When a Hercules aircraft brought military personnel to Red Sucker Lake First Nation in December, following a plea for help to contain a COVID-19 outbreak, Chief Samuel Knott didn’t expect the soldiers would be tasked with chopping fire wood.
Almost all of the 1,100 members of the community, about 535 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg, had to isolate because of a COVID-19 outbreak, which made simple things challenging.
Many of the homes are heated with wood stoves and people can’t drink tap water, so tasks like helping to cut and deliver wood in –40 C temperatures, and delivering food and drinking water, were nearly as important as helping with medical care.
“They practically did everything, helping us out,” Knott said.
Some of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks in Manitoba have happened in the most remote parts of the province, which meant help was needed from the Canadian Armed Forces — troops called on to respond to crises.
Internal documents obtained by CBC News through access to information requests paint a picture of those public health crises, but also point to a number of other challenges the military navigated as it attempted to support First Nations.
Between November and March, the Canadian Armed Forces responded to requests for assistance from seven remote communities in Manitoba battling outbreaks, all the while dealing with extreme cold and a lack of access to necessities, and learning on the fly.
In some areas, there was “complete community paralysis as a function of near total virus exposure,” an internal report on the Manitoba military operations said, referring to Shamattawa and Red Sucker Lake First Nations in the province’s northeast.
“Communities were no longer capable of sustaining themselves.”
First Nations leaders have said that’s because of systemic problems like poverty, overcrowded housing, and lack of access to water and other resources, along with the challenges of the First Nations’ geographic location.
Armed Forces personnel were in Shamattawa, about 745 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg, between Dec. 12 and 31. Chief Eric Redhead says the situation was dire because most of the 1,300 people in the community were isolating.
“At the time we had no resources,” Redhead said. “Our manpower was completely, completely down.”
Through Operation Laser — the official name for the Armed Forces’ COVID-19 pandemic response — soldiers with medical backgrounds were deployed to these communities and others to set up places for sick people to isolate, distribute food and firewood to households, share public health information, and support overwhelmed health-care workers in the community.
“They were able to communicate to us what they needed us to do, and we were able to go in there and just fill those blanks,” said Cpl. Shauna Burton, who was part of a medical team.
‘Required to rapidly self-educate’
In January and early February, military personnel in Garden Hill First Nation were tasked with setting up a space in the high school school for community members who couldn’t self-isolate at home.
The problem was that there was no local expertise on how to set it up, nor were there any external experts who were able to go to the community — about 475 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg — to advise, the internal report says.
The team “was required to rapidly self-educate, plan, liaise, establish the facility and develop an operating concept with very little relevant integral experience,” it reads.
Later, key external resources — both people and documents — were discovered that could have been useful to the team, including the fact there is a provincial lead on isolation accommodations, the document says.
A spokesperson from Shared Health says the provincial health organization worked remotely with the military, sharing relevant documents and experience.
“I know there at the beginning they [the military] didn’t really know what to do, like how to run the [alternate isolation accommodations],” said Oberon Munroe, Garden Hill’s health director.
Munroe says the process became smoother once there was more communication between community members and the military.
That included tapping into the previous expertise of Garden Hill health-care workers in setting up an isolation space in the elementary school for community members required to quarantine after travelling off-reserve, or for those who being flown out to isolate in Winnipeg.
In many of the communities, the military dealt with frigid winter temperatures, which affected the equipment they needed.
Armed Forces members stationed in Pauingassi First Nation between Feb. 6 and 20 faced wind chills of –35 and below.
The mission to the fly-in community, about 280 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg, was requested after nearly 30 per cent of the population tested positive for COVID-19 and many others were exposed.
“Vehicles could not be started some mornings. Vehicles loaned by the community and the RCMP also had difficulty,” a military report said.
The same issue plagued the military operation in Shamattawa, Redhead says.
The military was stationed at the local school, which also served as a location for people to isolate — but getting fuel to heat the building proved difficult because of the cold. The fuel truck was exposed to the elements a lot of the time and sometimes wouldn’t start.
An added issue was scarcity of resources in the area.
Not only was it difficult to find enough vehicles for the troops to use, parts had to be ordered from urban centres and shipped up on planes, which took several days.
“Little things like that might not seem like a big deal to some, but for a community like mine that’s moving mountains,” Redhead said.
The military reports indicate these are lessons and roadblocks to be aware of that can inform future missions to remote communities, including Operation Vector, an ongoing mission to help remote communities administer vaccines.
Communities like Shamattawa First Nation are just glad to now have a handle on COVID-19.
Redhead says there were no active cases in the community as of Wednesday.
“I don’t know how we would have made out if we hadn’t gotten the support of the Armed Forces. I don’t even want to think about it. It would have been really, really bad.”