Armed Forces deploys almost all of its medical capacity against pandemic in Quebec nursing homes

The Canadian military has stripped bases across the country of their uniformed medical personnel to support long-term care homes in Quebec that have been overrun by COVID-19.

'We're all in and going as quickly as we can' — Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan

A member of the Canadian Armed Forces stands outside the CHSLD Yvon Brunet in Montreal. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

The Canadian military has stripped bases across the country of their uniformed medical personnel to support long-term care homes in Quebec that have been overrun by COVID-19.

'We're all in and going as quickly as we can," Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said today as he updated the public on the deployment of troops in response to the global pandemic.

The government of Quebec Premier Francois Legault asked Ottawa for 1,000 soldiers to backstop the homes — mostly in the greater Montreal area, which has been a pandemic hotspot. That request was followed quickly by a similar, smaller one from the Ontario government.

Sajjan said the military has just more than 1,000 soldiers deployed in Quebec now — a mixture of medical staff and general troops. By mid-May that number is expected to grow to 1,350, covering 25 long-term care facilities.

That represents an increase in the number of locations in Quebec where military personnel will be deployed. The commander of the military's pandemic response, Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin, recently told CBC News that he anticipates operating out of 20 locations in the province; he cautioned at the time that assessments by the reconnaissance team were still underway.

In Ontario, 250 soldiers are at work in five seniors' homes.

"This is not a typical Canadian Armed Forces operation," Sajjan said, adding the troops, who are being drawn from different branches of the military, are proud to help out.

The country's top military commander, Gen. Jonathan Vance, said each team at each location is led by military medical personnel who provide hands-on care for seniors as required, and are supported by soldiers who carry out "orderly" functions and other light duties.

Chief of Defence Staff Jonathan Vance responds to a question during a news conference Thursday in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

The Armed Forces' medical capacity, meant to serve those in uniform and keep them healthy, is finite. In order to cover the large deployment in Quebec, Sajjan said, the military has had to reduce the number of medical staff at bases across the country to "bare bones" levels.

"We're bringing every free Canadian Armed Forces medical personnel into this fight," he said. "We only have a certain capacity inside the Canadian Armed Forces of medical personnel. We are pulling in all of our medical personnel into this fight and we're doing it as quickly as possible."

The troops going into the centres first go through a five-day training regime. Some of that specialized training is provided by the provinces and is designed to address the unique demands of caring for seniors. They're also given instruction in the use of medical personal protective equipment.

Sajjan said the deployments will last until the provinces can rebuild their own cadre of well-trained long-term care support staff.

Watch: Gen. Jonathan Vance describes how military personnel are helping in long-term care homes

Gen. Jonathan Vance, chief of the defence staff, spoke with reporters on Thursday. 1:43

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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