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Chief of the Defence Staff Jonathan Vance delivers remarks in Ottawa in early March. He said on Thursday that the military is ready to deploy to remote Indigenous and northern communities to combat an outbreak of the novel coronavirus.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

The military is ready to deploy to remote Indigenous and northern communities if it is needed to combat outbreaks of the novel coronavirus, Canada’s top general says.

General Jonathan Vance told The Globe and Mail he is also planning to put reservists on the payroll full-time so they will be available to conduct humanitarian activities in communities that need help. Earlier this week, the government said it would be ready to mobilize up to 24,000 Canadian troops to respond to COVID-19. Gen. Vance estimated reservists would make up about 25 per cent of that, although he said he doesn’t have final numbers yet.

He added that a “wartime effort” is an accurate way to describe the intensity of the Canadian Forces’ preparations during the COVID-19 pandemic and how high the stakes are.

The military’s top priorities are to be able to respond quickly to remote communities that are infected with COVID-19, and to help deal with natural disasters such as forest fires or floods if the pandemic reduces the ranks of emergency workers, he said.

“The main planning effort right now ... is to be able to deploy a large task force to a community that is difficult to access. That would meet the requirements of an Indigenous community or any of our isolated northern communities,” he said.

Gen. Vance, who is Chief of the Defence Staff, said the military plans include air-medical evacuations to get people to hospital and provision of supplies, nursing stations and small field hospitals. The military can also provide self-isolation quarters for people who test positive for the virus and live in tight quarters where they could expose others.

“I deem that as an absolute necessity to prepare for," he said. “If we need to provide for full-service, multi-spectrum support in a fly-in community that is at long range from any of our bases, and if we can do that effectively, then most everything else is going to be an easy day."

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He said the military has enough medical protective gear and ventilators to ensure it can save lives if called to a remote community.

The general said he also issued an order to hire reservists full-time to serve in any way needed.

“I am in the process right now of offering contracts through our service chiefs to reservists across the country for full-time contracts to bring them on,” he said. “At the right moment, they will be organized by task forces that are tailored to do the job, whatever that may be in whatever part of the country that may be.”

The reservists would be on call and in isolation “so that they are immediately available and it shortens our response time.”

The reservists should be ready to deploy within a week or so to be “a helpful hand in a community should they run out of capacity in terms of humanitarian acts that are perhaps being done by volunteers now if volunteers get exhausted or sick.”

Steps are being taken to ensure troops don’t accidentally bring the virus to remote communities, Gen. Vance said. Only 15 per cent of staff are working at their usual office or post, while everyone else is working from home, he said.

Fewer than 20 personnel have tested positive for the virus, Gen. Vance said, noting there is no sign of community spread among the Canadian Armed Forces at this point. However, he said he is preparing for up to 25 per cent of members to potentially be unavailable in a worst-case scenario.

“I think the number of cases will rise. It’s just the nature of the spread. But with the kind of discipline and dedication to keeping ourselves ready, I think it’ll stay reasonably low. We don’t want to just flatten the curve, we want to squash it out altogether.”

Gen. Vance said he is paying close attention to the virus’s spread in the United States, as it will be a concern to Canada if it gets out of control south of the border. He said he is also monitoring the situation in Europe, the Middle East and Africa to ensure Canadian troops stationed abroad are not exposed to COVID-19.

The pandemic has further complicated the future of Canadian operations in the Middle East. Most Canadian troops were temporarily pulled out of Iraq before the COVID-19 outbreak. The withdrawal came earlier this year after a U.S. drone strike in Iraq killed a senior Iranian military commander, creating instability in the country.

Aside from a small team of Special Forces in Northern Iraq and a skeleton staff in Baghdad, most Canadian troops are now stationed in Kuwait or back in Canada. Gen. Vance said troops will return to Iraq, but factors including the COVID-19 pandemic and the political situation in the country would have to stabilize first.

The Navy is also taking steps to ensure Canadian ships avoid a possible coronavirus infection, as a U.S. warship deals with a COVID-19 outbreak. Gen. Vance said the Navy acted early, isolating sailors for 14 days and disinfecting any supplies that come on board ships.

As warmer weather and the Easter weekend approach, Gen. Vance echoed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s plea to Canadians to practise physical distancing.

“I would rather that everybody follows that and prevents the use of the military than not follow it and cause the military to be used. Because when the military comes in, it’s a last-ditch effort and it’s really bad.”

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Toronto police officers stop at a red light as they patrol on their service horses in Toronto on Thursday. Health officials and the government have asked that people stay inside to help curb the spread of the coronavirus also known as COVID-19.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

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