Defence chief orders a 'stop' to classes at military colleges over COVID-19 crisis

The country's top military commander has ordered a halt to classes at the country's military colleges, as well as a suspension of professional development courses, in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.
A graduating cadet stands at attention at the Royal Military College of Canada commissioning parade to salute the graduating class in Kingston, Ont. (Mary White, DND/Combat Camera)

Training courses at Canadian Armed Forces bases and classes at the country's principal military colleges will largely cease and students will be sent home — to be with their families where possible — the chief of the defence staff said today.

Training and instruction were still being carried out despite the overwhelming number of cancellations, closures and public health warnings in the civilian world related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston, Ont., and the Royal Military College in St-Jean, Que. had partially switched to online classes, except for some engineering courses that required in-person attendance.

Professional development courses, scheduled across the military, were also still on the books for the near-term — even though the federal government has demanded that people go home and stay home to slow the spread of the virus.

"I have directed a stop to most individual training and education," Gen. Jonathan Vance said in a letter to the military community, posted online Tuesday. He described it as a temporary measure.

"We will safely disperse their staff and students home, where and when feasible to do so. To those who 'live in' and can return safely to a secure home environment, you will be directed to do so. To those who cannot, you will continue to live in quarters and be supported."

Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Jonathan Vance speaks to the media at Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston, Ont., on Wednesday March 29, 2017. (Lars Hagberg/Canadian Press)

Cadets at RMC have been confined to the school since the public emergency was implemented; the military says there have been no cases of COVID-19 there.

The Department of National Defence, in a statement to CBC News on Monday, defended keeping the colleges and the training courses operating as a matter of military and academic necessity.

The country's major union of defence employees, whose members support all of the department's activities, questioned the wisdom of the decision to continue operating during a public health crisis when governments — both federal and provincial — were trying to limit all social contact.

The federal civil service and the corporate sector have been sending their people home en masse, and trying to enforce strict limits on crowd size and social interaction.

'Their responsibility will be to stay safe'

The RMC commandant in Kingston, in a letter posted on the college website, said he had been directed to "immediately reduce the student population on campus as much as possible."

Brigadier-General Sébastien Bouchard said officer cadets "will leave the campus once essential administration is completed and arrangements can be made for their travel home, where their responsibility will be to stay safe and healthy (ensure social distancing and practice self-isolation), complete their academic year online, and be ready for follow-on tasks that could include force employment."

He emphasized the school is not "closing," but said those who are going home will not be allowed to return to the campus "for any reason."

Officer cadets who remain behind will be supported by civilian staff, including a medical team that will be asked to embed and isolate at the closed-off facilities.

The public health restrictions will affect the convocation and commissioning ceremonies for the newly minted officers, which will be "limited" and "amended," especially for those who go home, said Bouchard.

"The conferring of degrees will be done in absentia, and the commissioning of our graduating fourth years will be done individually at the Canadian Armed Forces units to which they are posted," he wrote in his note to cadets.

"These were not easy decisions to make, but both of us thank you in advance for your understanding in these extraordinary times. The safety and protection of the entire campus community remain paramount, and like others across this country, we must do everything possible to protect and support each other as we fight the spread of the virus."

A similar message was sent to officer cadets at the college in St-Jean, Que.

About the Author

Murray Brewster

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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