National Defence union worried over RMC’s continued operations amid coronavirus pandemic

Click to play video: 'National Defence union worried over RMC’s continued operations amid coronavirus pandemic' National Defence union worried over RMC’s continued operations amid coronavirus pandemic
The union representing national defence workers at Royal Military College of Canada is urging the college to stop large gatherings – Mar 19, 2020

The president of the National Defence union says Royal Military College (RMC) employees are worried about the college’s continued operations in light of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Although the college is closed to visitors, classes continue to run, and according to video and photos obtained by Global News, cadets have been continuing to eat together in the mess hall, despite national directives for social distancing.

READ MORE: 4 Royal Military College cadets in precautionary COVID-19 isolation at CFB Kingston

The individual who sent footage did not want to be identified out of fear for their employment and said sometimes gatherings at the school could reach up to 1,300 people at a time, even after the COVID-19 pandemic was announced. National Defence said that is incorrect, since there are only about 1,000 officer cadets currently attending the school.

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June Winger, national president for the Union of National Defence Employees, says the union has been hearing from employees at RMC concerned about their own well-being, and the health of the cadets.

“Our members are very scared, to be quite frank. Our members are very scared,” Winger said in an interview with Global News Thursday.

“They’re feeling that their health is being jeopardized to complete their work, and they’re not sure that the work that they’re being asked to do is even required at this time.”

Winger said the union has been working with the deputy minister of national defence, Jody Thomas, to try to address the issue.

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Click to play video: 'Coronavirus around the world: March 19, 2020' Coronavirus around the world: March 19, 2020
Coronavirus around the world: March 19, 2020

Thomas has yet to respond to a request for comment.

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Other post-secondary institutions across the country, and locally in Kingston, Ont., have ceased operations for the time being, sent students home from campus and opted for online courses to help reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Video obtained by Global News shows cadets gathering in the mess hall for a meal. Cadets are sitting next to each other at tables and walking around the mess hall to grab food. Although the person who took the video said it was shot this week, Global News has not been able to confirm when the video was taken.

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In an emailed statement, the Department of National Defence said it was scaling down operations across the country to essential services only, but considered training at the RMC to be essential.

“As such, training at entry-level institutions such as the Royal Military College of Canada (RMC), which are core functions for the Canadian Armed Forces, will continue to operate in order to minimize the long-term impact on our force strength and to our key defence functions.”

The statement did say that alternate mess hall protocols had been implemented Wednesday.

“The senior staff mess and the cadet mess bar will be closed until further notice. The cadet mess space will remain available to officer cadets as a location for study, recreation and small group activities,” the statement read.

Cadets have been provided with milk and cereal, a salad bar and wrapped sandwiches for the time being, while mess hall protocols are under review.

Otherwise, RMC has been closed to the public, with the only outside access being academic and support staff, who have been instructed to “self-isolate while not on campus.”

On Tuesday, Premier Doug Ford declared a state of emergency in Ontario, forcing the closure of private schools, sit-down restaurants, recreational facilities, theatres and other services in order to limit large gatherings. Winger said she’s surprised the college didn’t take heed of the province’s warnings and follow suit by ceasing operations or aiming for online classes.

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“Given that Ontario has declared a state of emergency, telling members not to sit in groups of greater than 50, it’s very concerning that the RMC continues to run in this way,” Winger said.

READ MORE: Canada-U.S. border closure amid coronavirus likely to start Friday night

Winger also said military bases across the country with workers she represents — about 18,000 of them — have not been uniform in their response to the pandemic.

“There is not a great deal of continuity across the country,” Winger said.

This is something she and National Defence officials are apparently trying to change Canada-wide.

“We understand National Defence needs to continue to be National Defence and prepare to maintain the safety and security for all Canadians,” Winger said, adding that she knows employees are “proud” to be making that happen.

“Yet at the same time, we feel that it’s very important that the risk assessments be considered and that every precaution designed to prevent the spreading of the virus needs to be implemented by the Royal Military College.”

National Defence said it takes health concerns seriously, but will not be closing operations or moving to alternative modes of teaching.

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“RMC’s mission remains the safety of the members of the CAF and the Defence Team, to finish the academic year, support the graduation of the fourth-year class, protect the ongoing safety of the campus community, and help the larger community slow or prevent the potential spread of the virus.”

A National Defence spokesperson also noted that the college is the primary residence for most cadets, and that no cases of COVID-19 had been reported at the college or at Canadian Forces Base Kingston.

READ MORE: KFL&A Public Health announces 4th case of COVID-19 in Kingston area

On Thursday, KFL&A Public Health announced Kingston’s fourth case of the novel coronavirus.

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