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Should Canada replace its military as the first line of response to domestic disasters?

Tom MacGregor says No

All of Canada’s provinces and territories have had devastating forest fires to deal with in the past year. In late August 2023, the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre reported 1,069 active fires; more than half were listed as out of control. In many cases, the Canadian Armed Forces were called in to assist when the fires overwhelmed local resources.

With such devastation becoming increasingly frequent, many people have called for the creation of a national firefighting service of specially trained members who could fly in to take control when called upon.

This has raised the question of whether the CAF should be replaced as the first agency called in to respond to a natural disaster. I would argue no.

In recent years, the forces have responded to forest fires, floods, mudslides, avalanches, ice storms and high winds—all things which required well-trained responses. The CAF should be the agency that’s called.

The most important attribute of the CAF is to be prepared. That can’t be done solely by training and going on exercises here at home or in co-ordination with Allied countries. The forces need to do important, useful work that may even have an element of danger to it.

A natural disaster requires all the skills that CAF personnel learn, short of firing their weapons. First, responding to a natural disaster, no matter the situation, requires an immense amount of planning. It calls for proper reconnaissance and the gathering of intelligence to properly evaluate the situation. Considering the logistics, equipment and resources that will be needed is also critical. A domestic disaster also calls into use local reserve forces, giving reservists much-needed experience in dealing with an actual crisis.

A natural disaster requires all the skills that CAF personnel learn.

These are not battlefields, either real or simulated. These are real crises involving innocent people. There are ordinary Canadians who are suddenly faced with leaving their homes and valuables. They must be moved, sheltered, directed, protected and sometimes even rescued. Often food and clothing must be supplied, followed by addressing their medical needs.

Certainly, some responses involve an element of danger, especially fighting an out-of-control forest fire, for instance.

This is good experience as valuable training is put to the test in measuring the risk and allotting the proper resources to minimize that threat. And the dangers are real. These are not live-fire exercises that can be halted should anything go wrong. If something does go amiss, it must be dealt with on the spot in a timely manner.

The Canadian Armed Forces are not specifically trained to fight forest fires, but they do have a record of responding to them, just as they have with floods, ice storms and other disasters. There’s no need for specialized forces to deal with each of these situations. The CAF is the right one to call.


Stephen J. Thorne says Yes

Twenty-five years ago, on Jan. 13, 1999, Toronto was under siege. More than 118 centimetres of snow had fallen since Jan. 2 in what became known as “Snowmageddon.”

With the latest dump of 27 centimetres, Mayor Mel Lastman called the city’s second emergency in 10 days and appealed to Defence Minister Art Eggleton, himself a former Toronto mayor, for military relief.

Some 400 soldiers, armed with shovels, subsequently arrived aboard armoured vehicles in one of the Canadian military’s most ignominious moments. Their mission—shovelling sidewalks—became a running joke across the country.

But now, post-Afghanistan, the Canadian Armed Forces are being called on to meet domestic crises more than ever. With changing climate, bigger and more frequent wildfires, more extreme weather events and flooding—along with the recent COVID pandemic—it’s the military, with its labour pool and expertise in co-ordinating complex logistics, that the stricken turn to when they need help.

“Over the past decade, Canada has become more reliant on the CAF to respond to domestic emergencies, which are growing in frequency,” Royal Military College professors Christian Leuprecht and Peter Kasurak wrote in a 2020 paper for the Waterloo, Ont.-based Centre for International Governance and Innovation.

They reported that the CAF performed 30 domestic missions between 2011 and 2020 compared to six between 1990 and 2010. In 2023, it deployed hundreds of personnel to tackle wildfires in Alberta, Nova Scotia, Quebec, Ontario, B.C. and the Northwest Territories, some on multiple occasions.

“If this becomes of a larger scale, more frequent basis, it will start to affect our [combat] readiness.”

For the military, firefighting and flood management is “now becoming a routine occurrence, which it had not been in the past,” the former defence chief, Jonathan Vance, told the Commons defence committee in 2018. So much so, that military plotters have factored seasonal disasters into their annual planning cycles. In March/April, it’s floods; July/August, wildfires.

All this with a military that’s understaffed (by an estimated 16,500 personnel) and underfunded (recently asked to cut nearly $1 billion from its budget) in virtually every area.

By December 2019, the domestic demand was already so great the army chief, then-lieutenant-general Wayne Eyre (now defence chief), said: “If this becomes of a larger scale, more frequent basis, it will start to affect our [combat] readiness.”

A couple of months later, with COVID killing hundreds of abandoned elderly, more than 1,700 CAF personnel were sent to work in long-term care homes (!) while another 22,000 were placed on standby. In total, the Canadian military received 155 requests for assistance during the pandemic.

The answer to the rising demand isn’t the military. It’s veterans—leaders and experts who could form the core of a full-time civilian agency responsible for domestic crisis and disaster response: planners, logistics specialists, engineers, medics, pilots, heavy-equipment operators.

In these tense times, especially, Canada’s military must be given the resources and the consideration to do what most of its members signed up to do: defend the country.


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