I'm calling this meeting to order.
I want to welcome the committee members and witnesses. Thank you for being here today.
Welcome to meeting number five of the House of Commons Standing Committee on National Defence. Pursuant to Standing Order 108(2) and the motion adopted by the committee on Wednesday, October 14, the committee is meeting today to study the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on Canadian Armed Forces operations.
Today's meeting is taking place in a hybrid format pursuant to the House order of September 23. The proceedings will be made available via the House of Commons website. Just so that you are aware, the webcast will always show the person speaking, rather than the entire committee.
With that, I would like to hand this over to Major-General Dany Fortin, chief of staff of the Canadian Joint Operations Command.
I will ask you, General Fortin, to introduce your team. Thank you very much.
Madam Chair and committee members, good afternoon.
Thank you for the invitation to discuss the role that the Canadian Armed Forces has played in this whole-of-government response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
As mentioned, I'm Major-General Dany Fortin. I'm currently the chief of staff of the Canadian Joint Operations Command, which oversees the execution of domestic and expeditionary operations.
I am accompanied today by Rear-Admiral Rebecca Patterson, the commander of the Canadian Armed Forces health services group.
Also with me are Brigadier-General Conrad Mialkowski, commander of the 4th Canadian Division and Joint Task Force (Central), headquartered in Toronto and
Brigadier-General Gervais Carpentier, commander of the 2nd Canadian Division and Joint Task Force (East),
headquartered in Montreal.
We have been closely involved in the planning and execution of Operation Laser, the CAF response to the pandemic.
As COVID-19 evolved and took on global pandemic proportions last March, a great deal was unknown. The CAF and DND rapidly adopted measures designed to protect their own members and position the force to be able to respond effectively to the priorities of the Government of Canada in close co-ordination with our federal, provincial and territorial partners.
The CAF went through a wide range of scenario-based planning and prepared for a potential large-scale and enduring domestic response to pandemic-related requests for assistance across the country. Nonetheless, we also had to be poised for the possibility of having to simultaneously assist Canadians dealing with floods and wild fires during a pandemic.
We ensured that general purpose task forces were ready to deploy in each of our six regional joint task forces. Royal Canadian Air Force assets were assigned specific support roles and others put on reduced notice to move. Ships and crews were made available on each coast, and Canadian Rangers were activated to support the unique needs of our isolated communities.
At the peak of the first wave, thousands of service members, many with stay-at-home orders, were mobilized under a pan-national joint task force Laser. Others were dispersed and on standby to support.
The CAF has provided unwavering support to Canadians across the nation throughout this unprecedented crisis. Canadian Rangers were instrumental in reinforcing the public health measures in their communities. Logistics experts helped Public Health Agency colleagues strengthen the medical PPE chain, and Canadian Armed Forces health professionals assisted with contact tracing, among other things.
But what Canadians may remember the most was our support to long-term care facilities. In April, the Government of Canada received requests for assistance in managing the deteriorating situation in long-term care facilities in the provinces of Quebec and Ontario.
From April to June 2020, the CAF deployed approximately 1,700 medical and non-medical support personnel in total to provide support to afflicted long-term care facilities identified by provincial authorities. These members, who included a number of CAF medical personnel, were properly trained and were equipped with medical-grade PPE. This ensured that they were prepared to carry out this non-standard military task to safely and effectively support a uniquely vulnerable population. Our effort helped curb the crisis and stabilize the situation in a total of 54 facilities: 47 in greater Montreal and seven in the greater Toronto area.
Our CAF members exemplified selfless service while working alongside dedicated health care workers, contributing to saving many lives.
The leaders have an ultimate obligation to the troops they lead to ensure they are as protected as they can be. As I previously mentioned, all of our troops were provided with approved medical grade PPE and were trained in its use. Still, 55 Canadian Armed Forces members—41 in Quebec and 14 in Ontario—working in long-term care facilities tested positive for COVID-19. All recovered and none have required hospital care.
We also recognized that this deployment could affect our members mentally as well as physically. So we mobilized mental health support during the deployment to ensure that those who needed it had access to that support.
As previously stated to the committee by my colleague Major General Cadieu, CAF members assigned to long-term care facilities had a duty to report their findings while taking immediate corrective action alongside civilian colleagues to provide dignified care and avoid becoming threat vectors themselves.
Let me close by acknowledging that we have all learned a great deal over the last months, as have Canadians. The safety, well-being and resilience of CAF and DND personnel are always our paramount concern. CAF and DND remain poised to support Canadians alongside our colleagues in other departments and agencies. Lessons from the first wave were internalized. We have since procured more PPE and are in the process of gaining our own testing capability.
Today, liaison officers are engaged with our federal, provincial and territorial teammates to ensure a shared awareness and anticipate government contingency planning. CAF personnel are supporting the Public Health Agency of Canada with a plan for COVID-19 vaccine distribution. The CAF has carefully resumed recruiting and training, both distributed and in CAF establishments across the country, with strict adherence to health protection measures.
The CDS and the deputy minister gave direction to the CAF and the Department of National Defence to adopt robust risk mitigation, protect the force and stand ready to conduct operations in support of the nation.
Madam Chair, ladies and gentlemen, we look forward to taking your questions.
Thank you, Madam Chair.
First, I want to thank all the witnesses for being here. I want to say that we're grateful for the role that they play in the forces.
The pandemic has been challenging for everyone, and they're no exception. I want them to know that I'm asking these questions to gather information on the operations conducted, not to judge the decisions made.
Some of my constituents who work in health care are concerned. Right now, in my region of Saguenay—Lac-Saint-Jean, we have the highest rate of COVID-19 infections. The situation isn't getting better at all. We've already exceeded the number of cases reported in Montreal yesterday. The health care system is struggling. Many people in remote areas are asking questions. They're worried, which is completely normal.
I want to know a bit more about the steps that lead to military involvement in health care. Who makes the request? To whom is the request made? How is the request delivered?
Thank you for your question, Mr. Brunelle-Duceppe. I'll respond in French.
As noted, the pandemic is, and has been, extremely challenging for everyone across the country.
I'll give you an overview of the process. Both provincial and territorial authorities voice their needs within their own systems. In the provinces, including Quebec, these requests must be made in such a way that they're referred to Public Safety Canada at the federal level.
The requests are discussed at the federal level by Public Safety Canada and National Defence officials. Based on the decision of our minister and, of course, the advice of the chief of the defence staff, who is responsible for providing the best possible advice on the use of military force, the requests will be accepted, if appropriate.
Thank you for your question, Mr. Brunelle-Duceppe.
Exactly. However, I'd say that the process isn't quite as straightforward as you might think. Each request is different. Some situations are perhaps a little less abstract for most Canadians, such as floods or forest fires. The province's capacity is overwhelmed. We'll determine whether we can seek additional assistance at the federal level, either from the Department of National Defence or from another department.
I'll add that our liaison officers' network always works closely with provincial and territorial authorities. Specifically in Quebec, we maintain close ties with Geneviève Guilbault, the deputy premier of Quebec and public safety minister. In addition, as you've seen during the pandemic, we've developed a relationship with the Quebec department of health and social services, or MSSS.
Thank you for your question, Mr. Brunelle-Duceppe.
I want to point out that, based on our experience last spring and summer, we've continued—although in an extremely gradual and cautious manner—the training and force generation activities for our activities or operations abroad. We've maintained our capacity so that we remain prepared to meet the various needs of Canadians.
On that note, elements of the Canadian Armed Forces, or CAF, are called upon to respond to a range of potential activities—and they're ready to respond. While natural events such as fires, forest fires or floods are unlikely to occur in the coming months, this capacity remains in place.
We've also learned several lessons and taken into account our observations over the spring. We've incorporated them into our decision-making and force preparation process.
Thank you for your question, Mr. Brunelle-Duceppe.
We were able to learn both important and innocuous lessons. For example, we learned how to make sure that we have a good supply of personal protective equipment. We had some inventory, but we acquired more. We continue to do this at the federal level, as do all other entities, including provincial entities. So we have more equipment.
We also developed a training program geared towards providing support in seniors' residences and long-term care facilities, or CHSLDs. If we had to respond to a request for assistance, this program could be implemented throughout the Canadian Armed Forces.
We have a customized program to ensure that the people called upon to help not only have good medical skills, but are also prepared to meet the specific needs associated with geriatric care.
Thank you, Madam Chair.
I've found that if I don't move my head and I don't move my hand, this appears to work. Let me try that. I apologize to committee members for any inadvertent replies as we were trying to fix the technical problems.
I also want to thank the witnesses for being with us today.
I have some questions about the impact of the large percentage of contracted-out services within DND during COVID. I realize it may be difficult for some of our witnesses to answer, but let me set the context here.
Nearly five years ago, I asked about these high levels of contracting out and their impacts on force readiness and the security of facilities and equipment, and in particular the problem of having workers working for private contractors who are in a precarious employment situation and the possible pressures that can be placed on them.
I heard very clearly from the Public Service Alliance of Canada and from others that at the beginning of COVID, when the Canadian Forces put in place very strict standards for safety and protection of personnel, these same standards of protection, and in fact PPE, were not applied by all the private contractors working side by side with both Canadian Armed Forces members and civilian employees of DND.
I wonder whether you can comment on that problem. What measures have been taken to make sure the private contractors achieve the same standards during COVID as the Canadian Armed Forces and DND civilian employees?
Thank you, Madam Chair.
I think I'll shape this in terms of public health measures.
Public health measures apply to the facilities and the people who work within those facilities. From a health services perspective, we have provided the public health measures advice based on provincial guidance and guidelines, as well as any more restrictive requirements based on the chief of the defence staff and deputy minister's direction. Anybody working within a DND facility is expected to follow those rules.
We also have people who enforce those rules, standing at the doors as people come into the facilities. While I cannot comment on any specific cases, specific types of contractors or locations, there have been, from both the department and from the Canadian Armed Forces' perspective, expectations of maintaining these protective health measures as part of the conditions of entering into any defence establishment.
Thank you, witnesses, for being here today and for your service to Canada.
The chief public health officer has said recently, in fact just yesterday, that our daily cases of COVID-19, which are around 5,000, are about to double to 10,000. They could double again to 20,000 and maybe skyrocket to 60,000 by the end of this year.
I wonder if that is consistent with the medical intelligence branch's modelling and predictions. Is that what you guys are also seeing happening?
Thank you for the question. We're very mindful that we live among society and therefore are subject to the same regulations and the same measures. The guidance is that we follow local, provincial and territorial measures. That's the first point.
The other issue I'd like to emphasize is that the chief of the defence staff and the deputy minister jointly published a directive to the department and to the CAF on business resumption, with a set of guiding principles and a very logical lay-down of the measures by phase, if you will, or by levels. We've certainly demonstrated that we're prepared to adopt very strict measures to protect the forces, but also to ensure that we're not putting Canadians at risk.
That is the angle we're taking. We'll continue to adapt moving forward, being mindful that some of the training needs to continue and that some very specific training needs to happen, for instance, for its military operations. We've put together the right parameters to ensure that's done safely, and that will minimize the cracks in the armour, if you can pardon my analogy.
Madam Chair, thank you very much.
I would like to thank our team of witnesses for their distinguished service as senior officers of the Canadian Armed Forces and, through them, also thank the women and men who are serving under their command.
My first question is a question that I would like you to take on notice.
Major-General Fortin, there's a lot of discussion locally in civilian communities about the impact of COVID-19—as we see in the headlines—and appropriate response measures. Could you provide the committee with an analysis of which trades in the Canadian Armed Forces are most impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, either directly as they involve potential front-line exposure, or indirectly with respect to logistics, movement control, training or other trades?
Thank you, Madam Chair.
I think I mentioned this earlier, if I got the question right. We very much have adopted force health protection measures—all of the public health measures that we adopt in the country—and have added an additional layer in very specific cases and very specific regions. As we prepare the force for deployment, we're very mindful of that.
As I mentioned earlier, for our activities abroad, our force protection was and continues to be conducted with no degradation, but we're very mindful that this represents a higher training bill, if I may say so, in terms of ensuring that people are isolated prior to conducting certain force generation activities, and that they are conducted in a different way so that we continue to factor COVID into everything we do.
Thank you for the question.
Concerning Operation IMPACT, especially our activities in Iraq, owing to a change in geopolitical dynamics and a growing threat over the past few months, our forces have been reduced for protection reasons, but also because of a decline in the Iraqi security forces' training activities.
Certain activities are being taken up again. Most activities of the Combined Joint Task Force of Operation INHERENT RESOLVE, or CJTF-OIR, and of the NATO mission in Iraq, which we are commanding for a few days, are mainly focused on training related to the institutional reform of security.
The strategic environment in Iraq being a bit more complex, I cannot give you a full answer on that, but this gives you some indication of the scope of our activities.
Good afternoon, Madam Chair.
I thank Mr. Brunelle-Duceppe for the question.
Owing to the current pandemic, we have had to adapt our ways of conducting operations and training. Our approach is more local. There is collective training and mandated training that could sometimes take place outside the province—in our situation, outside Valcartier—but we have concentrated the bulk of our operations in Valcartier.
By taking those steps, we can reach the set objectives in training and education in order to be ready for 2nd Canadian Division's next high operational availability cycle of as of next summer. To answer the question, I would say that we are maintaining a good number of activities, while obviously respecting the health protection measures implemented by the Canadian Forces.
I want to return to the question of the threat to the health and safety of the Canadian Forces presented by high levels of contracting out. I don't think that most people would be aware that the value of contracts for contracted out personnel represents about a third of the total budget of the Canadian Forces, both those in the Canadian Forces and DND personnel costs, so about a third of all personnel are operating under these contracts.
In October 2020, the Public Service Alliance of Canada published a report called “In the interest of safety and security”. On pages 24 and 25 of that report, they report some very disturbing things happening during COVID. One of those is, of course, the fact that the employees of private contractors often have no sick leave or inadequate sick leave provisions, which force them into the choice of working either immune-compromised when they should be in isolation, or not being able to buy food and pay rent.
The second concern they raise is that they were contacted as a union by employees of private contractors who told them that they were instructed not to raise health concerns directly with DND, that they had to go through the contractor. The the allegation is that those health concerns were not being passed on to DND.
Are measures being taken to make sure that we do not have people who are sick working under those private contracts? Secondly, are health concerns raised by those workers being effectively communicated to DND and the Canadian Armed Forces?
Thank you very much, Madam Chair.
Major-General Fortin, Rear-Admiral Patterson, Brigadier-General Mialkowski and Brigadier-General Carpentier, thank you for being here and for your service to Canadians.
Admiral Patterson, it's good to see you again today. You were with us here answering questions the last time. I have to say that there aren't too many people I know who, after having submitted themselves to a couple of hours of questioning at one committee meeting, sign up for another couple of hours. Thank you, in particular, for being with us again today.
I had the chance in our last meeting to thank the members of the armed forces for their service as part of Operation Laser. Once again, I just want to briefly extend my thanks to all of you for your service and the service of the men and women under your command.
One of the long-term care residences in which you served is the Eatonville Care Centre in my riding of Etobicoke Centre. That was one of the initial five in which you served in Ontario. We're mourning the loss to COVID-19 of 42 residents of the Eatonville Care Centre.
I know your service was essential not only to providing care but also to saving lives, and for that, I and my community are grateful. I'd like to extend my thanks to you, but also I'd ask you to pass along my thanks to the men and women under your command.
I'd also like to thank you again for documenting what you found in those long-term care homes and some of the horrendous conditions and, frankly, in some cases, abusive practices you discovered, which have led to a lot of advocacy by me and a number of my caucus colleagues. I've been advocating for change in long-term care homes, including having national standards.
It's because of your disclosure and that transparency you provided that this action was taken and subsequent action is being taken to address those problems. I thank you for that as well, because you have made a difference for seniors—I hope and expect—for years and generations to come.
My first question is about Operation LASER. Can you tell us how many members of the Canadian Forces participated in Operation LASER? How many homes were they in? What influence did the Canadian Forces have through Operation LASER?
Madam President, thank you. I apologize. We froze for a second here, so I missed part of the answer, but I am grateful that my colleague was able to answer part of it.
I would say that at the peak of the spring period, forces were identified and were ready to respond to a wide range of scenarios, as I indicated earlier. At its peak, we had about 24,000 personnel identified, many of whom were on stay-at-home orders but by name were put against a specific task. Airplanes were in the air; ships were at sea and forces were ready to respond to a wide range of scenarios, as I indicated earlier, to a total of 24,000 personnel.
Of course, as you realize, nearly 1,700 people were committed to helping in long-term care facilities in Quebec and Ontario. That represents the majority of the folks who were actually involved in providing that level of support.
Thank you for the question.
There have been direct and significant impacts on CHSLDs and long-term care facilities in Quebec and Ontario. Without a doubt, the presence of Canadian Forces members at those places has helped save lives when the situation was chaotic and health workers in those establishments were completely overwhelmed.
As far as other contributions go, there were many unknowns about the situation that took place in the spring. This was a completely appropriate response, considering what was at risk of happening—that is, increased demand after floods or forest fires, as we have seen.
This year, we have been extremely lucky in terms of floods and forest fires across the country. We were worried about potentially having to both respond to disasters of that nature and to a situation that was perhaps to require increased presence in all sorts of activities related to the pandemic.
Following that experience during the second wave and while society was restarting, we know that it would have been appropriate to reduce the number of staff in the short term. We will be able to increase the number should the situation require that.
Thank you for the question.
I will say a few words and, if it's okay with you, I will then yield the floor to Rear Admiral Patterson and Brigadier-General Carpentier, who will be able to give you more clarifications on situations related to Quebec and to what we have done there.
I'd like to start off by saying that we are extremely careful. The well-being of troops and members of the defence team is a crucial priority within the department. We are also very aware that robust leadership on the ground, well-connected to the situation and to our staff, is often key in mental health challenge cases.
We have a program to support our troops. When we had to deploy troops in CHSLDs and long-term care facilities in Ontario, we made sure to have trained people on the ground—social workers and chaplains—to provide that close support to those troops.
I will now yield the floor to Rear Admiral Patterson.
Madam Chair, I'll start with the deployment. We believe in preventing problems before they happen. The Canadian Armed Forces builds mental resiliency into our personnel throughout their careers. We have a very specialized program called the road to mental readiness. Prior to this deployment, we recognized that this was going to be a unique situation that Canadian Armed Forces members found themselves in, so we adapted the program to address that.
In addition, leadership support and observation of their personnel when they were deployed was quite critical to making sure that we had built in regular rest and work cycles. Further to that, during the deployments themselves, we also had social workers on site, as well as chaplains or padres from our service, for them to have support in place.
If any member of the Canadian Armed Forces needs access to mental health support, we continue to run a robust mental health care system, though we've had to adapt how we deliver services during the COVID pandemic and have been using different methods of delivering care, whether that be through virtual care or keeping a 24-7 telephone line available to people so they can phone in and seek support. I would also say that we do this in partnership with our chaplain colleagues as well to help them provide spiritual guidance, etc.
For those who do require treatment, as I've already said, the full spectrum of mental health support services has remained in place. We provide services to our members as they are required, including those who served on this particular deployment.
I would like to echo the thoughts of all of my colleagues here today. I want to thank you very, very much for your service, particularly now, at a time of crisis, and through you, to all serving Canadian Armed Forces members.
General Fortin, you mentioned in your opening remarks the extent to which the Canadian Armed Forces were prepared, had contingency plans and were ready for this crisis. Many Canadians are very aware of the work in long-term care. You also spoke about ships and aircraft. I wonder if you could talk about some of the things that may not be as well-known to Canadians, such as the delivery of PPE to Latin America, or why we would have had the ships at the ready. Could you talk a little bit about that, as well?
In the Ontario context, when we looked at transitioning from any long-term care home, there was a set of criteria that we built in concert with the Province of Ontario. It was, in fact, based on four separate criteria.
The first one was sort of the master criterion, and that was that the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Long-Term Care agreed that it was time for the Canadian Forces to transition out and either be reassigned to another facility or, if the overall situation had improved to a point that we were no longer required, we would withdraw those forces from the request for assistance.
The second criterion was that the facility itself had the capacity to deal with the number of residents, and among those residents, the patients with COVID, through their own means and no longer required that assistance from our medical teams in support.
The third criterion goes to infection prevention and control, or IPAC, such that the IPAC control procedures were not only educated and in place, but also that the effect of having proper IPAC procedures—as determined by the competent civilian medical authority responsible for that facility—could be guaranteed as functioning and in place, and that we agreed, the Canadian Armed Forces and that competent medical authority and the Ministry of Long-Term Care and the Ministry of Health, that this essential element of our transition was there.
Finally, it was an assessment, not only by the management of the long-term care facility but also by the province in the form of the Ministries of Health and Long-Term Care. At the point of our transition, Ontario had implemented oversight from local hospital networks that were connected to a long-term care facility, and they assessed that the staffing had met both the required degree of competency and, most importantly, the numbers to be able to take care of the residents inside those homes.
Throughout that collaborative effort, we would do a daily review at the local level in the home itself with our teams and a daily review between the provincial emergency operations centre and the Ontario incident management system for COVID-19. We had weekly reviews as to how the overall situation was improving. That was finalized in an exchange of letters at my level with the deputy solicitor general of Ontario, because that individual was the one responsible to Minister Jones, the solicitor general of Ontario, to manage the request for assistance throughout.
Perhaps I can pass this to my colleague in Quebec to describe the events there.
I don't want to repeat the different criteria that need to be evaluated to make the transition, which my colleague has just listed. I just want to reiterate the importance of the links that have been established with the centres. These criteria were first evaluated by the centres' managers and our senior military representative in the field.
In Quebec, an agreement has been reached with the regional public health department, namely the Centres intégrés de santé et de services sociaux, or CISSS, and the Centres intégrés universitaires de santé et de services sociaux, or CIUSSS, and then with the ministry of health and social services. Once there's an agreement with the ministry on the joint assessment of the situation, we could proceed with the transition, with the authority of my supervisor in Ottawa.
I'd like to mention that we've served in 47 CHSLDs. The situation has improved significantly during our mandate. The situation was different in the 25 CHSLDs where we went first than in the 22 CHSLDs where we provided assistance afterwards, as the first wave was winding down. There was an improvement in the situation and our civilian partners were able to continue to carry out their functions in these centres.
I will end by talking about the Red Cross, whose members arrived after we left. They offered help in other centres with slightly different teams. We worked with them at different stages. The first stage was pre-deployment training, which was mandated by the ministry of health and social services and offered by the Red Cross.
In preparation for their mandate, there have been discussions at my level with the provincial director. At the tactical level, we worked with our commanders and health experts in the field to share our experience, observations and best practices.