cottage in Ottawa.

The military's humanitarian interventions would revolve around helping to prevent the further spread of the coronavirus, delivering humanitarian supplies and supporting provinces and municipalities with things like transport and communications to keep local governments functioning.

"We're going to be able to respond either with specialist capabilities like medical and logistics engineers for short duration or for longer-duration events, depending upon what the need of the provinces is," said Gen. Jonathan Vance, the chief of the defence staff.

Local commanders given leeway

The military teams also could backstop other federal or provincial government departments by performing virus checks under an enhanced testing regime.

New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs said that, broadly, his province is seeing people comply with stay-at-home orders, but there are some going to beaches and parks and he wants it to stop. 

"We're doing to clamp down on that, we are going to enforce that. Now, do I think I need the military right now to enforce that? I'd like to say no, but we want to keep people apart, we want to keep people in their homes and we want to ensure that essential services can operate in a safe manner for employees."

"I'm not ready for the military just yet but I have been talking to the base commander and they're certainly on standby to assist us in any way that they can," said Higgs. "I'm open to any possibility to keep our citizens safe and healthy."

Quebec authorities have called on public health institutions and police to help enforce local quarantines. The military also has the potential to backstop such orders, but Sajjan sidestepped a reporter's question Monday about whether the government is prepared to allow that.

He said "each unique circumstance" will dictate what the military does, but local commanders will have the flexibility to do what's necessary.

The navy has designated warships that will be prepared to respond on short notice to coastal communities that might need help, the defence department said in a statement late Monday.

In the Pacific, the frigate HMCS Regina and the coastal defence vessel HMCS Brandon, currently conducting training exercises at sea, have been assigned to pandemic response.

HMCS Ville de Québec, another patrol frigate, and HMCS Moncton are being readied on the East Coast. Crew members from both of those ships will be sequestered in a Halifax hotel prior to their departure to ensure they don't contract the virus.

HMCS Regina conducts a replenishment at sea with U.S. Naval Ship Patuxent in the Gulf of Aden on Dec. 4, 2012. (Cpl. Rick Ayer/National Defence)

Crews being isolated

"Different options were considered to isolate the crews, including keeping them onboard their respective ships or housing them in accommodations at CFB Halifax, however the civilian hotel option was selected because it provides the most flexibility and the best chance to reduce the risk of our sailors becoming infected with COVID-19 as much as possible," said the military statement.

"We recognize this will be very difficult on our sailors and their families, being in Halifax but not being able to be together."

A date for them to begin their isolation hasn't been set, as arrangements are being made with the hotel.

The Canadian air force is continuing with search and rescue operations and NORAD flights, but the defence department said it has put in place strict guidelines for aircrew and technical crew traveling on operations.

"They must be asymptomatic and follow strict measures for the wearing of [Personal Protective Equipment], as well as infection prevention and control protocols," the statement said.

The U.S. Air Force has been shuttling COVID-19 test kits to various parts of the country, while the Pentagon has turned thousands of ventilators over to overstretched civilian hospitals.

While the Canadian military has transport capacity to move supplies around, it does not have an oversupply of medical equipment and personal protective equipment.

The Americans also have used their combat engineers to help extend hospital infrastructure to support more patients.

Recently, the Italian military employed specialists to help the country increase production of medically-necessary ventilators that help the most critically-ill patients breathe. It also deployed soldiers to help move bodies in one northern Italian town where the mortuary was overwhelmed.

Reservists and Canadian Rangers — the Indigenous force that patrols remote northern regions — will be brought into full-time service, Sajjan said.

The government is particularly worried about northern and remote communities where access to health care is limited and critical infrastructure is maintained by only a few individuals.

The Department of National Defence has been in conversation with some northern communities about their pandemic needs, Sajjan said.

Each request for military help will be evaluated based on need, not geography, the minister added.


Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.

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