24,000 Canadian military members ready to respond — if asked — to COVID-19 crisis

Click to play video: 'Coronavirus outbreak: Sajjan outlines role of Canadian Forces in combating COVID-19'
Coronavirus outbreak: Sajjan outlines role of Canadian Forces in combating COVID-19
WATCH: Minister Sajjan outlines role of Canadian Forces in combating COVID-19 – Mar 30, 2020

The federal government has mobilized 24,000 members of the Canadian Armed Forces — nearly one-quarter of all regular and reserve members —  to help provincial and municipal authorities who may need support during the novel coronavirus pandemic with everything from delivering supplies to assisting civilian authorities enforcing quarantine orders.

So far, no provincial government has asked for the help of the Armed Forces, but Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan and Gen. Jonathan Vance, chief of the defence staff, said Monday that the Canadian Forces have been planning and preparing for the day when those requests might be made.

“We will be there. We’re ready to help,” Sajjan said.

In the meantime, the single biggest task for the CAF’s 67,492 regular service members over the last several weeks has been to stay healthy. Training exercises have been postponed or cancelled, recruiting programs have been put on pause and orders have been in place for weeks now for CAF members to practise social distancing.

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“We’ve been preparing a long time for this,” Vance said. “We’ve got the troops sequestered staying as healthy as possible.”

On Monday, Rear Admiral Craig Baines, commander of Maritime Forces Atlantic, ordered the crews of the HMCS Ville de Québec and the HMCS Moncton, along with a Cyclone helicopter detachment, to be ‘sequestered’ on April 1 in order to preserve their health. The Ville de Québec is a Halifax-class frigate with a crew complement of about 225 while the Moncton is a Kingston-class coastal defence vessel with a complement of about 40. The home ports of both vessels are in Halifax.

“During this time, tough decisions need to be made in order to preserve the Royal Canadian Navy’s ability to assist the civilian authorities and Canadians during this pandemic,” Baines wrote in a letter published Monday on Twitter.

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Sajjan said his direction to Vance was to prepare plans to deploy CAF members with three priorities: slow the spread of the virus; support vulnerable communities, with particular attention to Indigenous and northern communities; and maintain the CAF’s ability to respond to civil authorities who need help to respond to fires and floods.

“For the [chief of defence staff] and the executive leadership of the Canadian Armed Forces right now, it’s all hands on deck,” said Lt.-Gen. (Ret’d) Alain Parent, who finished his career in 2018 as Vance’s vice-chief of the defence staff. “The first thing is protect the force. And by protecting the force, what they mean is they need to stay healthy.”

The message to stay healthy was drilled home by Vance in an extraordinary five-page letter sent to each force member and posted on the CAF website.

“The health of the CAF will be critical in the days and weeks to come,” Vance wrote. “We have scaled back virtually all activities in the CAF to help you as individuals prevent the spread within the CAF and within our communities in Canada. Our method is to keep as many people isolated at home or in quarters as possible.

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“For those of you who are isolated at home or in quarters — this is your place of duty and your duty is to prevent the spread by ceasing contact with those outside your home or quarters except for essential shopping for the necessities of life and individual [physical training] outside.”

Sajjan said the country’s reservists “are being brought into full-time service and will be part of an integrated Canadian Armed Forces response.”

The Canadian Forces has 31,062 reservists and 5,319 Canadian Rangers .

The Department of National Defence subsequently clarified Sajjan’s remarks to say that only “available” reservists and Rangers would be put into service. 

But the department could not immediately say how many “available” reservists were being put into service nor could it say when the order was made for reservists.

Parent said Vance and his commanders will be preparing for a broad range of tasks.

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“If it’s required medical support, field hospitals, transport, logistics, building makeshift infrastructure, some surveillance, security, augmenting law enforcement, augmenting first responders and doing whatever they can do in their power and with the capacity that they have to help Canadians get through this,” Parent said.

“There’s nothing more rewarding than you know that you made a difference in helping your citizen inside your own country,” Parent said. “They’re going to show up with professionalism. They’re going to show up with the intent to be helpful and to really augment the capacities that are out there.”

In the meantime, the Canadian Forces may be struggling to find enough men and women to do everything that will be asked of it. Vance, in his March 27, said recruitment has ceased and no new recruits are being trained. He did not say when that pause was placed. And, he’s also asked those about to retire or leave the CF to consider postponing their departure while asking those who’ve recently retired from the CF to return to the force.

“We have paused entry level individual training and throughput, normal releases will shrink the force and the posting cycle is set to occur at the same time [provincial governments] are most likely to demand we be all in. Something has to give,” Vance wrote in this March 27 letter.
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