There’s a quiet restlessness these days at Garrison Petawawa, a military base about 170 kilometres northwest of Ottawa. The headquarters of 2 Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group is nearly empty. Because of COVID-19, the Canadian Armed Forces has introduced staggered schedules, and many are working from home — only 10 to 15 per cent of the brigade’s 4,600 soldiers are onsite at any one time.
But, according to Colonel Jason Adair, the brigade’s commander, 2-CMBG is ready to step up and do whatever is required: “Our real goal right now is making sure that we stay healthy so that when we’re called on by the government to help Canadians, we can do so.” The “self-contained” organization — which includes three infantry battalions, an armoured regiment, and a combat-engineer regiment — is trained “to fight in the worst case,” he says. “That’s what we trained for; that doesn’t mean that that’s always what we’ll do.” So far, Canadian Forces soldiers have had few deployments during the COVID-19 crisis. But troops have helped with the repatriation of Canadians at CFB Trenton in February, says Adair. In Quebec, Canadian Forces personnel have been sent to isolated communities in the north, and 125 members with health-care training have been deployed to support long-term-care facilities as they deal with outbreaks.
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TVO.org spoke with Adair about Operation LASER, Canadian Forces’ pandemic response, and how the military is staying prepared in Ontario during the crisis.
TVO.org: What is Operation LASER?
Colonel Jason Adair: In the military, what we do for various operations is we give them names, and it provides an umbrella, a title, from which a whole bunch of information and orders and directives flow. In this case, Operation LASER was originally a contingency plan for Canadian Forces’ response to a pandemic. So what we’re seeing now is that contingency plan transition into an actual executable operation. So, when you hear Operation LASER, it’s the Canadian Forces’ response to a pandemic, and, in this case, obviously, the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s just really a way of organizing and focusing thinking across the force.
TVO.org: How does 2 Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group fit into that response?
Adair: Where our brigade comes in is — we are sort of the 911 force for the Canadian Forces in the province of Ontario. So if there’s an issue where we need to reinforce or provide extra support because something requires it, then we have various units in the brigade called immediate-response units, and there are various states of readiness, and they will be called to support either one of these local response forces or to do something unique because the situation demands it.
TVO.org: What might the assignment be if you were deployed?
Adair: One of them would be to help if there were a flood. That's the common one. In terms of COVID-19, when all the people were coming back from cruise ships, we did go and help in Trenton. We sent a platoon to help with the repatriation. Whatever it is we do, it would always be in support of provincial authorities. The spectrum of tasks is so broad — and the situation so uncertain — it would be difficult to predict a specific assignment. We could be assisting in evacuations; we could help handle welfare checks or assist in planning. The list is long.
TVO.org: What impact has this had on day-to-day life on the base?
Adair: We are adapting just like every Canadian and every Ontarian is to this environment. What it looks like here is we’ve organized ourselves into immediate-response units, which are ready to go when required. But, physically, we don’t see much more than 10 to 15 per cent of the brigade at work at any given time. What we’re trying to do is make sure that we do everything we can to protect the force. So this means that we stagger work schedules; we maintain, as much as possible, physical distancing. But the reality is, we can’t just close the door and everything stops. We have to maintain our vehicles. We have to make sure that our other equipment is maintained. All of those normal sorts of administrative things occur. The army is built on people. People demand leadership, and that leadership and command function has to be continuous. This has been a real learning experience. We’re adapting the way that we command and control. We’re making use of various civilian command-and-control systems. I have a saying that we need to stay protected and connected. Just because we’re apart physically doesn’t mean we have to be apart cognitively or socially. We need to stay connected and make sure everyone is doing okay and make sure that they’re ready for whatever comes our way.
TVO.org: How are you keeping the military community safe?
Adair: I think we’re all a product of our experiences and, for a long time, my experience has been, you go away, you deploy, you come back to your family, and you set things up on the home front so that there’s a routine established, and you make things as simple as possible for those at home. Here, everyone is vulnerable. COVID-19 doesn’t care whether you’re a soldier or the family of a soldier or a friend of a soldier. So everyone feels equally vulnerable. Now what that’s done is a positive and a negative. The positive is it unified us all to be self-disciplined to fight this thing. On the other hand, it’s a little bit disconcerting when someone’s family is equally at risk. So what we’re trying to do right now is we don’t want soldiers deploying forward, or into whatever situation they might, if things aren’t settled at home.
TVO.org: How is morale on the base?
Adair: I define morale as the spirit to triumph in adversity, and it’s usually based on a common purpose. A lot of people associate it with simple happiness. I think happiness is a key component of it, but what I would tell you is, there’s an absolute commitment to making sure that we’re ready to go. Soldiers and families alike really understand the gravity — or the potential gravity — of this situation. When we have a common purpose, and we’re all equally vulnerable, it’s powerful. And what I’ve seen is people rallying around the cause, not in a physical sense, but I’ve seen more compassion over the last four or five weeks than I have in the past 20 years in many respects. Are there frustrations? Absolutely. This is not a normal state for any of us. Are people getting restless? Of course they are. Soldiers have an inherent bias for action. That’s why many of us joined the military, probably.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misquoted Colonel Jason Adair as having said that the miltary could “help hand out welfare cheques.” In fact, he said that it could "help handle welfare checks." TVO.org regrets the error.
This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.
This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting eastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Queen’s University.
Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.