Advertisement

COMMENTARY: Trudeau and Sajjan should keep troops at Quebec’s long-term care homes

Canadian Armed Forces personnel arrive at the Villa Val des Arbes seniors' residence, Monday, April 20, 2020 in Laval, Que.
Canadian Armed Forces personnel arrive at the Villa Val des Arbes seniors' residence, Monday, April 20, 2020 in Laval, Que. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

A highly critical report published by the influential La Presse news site quoted Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan as being “fiercely” opposed to Quebec Premier François Legault’s appeal for help. It said that as the result of Ottawa’s refusal to continue helping the province, which has been hit far harder by the coronavirus than any other, it would have to quickly come up with “a Plan B” to deal with the crisis, which is largely concentrated in homes for the elderly.

As La Presse highlighted in its sour analysis, the fracas will unnecessarily harm the mountain of goodwill that Ottawa and the military received when the troops were sent into the homes six weeks ago. It will confound and anger Quebecois already reeling from months of dire medical news and with the virus still killing dozens in the province every day.

READ MORE: Quebec long-term care homes grappling with major challenges, military report outlines

Ottawa’s decision to be stingy about continuing to render this assistance while freely writing checks to pay for so much else related to the pandemic is odd. Though the army is obviously not specifically designed to assist with national health emergencies, especially after years of federal budget cutbacks to its tiny medical corps, it still has far more capability to help out than any other government or private agency.

Story continues below advertisement

During my years in the field reporting on the Canadian Armed Forces, I have never seen a branch more dedicated to its mission than the troops of the Royal Canadian Medical Service (RCMS). And that’s saying something, because whether they be pilots, aircraft maintainers, surface or subsurface mariners, firemen or ground combat forces, Canadians should be proud of how highly motivated and professional their men and women in uniform are.

My most recent exposure to the RCMS was last summer in Mali. One afternoon, with temperatures well into the 40s, I flew on an RCAF Chinook helicopter to a patch of the western Sahara more or less under the control of jihadis associated with Islamic State and al-Qaeda. Once there, a swarm of doctors, nurses and medics guarded by infantrymen of the Royal 22nd Regiment simulated the retrieval from the battlefield of two wounded UN peacekeepers and provided them with extraordinary state-of-the-art care on the flight back to the Canadian base at Gao.

WATCH (Sept. 14, 2018): An exclusive look inside the lives of Canadian peacekeepers in Mali

Exclusive: Inside the lives of Canadian peacekeepers in Mali
Exclusive: Inside the lives of Canadian peacekeepers in Mali

Speaking after the highly realistic medevac exercise, some of the scores of people involved enthusiastically told me that despite the extreme heat and constant dust, helping people in this way was exactly the kind of work they had signed up to do. Even the Vandoos got totally into the medical mission. The trigger pullers had taken additional first aid training and volunteered to help out as something like hospital orderlies from the moment their security function on the ground ended and the helicopter was airborne again.

Story continues below advertisement

The only complaint from the several hundred Canadians in Mali was that they were frustrated that after several years talking up the virtues of peacekeeping, and having put together a world-class medevac capability, the Trudeau government only sent the medical mission to Mali for about one year before pulling the plug, despite repeated UN requests to Ottawa to prolong the mission.

COMMENTARY: Canada’s war in Afghanistan was complicated, but it was no failure

The selflessness that I saw in Mali was repeated many times over during the years I lived with Task Force Afghanistan. Like a Korean War MASH unit, the Canadian surgeons and operating room nurses deployed to the highly sophisticated NATO Role 3 hospital run by Canada at the Kandahar Airfield would sit in the shade near the runway, waiting for helicopters to arrive from the battlefield with the wounded. There were so many wounded with catastrophic blast, burn and head injuries that the medical teams never had to wait long before having to confront life-and-death decisions regarding triage and complicated surgeries.

The biggest unsung heroes I saw in South Asia were the medics who walked the same dangerous ground as Canada’s infantry. After a mine strike or an ambush, their job was to keep the shattered wounded alive long enough for helicopters to get them to the airfield hospital where they would be stabilized before the long air journey to the world-renowned U.S. military hospital at Landstuhl, Germany, and to hospitals back in the U.S. and Canada.

Story continues below advertisement

Brave does not begin to describe Canada’s military medics. Usually bright, modest and uniformly civic-minded, many of them planned upon their return home to become paramedics, nurses or doctors.

The most poignant of the many ramp ceremonies for Canada’s fallen that I attended in Kandahar was for two medics. Several thousand NATO troops turned out in 2010 to honour and remember Master Cpl. Kristal Giesebrecht and Pte. Andrew Miller, who were killed by an improvised explosive device to the southwest of Kandahar City on June 26, 2010.

What Canadians learned this spring — and not for the first time — is that when the country is in trouble, the Armed Forces will do everything it can to help out, be it with floods, forest fires or ice storms. Respect from the troops only grew last week when Legault and Ontario Premier Doug Ford released a shocking Department of National Defence report that highlighted the abuse and poor care in some of the homes for the elderly after decades of government neglect.

Story continues below advertisement

It dishonours the memory of soldiers of the timber of Giesebrecht and Miller and insults the 28 members of the Canadian Forces who have been infected with COVID-19. that the federal government intends to withdraw troops from homes in Quebec only six weeks after they arrived and even as the province’s senior citizens remain at the epicentre of the pandemic.

Given that many of the troops who have been deployed in Quebec are reservists and not drawn from the regular forces, it is difficult to accept Sajjan’s explanation that Legault’s request has put unreasonable strains on the war-fighting capabilities of the Armed Forces. Nor does the appeal for help through September, which in the absence of official estimates, I reckon will cost about $90 million, seem to be out of line considering the many tens of billions that Ottawa is spending to dealing with the lethal virus and its economic consequences.

Sajjan, himself an Afghanistan veteran, and Prime Minister Trudeau, who seldom betrays much interest in or support for the Canadian Armed Forces, must urgently reconsider the decision to snub Quebec’s request that military personnel continue to assist in long-term care facilities. Lives depend on it.

Matthew Fisher is an international affairs columnist and foreign correspondent who has worked abroad for 35 years. You can follow him on Twitter at @mfisheroverseas