The Canadian Armed Forces Responding to Domestic Emergencies: Some Implications

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The Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) has a range of domestic and international roles and obligations. In the future, the CAF is expected to continue to face trade-offs in fulfilling its commitments as the number of natural disasters in Canada is predicted to grow and the international security environment remains uncertain.

This HillNote discusses domestic deployments of the CAF across the country in response to natural disasters and the COVID-19 pandemic. It also identifies implications for recruitment, composition and training, as well as international operations.

Supporting a Civilian Response to Natural Disasters

As part of Operation LENTUS and upon request, the CAF assists domestic civilian authorities in responding to disasters or major emergency situations. Strong, Secure, Engaged: Canada’s Defence Policy (SSE) lists such assistance as among the CAF’s eight core missions.

According to the Department of National Defence (DND), such requests should be made only after the province or territory has exhausted all other capabilities. From that perspective, the CAF is “a force of last resort.” Since 2010, the number of domestic disaster relief deployments by the CAF has increased.

In October 2021, General Wayne Eyre, then Acting Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS), said that this trend is “part of a broader issue – the CAF’s evolution over the years from a resource of last resort to a force of first choice – that, going forward, needs to be addressed in a national context.”

Some commentators believe that the CAF is not the only entity capable of responding to emergency situations. For example, according to the President and CEO of the Canadian Red Cross, “[t]he Red Cross has demonstrated that it’s possible to develop a civilian capacity that can intervene in situations that require primarily a civilian operation” and that it can “replace the army,” as it did in some long-term care facilities during the pandemic.

DND has noted that climate change experts are concerned about the continuing increase in the number of natural disasters. Furthermore, researchers suggest that the frequency of pandemics is likely to rise in the future. These situations may require the CAF to deploy more often, which could have implications for its composition and readiness for other operations.

Figure 1 shows the number of deployments as part of Operation LENTUS, from 2010 to 2021.

Figure 1 – Number of Deployments as Part of Operation LENTUS, 2010–2021

This figure shows the number of, and reason for, deployments under Operation LENTUS from 2010 to 2021. They are as follows: one deployment in 2010 for a hurricane; three deployments in 2011 for two wildfires and one flood; no deployments in 2012; one deployment in 2013 for a flood; four deployments in 2014 for floods; two deployments in 2015 for one wildfire and one flood; one deployment in 2016 for a wildfire; six deployments in 2017 for one winter storm, two wildfires and three floods; six deployments in 2018 for one winter storm, two wildfires and three floods; three deployments in 2019 for one hurricane, one wildfire and one flood; one deployment in 2020 for a winter storm; and, as of 7 December 2021, seven deployments in 2021 for one contaminated water incident, three wildfires and three floods.

Note: * Indicates the number of deployments as part of Operation LENTUS in 2021, as of 7 December 2021.
Source: Figure prepared by the Library of Parliament using information obtained from the Department of National Defence, Operation LENTUS.

Supporting a Civilian Response to the COVID‑19 Pandemic

As part of Operation LASER, which is the CAF’s response to the COVID‑19 pandemic, the CAF has – to date – been deployed to seven long-term care facilities in Ontario and 47 in Quebec, assisted more than 20 Indigenous communities and supported isolated communities in Canada’s north. As well, several provinces and territories have received support with providing medical care, as well as conducting contact tracing and COVID-19 testing.

Furthermore, as part of Operation VECTOR, from December 2020 to June 2021, the CAF assisted governments across Canada in transporting and delivering COVID-19 vaccine doses and vaccine-related equipment.

Canadian Armed Forces members load special freezers for vaccines onto an aircraft as part of Operation VECTOR, 12 December 2020.

Canadian Armed Forces members load special freezers for vaccines onto an aircraft as part of Operation VECTOR, 12 December 2020.

Source: Canadian Armed Forces Combat Camera, “Operation VECTOR,” Flickr, photo by Cpl Matthew Tower, 12 December 2020.

As of 6 December 2021, 2,175 CAF members had contracted the COVID-19 virus, although not necessarily because of their CAF duties; no deaths were reported. A mandatory vaccination policy has been in place for all CAF members since October 2021.

Concerning cases of the virus contracted during military duty, on 20 November 2020, the then Chief of Staff of the Canadian Joint Operations Command said that 55 members who had assisted in Ontario and Quebec long-term care facilities had contracted the virus.

SSE does not specifically mention pandemics or epidemics. The 2009 manual entitled Duty with Honour identifies the concept of “unlimited liability” as one of the CAF’s “fundamental beliefs.” CAF members are “subject to being lawfully ordered into harm’s way under conditions that could lead to the loss of their lives.”

Implications for Recruitment, Composition and Training

According to the then Acting CDS, as of October 2021, the number of people in the CAF’s regular force was 7,500 fewer than its stated goal of 71,500 members. This situation is partly due to the pandemic.

The CAF often relies on its reserve force for domestic deployments. In April 2020, the Government of Canada offered all interested reservists full-time contracts to assist with the pandemic response. In March 2021, the then Acting CDS stated that the pandemic has led the reserve force to “shrink in size.”

An April 2020 analysis by the Conference of Defence Associations Institute raises a question about relying on the reserve force to respond to domestic emergencies. It also speculates about whether this force should focus solely on domestic operations or continue to participate in international deployments in addition to its increasing domestic role.

During the pandemic’s early stages, training activities were limited to respect health and safety requirements. Training has slowly resumed and the CAF has mandated the use of appropriate personal protective equipment, among other safety measures.

Implications for International Operations

The CAF’s increasing role in domestic deployments may have implications for its international operations. According to SSE, the CAF must be able to respond “concurrently to multiple domestic emergencies in support of civilian authorities,” in addition to its international obligations.

Referring to these simultaneous responsibilities, in January 2020, Lieutenant-General Wayne Eyre – then Canadian Army Commander – explained:

If we become focused on solely humanitarian assistance, disaster response, when the country really needs us, when the stakes are very high and we have to fight and we’re not ready, that’s going to cause casualties and it’s going to cost loss of national interest.

During its domestic response to the COVD-19 pandemic, the CAF continued to carry out its international commitments, including:

  • the contribution to the fight against Daesh in Iraq and Syria;
  • the deployment to Latvia as part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s assurance and deterrence measures; and
  • the training mission in Ukraine.

That said, the CAF has acknowledged that the pandemic has affected its international operations. For example, as the then Acting CDS acknowledged in October 2021, “our necessary involvement in domestic operations reduced the resources available to confront challenges and threats to world security, which continue to increase.”


According to observers, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic may prompt countries to adjust their military strategies.

In the context of the current pandemic and possible future pandemics, with an expected rise in the number of natural disasters and a constantly changing global environment, the CAF could benefit from having a contingency plan for conducting domestic and international operations simultaneously.

Additional Resources

Auger, Martin, Marie Dumont and Christina Yeung, “Canadian and Global Military Responses to the COVID-19 Pandemic,” HillNotes, Library of Parliament, 3 June 2020.

MacDonald, Adam and Carter Vance, Analysis: The Canadian Armed Forces and the COVID19 Pandemic: Entrenching the Military as Canada’s de facto Emergency Management Organization, Conference of Defence Associations, 1 April 2021.

von Hlatky, Stéfanie and Stephen Saideman, “How COVID-19 has impacted Canadian Forces missions abroad,” Policy Options, 19 June 2020.

Authors: Marie Dumont, Ariel Shapiro and Anne-Marie Therrien-Tremblay, Library of Parliament

Categories: Health and safety, International affairs and defence

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