The Canadian Armed Forces were deployed on domestic natural disaster assistance tasks as part of Operation LENTUS six times in 2021, which does not include the institution’s support to COVID-19 responses.
This includes the latest flooding and route closures in BC, due to extreme weather-related flooding, and may likely include additional or extended deployments before the year ends, based on current weather forecasts.
The dedication and sacrifices of our military personnel has been instrumental in enabling our nation to recover and return to a normal pattern of life; however, the strain and long-term impacts these deployments have on the institution and its members as well as our attitudes to responding to natural disasters warrants greater scrutiny.
A federal auditor general report from 2018, and an internal DND report from 2020, both indicated that the CAF continues to be continually understaffed, among a number of other support issues facing the institution.
The 2020 report estimated that Canada’s military bases are only staffed to approximately 75%, although it was not entirely clear if this referred strictly to base personnel figures, or also the deployable units on those bases.
Regardless, the report emphasized the shortage in personnel was leading to burnout and excessive workloads on our uniformed personnel.
This staffing level is not far above the level where units need to be pulled from active service and reorganized or reconstituted due to shortages in personnel.
The CAF’s shortfall in soldiers comes at a critical time for Canada as new conflicts come to a simmer across the globe at the same time as we face unprecedented increases in extreme weather events.
A 2020 report from the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction noted the frequency of extreme weather events, primarily floods and storms, rose from 4,212 disasters in the 1980-99 period, to 7,348 disasters in the 2000-19 period. The global economics losses of these disasters similarly rose from US$1.63 trillion to US$2.97 trillion across those periods in adjusted dollars.
Our military provides a unique capability to respond to natural disasters due to its equipment, training and organization, however, the military’s use at home may be taking away from our understanding of it as a war-fighting institution.
Whenever our military personnel help Canadians in need, deploy overseas to provide humanitarian support or keep the peace, they make us proud. Those precious moment of humanity for which we pride ourselves as a nation should not detract from the core tenet that our military is a purpose-designed apparatus for applying focused violence.
The military is to be our absolute last resort for domestic aid precisely for that reason.
Responding to disasters rests initially with municipalities, then the province, and then the federal government.
In B.C. we demonstrably lag behind our neighbours, being the lone holdout to deploy the Alert Ready system for providing emergency notifications to our population, requiring that the recent evacuation of Sumas Prairie had to be done door-to-door.
Nor have we done any regular analysis of how our increasingly active fire season will affect key areas that are susceptible to flood and rainfall damage.
The soldiers so frequently being leaned on to respond to our disasters are a scarce resource, and in the event of significant concurrent disasters across Canada, we would not have sufficient capacity to deploy the military to assist every Canadian in need.
It is in our best interests as a nation, and as provinces, to reclaim our responsibility in managing and responding to regional natural disasters.
It would be the greatest tragedy for us as a nation to find ourselves on fire, flooded out, and torn up by storms and then have to decide who lives or dies due to neglecting our emergency preparedness.
Walt Shawlee is a local photographer and writer who recently returned to the Okanagan Valley after 20 years.