'Nothing like I've ever done before': COVID-19 poses new challenge for Canadian Rangers

Canadian Rangers are being deployed to strengthen the pandemic response across northern and remote communities.

Canadian Rangers are part of 7,025 Canadian Armed Forces Class C reservists assigned to Operation Laser

The Canadian Rangers usually perform search and rescue operations and respond to natural disasters. (Submitted by Sgt. Peter Moon)

Within 24 hours, Master Cpl. Christopher Keesic expects to receive orders to begin house-to-house checks on the more than 2,400 people living in Moose Factory in far northern Ontario.

It's an escalation of the work he's already doing with the Canadian Rangers to help Moose Cree First Nation prepare for the pandemic.

"People are definitely concerned, especially with COVID-19 being on our doorstep," Keesic said. 

"There is a little fear involved … but it's essentially my job. This is what I signed up to do."

The pandemic poses a new challenge for the Rangers — military reservists whose work usually involves search and rescue operations and responding to forest fires and floods. Now they're faced with an invisible enemy that could surface at any moment.

"It is definitely a little nerve-racking," Keesic said. "Obviously, it's something that nobody was every really prepared for, especially in terms of this large of a scale ... It's nothing like I've ever done before."

Master Corporal Christopher Keesic of Moose Factory says his experience responding to the pandemic with the Canadian Rangers has been rewarding. (Supplied/Sgt. Peter Moon)

Keesic is one of 117 Canadian Rangers out of approximately 700 who have been deployed across 30 northern Ontario communities as part of the Canadian Armed Forces' initial COVID-19 response, said Lt.-Col. Shane McArthur of CFB Borden.

The Rangers are among 7,025 Canadian Armed Forces Class C reservists assigned to support Operation Laser.

The Rangers, who will be wearing personal protective gear, could be tasked with anything from community wellness checks, identifying at-risk individuals and families and monitoring critical infrastructure to transporting supplies, helping to set up remote clinics and supporting COVID-19 awareness programs.

The Rangers won't be involved in any law enforcement activities involving the isolation or transport of ill or infected people, McArthur said.

"We are not the answer to every single problem up there. We are part of a bigger system and a bigger team. We are the initial response," he said.

"We would rotate ourselves and manage our readiness and manage our availability as best we could. There are challenges with that because it is a finite amount of resources."

'Go teams' ready to deploy

The number of deployed Rangers is expected to increase over the course of the operation, which McArthur said is scheduled to run until August 30.

McArthur is putting together so-called "go teams" of six to eight Rangers to react and deploy immediately to communities that don't currently have a Rangers presence.

For example, McArthur said, a team of Rangers was sent to North Spirit Lake, Ont., for 15 days last fall when the community was struggling with a spike in addictions and the failure of the community's water system.

Canadian Rangers will be going house-to-house conducting wellness checks to make sure people have what they need during the pandemic. (Supplied/Joseph Hunter)

He said he has two teams prepared and is putting together two more.

"I know that some of the community members, they're very concerned. They want to make sure that they're being supported just like in the south," McArthur said.

"I believe that with our Rangers on the ground, we can help mitigate that level of anxiety or reassure them that there is a level of support that we can bring to them while they go through this and we work our way through this crisis."

McArthur said the Rangers are well-suited to the task because most are from the communities they serve.

The Rangers are deployed also in northern Quebec's Nunavik region, where there are 11 cases of COVID-19.

Canadian Rangers are well-suited to pandemic response because most are from the communities they serve, said Lt.-Col. Shane McArthur. (Supplied/Sgt. Peter Moon)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau confirmed Wednesday that the Rangers also will be deployed to the Basse-Côte-Nord region in the Gulf of St. Lawrence at the request of the Quebec government.

"I want to thank our women and men in uniform, and the families who serve alongside them, for all that they do, Trudeau said Wednesday during a press conference outside Rideau Cottage.

"Whenever we need you most, you're always there for us."

'Things may become dire'

In northern Ontario, COVID-19 already has struck Eabametoong First Nation, more than 300 kilometres north of Thunder Bay.

Although there aren't any cases of COVID-19 in Moose Factory, an island community on the Moose River off the western shores of James Bay, it's preparing for the worst.

"I believe that they do have the capabilities to handle a single case," Keesic said. "But things may become dire if it becomes a full blown outbreak."

Keesic said he thinks Moose Factory is doing a good job of prevention.

Since rail service has stopped, the only way to get to the community now is by air. Returning community members are subjected to 14 days of self-isolation, he said.

But Keesic added more personal protective equipment is needed, along with volunteers to conduct wellness checks and deliver food and water.

A 'rewarding' experience

About 525 km northwest of Moose Factory in Peawanuck, Master Cpl. Pamela Chookomoolin is on standby. Her isolated Cree community of about 200 is on lockdown.

Master Cpl. Pamela Chookomoolin is on standby, ready to help the community of Peawanuck. (Supplied/Sgt. Peter Moon)

At first, Chookomoolin said she wasn't worried about the virus since her community is so remote, but she said she changed her mind once the Little NHL hockey tournament for First Nations youth — which her son expected to attend — was cancelled in Mississauga, Ont.

"Imagine how many people would've brought that back, COVID-19, if they caught it," Chookomoolin said.

"Now I think about it and, holy cow — we could've gotten sick and brought it back."

Chookomoolin is home taking care of her kids, aged 9 and 15.

"I think I'll be more useful here, I think, if anything should come up," she said. "Hopefully, it will never come here."

So-called "go teams" of six to eight Canadian Rangers are ready to react and deploy immediately to communities without their presence. (Supplied/Sgt. Peter Moon)

Back in Moose Factory, Keesic is on call 24/7. He's working with the chief and council, emergency and health services to identify needs.

Keesic said he's doing this for his six children, who range in age from 13 to nine months. 

"It's definitely a lot more rewarding in a sense that I feel like I'm really starting to help the community," he said.

"I feel like what I'm doing right now is extremely important, especially being a father as well as a community member myself. I just want to do my best to help everybody out and make sure that everybody is safe through this whole thing."


Olivia Stefanovich

Senior reporter

Olivia Stefanovich is a senior reporter for CBC's Parliamentary Bureau based in Ottawa. She previously worked in Toronto, Saskatchewan and northern Ontario. Connect with her on Twitter at @CBCOlivia. Story tips welcome: olivia.stefanovich@cbc.ca.

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