Natural disaster relief is straining Canada’s military
Opinion by Logan Breen
In recent years, the frequency and severity of major natural disasters in Canada have increased due to climate change. For each major natural disaster, whether it be hurricanes in Atlantic Canada, flooding or snowstorms in central Canada, or forest fires in British Colombia, a robust government response is required to provide citizens with disaster relief. Given the threat posed by climate change, disaster relief is key to limiting the harm caused by natural disasters. Often, this responsibility falls to the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF), a force that is becoming increasingly strained trying to balance demanding domestic and foreign commitments in an unstable world .
If a natural disaster overwhelms the response capabilities of provincial and territorial authorities, help can be requested from the federal government. Over the past decade, the CAF has been the federal government’s go-to option for disaster relief through Operation Lentus – the established framework to support provincial and territorial authorities in such cases. Support is tailored based on the scale of the natural disaster and the request from the province or territory, meaning the number of personnel deployed, the equipment used, the cost, and the duration all vary significantly between missions . Over 40 missions have been conducted under Operation Lentus since 2010, with the most recent being the response to Hurricane Fiona in the Atlantic provinces. Between 2010 and 2020, 32% of missions saw fewer than 100 personnel deployed and 69% of missions saw under 500 personnel deployed. During the same period, 30% of missions lasted for fewer than 7 days . Disaster relief from the CAF is especially useful when a prolonged deployment of personnel, the use of transport aircraft, or advanced logistical support is needed. The use of the CAF during smaller disaster relief missions, especially when manpower is the foremost need (ex. the 2020 Newfoundland snowstorm) is remarkably inefficient and draws resources away from training and foreign commitments . Defence policy experts also assert that the overutilization of Operation Lentus will, over time, erode the government’s natural disaster response capabilities, especially in a case where simultaneous natural disasters occur .
The strain on the CAF
Given that the CAF has been the federal government’s go-to resort for disaster relief and, in many cases, is an inefficient response, the federal government must adjust its response to natural disasters to allow the CAF to focus on its other priorities while reserving Operation Lentus for cases when other organizations cannot offer relief. The additional strain from emergency relief on the CAF comes at a time of historic pressure on Canadian defence institutions. Geopolitics are increasingly unstable due to the Russian war in Ukraine and the CAF is suffering from low recruitment, underfunding, and sexual misconduct . As Stephen Saideman put it, the Director of the Canadian Defence and Security Network, responding to an increasing number of natural disasters means that the CAF “has less money, less time and fewer resources to deal with other problems. … It interrupts training cycles and it interrupts other things. The CAF is strained.” .
Policymakers have various options for alleviating the current strain on the CAF presented by the overutilization of Operation Lentus. The federal government could create a separate federal agency, like the United States’ National Guard, dedicated to responding to all domestic crises. While this would be a rather ambitious endeavour, a National Guard-type force could be tasked with additional roles beyond disaster relief such as providing civil support for law enforcement .
Another option could foresee the creation of a trained corps of volunteers dedicated to assisting civilian authorities with disaster relief. Considering that Operation Lentus responds to various natural disasters of differing severity, a corps of volunteers would serve well when the equipment and logistics of the CAF are not required. Such an option would eliminate inefficiencies in disaster response by the CAF and could be modelled on an existing program in Germany . All things considered, these options would require sufficient funding and resources for a new federal agency or for a corps of volunteers at a time when the CAF is already underinvested .
The CAF could also promote the role of reservists in disaster relief as opposed to active-duty personnel. This would reduce strain on personnel but it would do little to relieve the CAF as the federal government's go-to resort for disaster relief. This – coupled with federal politicians advocating that provinces and territories bolster their emergency measures organizations to reduce reliance on the federal government - could successfully alleviate some strain off the core components of the CAF . Finally, humanitarian and non-profit organizations such as the Canadian Red Cross play an important role in disaster relief, a role which could be augmented to reduce reliance on the CAF through financial and resource support from the federal government .
 Bryan Passifiume, “Military shouldn’t be Canada’s go-to disaster relief force: former official,” National Post, October 4, 2022, https://nationalpost.com/news/politics/military-shouldnt-be-canadas-go-to-disaster-relief-force-former-official.
 “Operation LENTUS,” Government of Canada, November 23, 2022, https://www.canada.ca/en/department-national-defence/services/operations/military-operations/current-operations/operation-lentus.html.
 Christian Leuprecht and Peter Kasurak, “The Canadian Armed Forces and Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief: Defining a Role,” Centre for International Governance Innovation, August 24, 2022, https://www.cigionline.org/articles/canadian-armed-forces-and-humanitarian-assistance-and-disaster-relief-defining-role/.
 “An Interim Report on the Defence of Canada in a Rapidly Changing Threat Environment,” Standing Committee on National Defence, House of Commons, June 2022, 40-43,https://www.ourcommons.ca/Content/Committee/441/NDDN/Reports/RP11857914/nddnrp01/nddnrp01-e.pdf.
 Wilfrid Greaves, “Climate change is increasing the strain on Canadian Armed Forces for emergency response,” May 30, 2022, https://www.hilltimes.com/story/2022/05/30/climate-change-is-increasing-the-strain-on-canadian-armed-forces-for-emergency-response/270708/.
 Murray Brewster and Richard Raycraft, “Military personnel shortage will get worse before it gets better, top solider says,” CBC News, October 6, 2022, https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/eyre-shortage-directive-1.6608107.
 Richard Shimooka, “Richard Shimooka: The neglect of Canada’s armed forces is leaving
us all defenceless,” The Hub, October 13, 2022, https://thehub.ca/2022-10-13/richard-shimooka-the-neglect-of-our-armed-forces-is-leaving-us-all-defenceless/.