Canada's military feeling the strain responding to climate change

The country's top military commander says Canada's Armed Forces are being pushed to the limit responding to an increasing number of climate-related events such as floods and fires.

Soldiers deployed at home sent to cope with fires, floods

Canadian soldiers work to hold back waters on the Ottawa River in Fitzroy Harbour, Ont., during the 2019 spring flooding. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

This story is part of a CBC News series entitled In Our Backyard, which looks at the effects climate change is having in Canada, from extreme weather events to how it's reshaping our economy.

The country's top military commander says Canada's Armed Forces are being pushed to the limit responding to an increasing number of climate-related events such as floods and fires.

In 2016 the military responded to only one climate disaster, the wildfire in Fort McMurray. But that number jumped to six deployments in each of the following two years.

Gen. Jonathan Vance, the chief of the defence staff, says he needs more men and women to handle these crises and his soldiers need more training to deal with fires and floods.

Just this spring more soldiers were deployed to assist states of emergencies — during floods in Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick as well as wildfires in Alberta — than were deployed overseas.

These calls for assistance are stretching the military beyond what it was originally designed to handle, Vance said in an interview with CBC News.

"Our force structure right now, I would say, is probably too small to be able to deal with all of the tasks," Vance said.

Burden on individual soldiers

Vance said deploying them to help with climate-related events can put a significant burden on individual soldiers and take them away from family life.

"If you think of the average year in the life of a soldier, they might be away six months doing an operation outside of Canada, come home, during that reconstitution period — the period of time that they're with their family, and sort of getting back into swing of things back home — they could be called out again in their thousands to be dealing with the effects of climate change," he said.

Gen. Jonathan Vance, the chief of the defence staff, says the Canadian Armed Forces will need specialized training to deal with an increasing number of climate change disasters. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Vance stressed that the military would never reject a call for help to deal with a climate disaster.

The armed forces have increasingly turned to reservists to help with such situations, but Vance said he suspects they will have to look at specialized training for forces — ones typically used overseas in defence operations — to deal with climate-related emergencies domestically.

"You just can't go out and fight a fire. You need some training to do that. So we're going to need some forces ready at hand, fully trained to be able to support local firefighters and so on," he said.

Arctic melt expected to increase strain

Canada is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world, with Northern Canada and the Arctic heating up three times faster than the global rate, according to a recent report.

Receding ice in the Arctic is expanding interest in northern shipping and resource exploitation — and raising questions about which countries have ownership over the vast Arctic region.

Beyond having to potentially defend Canada's sovereignty in the Arctic, a rise in traffic  — including everything from shipping to tourism vessels — would likely mean an increase in search and rescue operations, Vance said, potentially adding further strain to the armed forces.

"[If] people go into the water or ships [run] aground, it's an emergency that needs to be responded to instantly or people will be hurt or die," he said.

Vance said the military is already gearing up for the changes they expect to come from receding ice in the North, pointing to new Arctic patrol vessels which are meant to increase the military's presence in the region.

"It's happening now. We're not going to be in a just-in-time delivery," he said.

But Vance said more can be done, suggesting Canada and the U.S. need to modernize NORAD to deal with a more accessible Arctic.

"We have to be ahead of curve."

WATCH: Canada's military feeling the strain responding to climate change

Gen. Jonathan Vance says Canada’s Armed Forces are being pushed to the limit responding to climate-related events such as floods and fires. 2:09

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