Disaster relief on the home front
Operation Laser
Aug 25, 2020

When Harjit Sajjan, a newly-minted British Columbia MP, was named Minister of National Defence in November 2015, his mandate letter from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was fairly generic. It pointed out, among other things, that his overarching goal was “to ensure that the Canadian Armed Forces are equipped and prepared” to provide, among other things, “disaster relief.”

Four years later, in renewing Sajjan’s appointment in December 2019, Trudeau pointed out that “many of our most important commitments require partnership with provincial, territorial and municipal governments […] and it is in everyone’s interest that we work together to find common ground.” 

Neither the PM nor anyone else could have known at the time that the “partnership” was about to be tested as never before, and the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) would soon be dealing with an invisible enemy: a novel coronavirus eventually designated by the World Health Organization as COVID-19 (COronaVIrus Disease identified in 2019).

The WHO China office first became aware of an outbreak on 31 December 2019. By 5 January 2020, the WHO had yet to identify the virus but, in a statement, described the outbreak as a cluster of cases of “pneumonia of unknown etiology” that had been detected in Wuhan City, China. Eight days later (on 13 January), the first case in another country was confirmed in Thailand by the WHO. Only a few weeks later, with nearly 8,000 cases confirmed in 18 countries, the WHO determined that the situation was indeed a Public Health Emergency of International Concern but resisted calling it a pandemic. 

CAF goes into High Gear

It would be 11 March 2020, before the WHO, by then “deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity and by the alarming levels of inaction,” confirmed a pandemic. By then, it had surged into Canada and, as of mid-July, at least 110,000 cases and nearly 9,000 deaths had been confirmed. The global tally at that point had topped 4 million cases and 600,000 deaths.

As COVID-19 continued to spread within Canada despite an array of federal, provincial and municipal control measures, it emerged early on that there were disproportionately high numbers of confirmed cases and deaths in long-term care facilities (LTCF) in Ontario and Quebec and the staffs were quickly becoming overwhelmed. That prompted their governments to ask for federal help, and the Department of National Defence then put Operation Laser into high gear.

21 May 2020 – Major Caroline Cameron, a nurse with the 5th Field Ambulance, thanks staff at the Valeo Long Term Care Accommodation Center during Operation Laser in Saint-Lambert, Québec. (Photo: Aviateur Zamir Muminiar, Imagerie 2 Div CA, St-Jean/Montréal)

Op Laser is the formal activation of a standing contingency plan for responding to a pandemic of an influenza-like disease. Phase 1 is permanently activated as the government routinely monitors worldwide pandemic threats, mainly through the WHO. Phase 2, a formal “pandemic alert” declared by National Defence Headquarters (NDHQ), includes monitoring of a declared outbreak and implementation of some protective measures to ensure CAF personnel are safe and able to do their jobs. Phase 3 is the more aggressive response to widespread and continuous transmission of a virus in the general population, and the possibility that it could compromise Canada’s military effectiveness if personnel become too ill to do their jobs.

There were three initial “lines of effort” to Op Laser at the outset: maintenance of CAF operational capabilities and readiness; specific measures to limit military personnel’s chance of infection; and ensuring CAF readiness to support the federal government’s objectives, including its response to calls for help.

Once the first two priorities had been addressed, the third phase (the response to provincial calls for help) was activated at 1 Canadian Division Headquarters, the high-readiness rapid-response unit based in Kingston, and designated Joint Task Force-Laser (JTF-LR). It was responsible from mid-March to mid-May for coordinating the government’s response until Canadian Joint Operations Command (CJOC) in Ottawa took over.

May 2020 from left: (1) Master Seaman Leanne Thiel, Human Resources Administrator at HMCS Radisson, reassures a resident of the Nazaire-Piché Accommodation Center, as part of Operation Laser in Montreal, Quebec (photo: Aviator Zamir Muminiar, 2 Div CA). (2) Captain Isabelle Dubé, nurse at the 41st Canadian Forces Health Services Center, gives medication to a resident at Sainte-Anne Hospital, Montreal, Quebec (photo: Cpl Genevieve Beaulieu) (3) Members of 4th Battalion, Royal 22e Régiment perform multiple tasks at the Yvon Brunet Long-Term Care and Accommodation Center in Verdun, Quebec (photo: Cpl Genevieve Beaulieu).

When the provincial requests came in, personnel from bases across Canada underwent instruction on how to integrate with health services staff, and were trained on the use of medical-grade personal protective equipment (PPE).

The initial deployment of several hundred personnel to Quebec began on 20 April in response to a request for assistance at 5 LTCFs, but that was almost immediately scaled up to 13 facilities and then to 20 by 7 May as it became clear that regular staff were severely overwhelmed.

The Quebec LTCFs had been found to be short some 1,200 staff due either due to personal illness or a decision to stay home for fear of being infected. There also was a concern that due to the cost-saving move towards part-time jobs at these facilities, many staff are forced to work at more than one LTCF to make ends meet, and in 2020 became possible vectors for infection.

By the time the Quebec Op Laser deployment winds down (likely in Sept.) approximately 1,350 CAF personnel in “task-tailored teams” will have supported patient care at some two dozen LTCFs.

The Ontario deployment, which began 28 April, saw 500 CAF personnel and gear sent to seven LTCFs. They were pulled from five of them on 21 June, their work completed, and put into quarantine for 14 days at their home bases. 

9 May 2020 – Mr. Ken Rawlins, Chief Executive Officer of Holland Christian Homes gives a thank you speech to the military medical personnel from 4 Canadian Forces Health Services Group and the Canadian Armed Forces members that comprise Territorial Battle Group 1, for the work they have been doing during Operation Laser to help the staff and residents of Holland Christian Homes in Brampton, Ontario. (photo: Cpl Justin Dreimanis, 4th Canadian Div

While working with the local authorities, they uncovered abuse and negligence, insect infestations and other issues which were outlined in a report that has precipitated demand for a systemic overhaul of Long Term Care regulations, as well as several lawsuits in which CAF personnel are expected to become witnesses. 

Their experiences further validate the article written in 2018 by CAF Veteran Wolf Solkin that detailed a number of drastic and ongoing reductions in the services being provided at a Quebec Long Term Care facility for Veterans. 

CAF personnel also have been busy elsewhere across the country, mainly Canadian Rangers working in northern and remote areas, providing humanitarian assistance for vulnerable populations, setting up triage centres for healthcare personnel, and feeding back information to the federal government.

All personnel involved in the COVID response, possibly some 4,500, are to receive a daily $78 bonus retroactive to when they began their duty. This reflects not only the potential health hazard they face but also the physical toll of working in full PPE for up to 12 hours a day.

May 2020 – Military personnel from various locations in Quebec provide care to residents of the Vigi Reine-Élizabeth residential and long-term care center in Montreal, Quebec. (photo: Cpl Genevieve Beaulieu)

“This Exceptional Hazard Allowance is one way we can recognize the significant efforts and risks faced by […] members, who have worked hard to keep our family members and loved ones safe during this challenging time,” Minister Sajjan said.

But, for some, their effort didn’t come without a price. CJOC told FrontLine on 17 July, that as of the previous day, 55 CAF members deployed on Op Laser had tested positive for COVID-19. Fortunately, however, none required hospitalization, thanks to strict preventative measures instituted to reduce contact with the highly-contagious and potentially fatal virus. 

“The CAF took appropriate and decisive measures to mitigate any risk to the health, safety and overall wellness of LTCF residents, staff, and to CAF personnel,” CJOC explained. “At the first sign of symptoms consistent with COVID-19, a rigorous protocol was applied.”

The first step was immediate isolation and confirmation testing, coupled with contact tracing to limit the spread of infection. Post-deployment, CAF personnel were quarantined for 14 days to ensure they didn’t pose an asymptomatic risk of transmission to their home communities.

May 2020 – Military personnel from various locations in Quebec provide care to residents of the Vigi Reine-Élizabeth residential and long-term care center in Montreal, Quebec. (photo: Cpl Genevieve Beaulieu)

“As with any deployment, the CAF will capture lessons learned to improve its protocols for future operations,” CJOC continued. “The CAF epidemiology section will be reviewing all COVID-19 cases among CAF members to determine how they may have acquired their infection. This analysis will help inform future training and operational protocols.”

It would be premature to discuss potential changes to training and protocols for future deployments of this kind but CJOC will be working closely with public health agencies and other stakeholders to eventually “make the necessary adjustments to apply newly identified and recommended health measures.”

Much of that will take place in the fourth and final phase of Op Laser, which will begin once the Public Health Agency of Canada declares the pandemic to be over, which could be months and possibly more than a year away. That phase will see all DND/CAF services returned to normal operations – at least until presented with the next major challenge. 
Ken Pole is a FrontLine Contributing Editor.