ANALYSIS: The Canadian Armed Forces and the COVID19 Pandemic: Entrenching the Military as Canada’s De Facto Emergency Management Organization


The Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) has played a sizable and vital role in Canada’s pandemic efforts. COVID19 represents the most extensive and intensive involvement of CAF in a domestic emergency in living memory, but this is a continuation, and acceleration, of a pre-existing trend of growing reliance on the military in these respects. In short, the pandemic is further positioning the CAF as the de facto emergency response organization for Canada, both at a federal and provincial/territorial level. Rather than letting this trend continue uncritically, now is the time for policymakers and the public to investigate how to best organize, position and mandate government agencies and society as a whole to prepare for and respond to growing domestic emergencies. The CAF has been and will continue to be a necessary component in these efforts, but any augmented authority and role requires a recalibration of force structure, resources, and mandates for the organization. Pursuing such an approach, however, must stem from a determination about what Canada wants the CAF to do (and not do) rather than letting ‘mission creep’ continue in this respect. 

The CAF’s COVID19 Support Activities To Date

From the onset of the pandemic, the CAF acted quickly to 1) preserve capability to ensure the maintenance of core missions; and 2) carve out capacity to allocate contingency forces to support federal authorities and provincial and territorial government requests. These efforts resulted in the re-calling of some overseas forces, the establishment of a Joint Task Force for OP LASER, and creation of a 24,000-person response force (comprising a mixture of Regular and Reserve force members) pre-deployed throughout the country. The CAF have, and continue to do so in some instances, performed a number of missions. Some of these include: conducting repatriation flights and establishing quarantine sites for stranded overseas Canadians; deployments to remote communities, specifically by the Canadian Rangers, to assist local authorities whose medical and social services’ systems are chronically limited; large-scale deployments to Long-Term Care Homes (LTHC) in Ontario and Quebec; assisting with rapid testing regimes at border crossings; and playing a leading role, via OP VECTOR, in the federal government’s vaccine distribution program, specifically in managing the National Operations Centre and being overall in charge of logistic supply chains from pharmaceutical providers to Canada. Most recently during the ongoing third wave, the CAF have dispatched teams to Ontario to provide support to their strained healthcare system, to Nova Scotia to support testing clinics, and possibly may be sent to Alberta as their COVID hospitalization rates continue to climb.

As a result of taking on these varied roles, some have called for the CAF to be re-organized and resourced to assume a more permanent role in domestic emergency response management. Such moves are necessary if the CAF is going to increasingly conduct these missions (the current defence strategy barely mentions such missions or funding for them), but now is the time to take one-step back and think critically from a political rather than simply organizational, technological and resource level.

The Downsides of a ‘CAF to the Rescue’ Mentality

The growing reliance on, and embeddedness of, the CAF in Canada’s COVID-19 response has demonstrated that the military is the only, or one of the few, government agencies that 1) has a reserve pool of personnel which can be deployed on short notice; and 2) possesses extensive corporate knowledge and expertise running logistics and managing complex operations. As a result, it is perfectly reasonable for the military to be mandated to assist in domestic operations during crises. Notwithstanding its unprecedented scale and intensity, the pandemic has laid bare governmental and societal logics of a ‘just enough/just in time’ rather than a ‘just in case’ mentality in terms of technical and resource capabilities, eliminating redundancy and surge capacities to respond to emergencies.

As currently constituted, the CAF is best employed as a short-term, surge response force to domestic emergencies serving as a safety valve to allow overwhelmed other agencies and relevant actors to (re)organize and take over. There is a risk, however, that the growing reliance on the CAF as the first choice of response will come at the expense of creating and building competencies and capacities in other parts of government which may be better suited and mandated to address such challenges.

Deeper positioning and integration of the CAF in domestic emergency management also brings up issues of accountability between military and political actors. For the military, growing dedication of their limited resources and effort may naturally motivate a desire for more leadership and authority roles, sidelining civilian agencies. For political leaders, employing the military may increasingly become a desirable political tool demonstrating a government is ‘getting serious’ about an issue. A ‘going to war’ approach, also, towards the pandemic engenders an expectation that a military mindset is needed, and thus current and retired military officers increasingly occupy positions of authority and responsibility. The increasing employment of the military in this manner may actually obstruct building more robust governments and societies in dealing with a more domestic emergency prone future. Finally, the CAF may increasingly find itself in a growing, and uncomfortable, political position in being used to legitimate and defend government responses in domestic contexts and could be a tempting and convenient target of deflection for government failures and setbacks.

A Domestic-First CAF?

In the post-Cold War era, the orientation of the CAF has largely been expeditionary. Under this logic, the defence of Canada and its interests was best pursued by being active abroad in addressing challenges before they could reach and impact the home front. Increasingly, though, the CAF is becoming more domestically oriented given the growing reach and manifestation of a diverse set of security issues closer to home with respect to the changing geopolitical and physical environment of the Arctic, development of cyber and advanced kinetic technologies (like hypersonic missiles) possessed by rival powers, and growing regularity of extreme weather events.

An effective domestic emergency force capability within the CAF would most likely need their own command structure and dedicated forces, creating a reliable pool of personnel which are specially trained and positioned to respond. The Reserve force would seem a natural place to develop this capacity, but it is a part-time organization that already has a number of mandates and missions including augmenting their Regular force counterparts. Multi-hatting ad infinitum either the Reserve or Regular force should be avoided as the CAF needs to maintain an ability to address and manage simultaneously demanding situations and missions, not over-burdening the same relatively small group of people with additional ‘as needed’ tasks which are becoming mainstream duties.

The alternative to creating a new, separate organization within the CAF would be the re-orientation of some part of it, which most likely given its size and availability would be the Canadian Army. The army has a history of conducting intensive long-term operations overseas, including during the Korean War, Peacekeeping Operations (PKOs), deployments in West Germany and in Afghanistan. More recently, however, the overseas footprint of the Canadian Army has been modest and given the growing risks of casualties associated with proxy conflicts between competing great powers and a general reluctance to re-engage meaningfully in PKOs, large-scale deployments may not be on the horizon anytime soon. As a result, the Canadian Army may become increasingly mandated to prepare for, monitor and respond to domestic emergencies as their primary mission which could have major ramifications for the organization culturally and in terms of capability development.

The Royal Canadian Air Force and Royal Canadian Navy are simply too small personnel wise to take on such a role and have significant investments in a number of procurement projects of war-fighting capability platforms that are not particularly relevant to domestic emergency missions. As a result, there may become a demarcation within the services with the air force and navy being the largest contributors to, and filling more senior positions within the command structure responsible for, expeditionary operations as well as maintaining their more traditional defence roles at home (search and rescue and patrolling coastlines and airspaces), while the army assumes a more non-traditional security, domestic-first role responsible for emergency management.


While this is all speculative at this juncture, the point remains that due regard and foresight about increasing employing the CAF in domestic emergencies is important both in determining how best to position Canada in dealing with a more turbulent security environment domestically and for the CAF itself. Internally, there are challenges to the CAF in terms of how the addition (deliberative or not) of such roles and demands could result in power shifts in inter-service relations in terms of procurement, command structures, and mission sets. On both fronts, there needs to be much more deliberation and discussion at the public and political levels of how best to orient the CAF for success in the missions it is asked to take on.







Non-governmental organizations such as the Red Cross have also played a pivotal role in augmenting capacity at various points.

For more details on these efforts see: Adam P. MacDonald and Carter Vance. “COVID19 and the Canadian Armed Forces: Overview, Analysis and Next Steps,” Vimy Paper 44, Conference of Defence Associations Institute, April 2020,

Christian Leuprecht. “Military efforts at home are increasingly the norm. A Joint Task Force Canada is the next logical step,” The Globe and Mail, 10 January 2021,

For instance, the choice of Retired General Rick Hillier to lead Ontario’s vaccination rollout operation.

 A possible model could be the Canadian Rangers, a predominantly indigenous reserve organization which is community based (primarily in isolated, northern communities). They do not have warfighting training but does possess extensive knowledge of and skills about navigation and other survival techniques for the local environment.

Adam P. MacDonald is a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science at Dalhousie University and a research fellow at the Canadian International Council. Carter Vance is a graduate of Carleton University’s Institute of Political Economy and has worked as a policy analyst and researcher for a variety of government and non-profit organizations in Canada, the United Kingdom, Dominica and Indonesia.

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