by P. Whitney Lackenbauer and Peter Kikkert 

These are unprecedented times. This week, the Canadian military stated that it sees no “greater threat” to Canadians than the coronavirus. Accordingly, Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan outlined plans under Operation Laser for the Canadian Armed Forces to support government responses to the pandemic, including mobilizing up to 24,000 members of the Regular and Reserve Forces to meet domestic needs.

P. Whitney Lackenbauer is Canada Research Chair in the Study of the Canadian North at Trent University and Honorary Lieutenant Colonel of 1st Canadian Ranger Patrol Group.

Northern Canadians will certainly note that these announcements include activation of Canadian Rangers to full-time readiness to assist their communities. “These flexible teams are capable of operating as local response forces to assist with humanitarian support, wellness checks, natural disaster response and other tasks as required,” Sajjan explained. “Canadian Ranger patrols will be available to enhance our understanding of the needs of the northern, remote and Indigenous communities, and we will be ready to respond as required.”

Commonly described as the military’s eyes, ears, and voice in remote communities, the Rangers’ leadership, organization, and training often makes them the de facto lead during local states of emergency. Examples include avalanches, flooding, extreme snowstorms, and power plant shutdowns, to forest fires and water crises. Over the years, Rangers have played many roles, from delivering supplies to performing community evacuations.

Peter Kikkert is Irving Shipbuilding Research Chair in Arctic Policy in the Brian Mulroney Institute of Government and Assistant Professor in the Public Policy and Governance program at St. Francis Xavier University

Ranger patrols have even responded to a pandemic in recent history, supporting health officials in conducting mass H1N1 vaccine clinics in the Arctic. Their effectiveness in times of crisis flows from the relationships, networks, and partnerships that they have in their communities, their familiarity with local cultures, fluency in Indigenous languages, and the trust that they have earned from their fellow community members.

Under Operation LASER, the military is prudent in turning to the Rangers in the North. Although Rangers are not trained in primary health care delivery, they are well positioned to support those who are. They know their communities, who is most vulnerable, and where support and assistance might be required.

Their specific roles and responsibilities remain to be determined, but there is little doubt that they will be involved in community wellness checks, supporting people who might be inflicted with COVID-19 (or at high risk of becoming so), and distributing supplies like groceries. They might assist local health officials in setting up remote clinics or testing facilities. As in the past, Rangers will also serve as a valuable conduit between their communities and government agencies that might be called upon to respond to a potential community outbreak, with important roles in passing reliable information about local needs.

In executing these duties, the military has made it clear that the health and well-being of the Rangers is a highest priority. They will not be enforcing laws or asked to directly interact with or move people with confirmed or likely cases of COVID-19. Others will perform these roles.

How the Rangers will receive protective equipment and associated training in their communities remains to be determined.

While the scale of this pandemic response is unprecedented, the Rangers (and other members of the Canadian Armed Forces) are well positioned and prepared to work with territorial emergency measures organizations and health agencies. Over the last decade, federal and territorial partners have contemplated pandemic scenarios and practiced coordinated responses in Operation Nanook exercises and during meetings of the Arctic Security Working Group.

The Rangers’ activation fits within this broader “Whole of Government” approach. Placing Rangers on full-time service to support their communities shows a genuine commitment that the federal government, through this unique group of Canadian Armed Forces members, is looking out for Northerners’ needs, leveraging existing community resilience and capacity.

The isolation of the northern and coastal communities in which the Rangers live is the best defence against this global pandemic. Turning to people who wear the Ranger red hoodie is a positive way to leverage local capacity and support local efforts in this time of apprehension and uncertainty.