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Reservists will be ready to fight COVID-19 in about a week, defence source says

It will be about a week before the Canadian military has mobilized all the reservists needed to fight COVID-19 and there will be strict legal limitations on what they can do, a senior defence source tells CBC News.

The part-time soldiers, who are being converted to full-time status, will be used primarily for community-based humanitarian operations, as needed.

“This is not for enforcement stuff,” said the source, who spoke on background because of the sensitivity of the file. “There is a line between what they can and cannot do.”

Should a province require quarantine enforcement — or some kind of armed reinforcement of local police — that job would only be carried out by regular force troops, who are already mobilized and make up about three-quarters of the 24,000 personnel set to deal with COVID-19.

Under the law, members of the reserve force are not allowed to carry out armed operations on Canadian soil.

The biggest fear of defence planners, however, is that there will be some kind of natural disaster — or a series of them — as troops are responding to coronavirus-related emergencies. The Armed Forces has during the last few years helped flood-ravaged communities and assisted provincial forest services beat back wildfire.

In fighting COVID-19, it is envisioned the reservists will focus on helping villages, towns and perhaps even cities maintain critical supply lines. 

The reservists are being called up until the end of August. 

Setting up field hospitals

In the U.S., over 17,000 reserve troops have been called up and have been supporting medical testing facilities, doing transportation runs, delivering food, as well as disinfecting and cleaning public spaces.

COVID-19 claimed the life of a New Jersey National Guardsman on Monday.

The Liberal government said last week it will mobilize up to 24,000 troops to help with the coronavirus crisis, and laid out what the military would do if called upon by the provinces, northern communities or the federal government. 

Three First Nations communities in Manitoba stepped up within hours of the announcement, with two of them requesting the military set up a field hospital in their area, which does not have a health-care centre of its own.

Volunteer force

Those two communities, Pimicikamak, also referred to as Cross Lake, and Norway House Cree Nation made their request to Defence Minister Hajitt Sajjan by letter, a copy of which was obtained by CBC News.

The third, Berens River First Nation, suggested the military could use it as a staging point for medical evacuations in the remote, surrounding wilderness.

The defence source acknowledged the requests. None of those communities has a confirmed case of the coronavirus and, the defence source said, the decision on whether to deploy troops will not be made on a first-come, first-served basis.

About one-quarter of the COVID-19 response force will be made up of reservists and Canadian Rangers, a mainly Indigenous force that patrols the Far North. The rest, roughly 18,000 personnel, will be regular force troops.

The defence source, who spoke Wednesday, said contract offers for the part-time soldiers were in the process of being extended on Wednesday.

It is an all-volunteer process.

Despite the threat and uncertainty of the contagion and the death of an American reservist, the defence official said the department does not anticipate having any trouble getting those volunteers.

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