The Canadian Rangers have remained busy in northern Ontario since a spike in COVID-19 cases on the James Bay coast last month. “This may just be another resurgence, but we are ready to provide support where possible,” said Lt. Col. Shane McArthur.
McArthur is the commander of the 3rd Canadian Ranger Patrol Group, which oversees the Canadian Rangers in northern Ontario. When remote communities locked down to limit the spread of COVID-19, the rangers – who are part-time Canadian Armed Forces reservists – were there to help. Since January 2020, rangers have conducted 48 ground search and rescue and requests for assistance in the region. And during Omicron, McArthur says, they had to answer multiple calls at once.
As of February 15, the Weeneebayko Area Health Authority, a health care network covering the James Bay and Hudson Bay coasts, was reporting 259 active cases. The hardest hit communities during this pandemic wave have been Kashechewan and Moose Factory, which peaked earlier this month at 72 and 81 active cases, respectively. While cases in both communities have since declined, in Fort Albany, just south of Kashechewan, they are increasing, with 50 cases reported active Tuesday.
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TVO.org interviews McArthur about the role of rangers during COVID-19 and how they respond when communities need help.
TVO.org: For those who don’t know, who are the Canadian Rangers?
Shane McArthur: The Canadian Rangers are a subcomponent of the Army Reserve. They are part-time people who volunteer. They support their people, their communities, where they live.
We often use them for ground search and rescue operations in the North and their communities, as well as to assist other agencies and organizations, especially the military, with their cold weather training exercises. However, we have entered into more social aspects of our tasks, which include supporting communities during certain health crises, floods, fires, etc.
My rangers are good at navigation, coordination and command post operations. They know the language, they know the people, the communities, the terrain. That’s what they bring to an answer — those things that you can’t get from the South or from other ministries.
TVO.org: Can you give us an overview of how the rangers are currently responding to requests for assistance from the community?
McArthur: There are about 70 rangers—it goes up and down—and members of the headquarters of the 3rd Canadian Ranger Patrol Group who are currently active in operations in northern Ontario. We currently have five requests for assistance in five different communities, and we are also supporting Operation Remote Immunity, the rollout of the vaccine, this time for anyone who wants the boosters and for children ages 5-11 in all communities.
We are currently in Attawapiskat, Peawanuck, Kashechewan, Mishkeegogamang and Fort Hope [Eabametoong]. Three of them are on the James Bay coast. We are monitoring Fort Albany, but there are no requests or concerns at this time.
We got up [activated] sentinels in Pikangikum and Lac Seul because they are worried. We call them sentinels, but they are local rangers within the community who help get information to make sure we get the right information about what’s going on in the community so we can support them.
TVO.org: What does a Canadian Rangers response to COVID-19 look like?
McArthur: They transport essential goods and supplies. For seniors, they do checks, make sure people get daily necessities. When the community goes into lockdown, sometimes it shuts down the northern store down. Some of the most vulnerable people in the community cannot leave, so they provide these services to ensure that their community members are well taken care of with food, water and medical appointments, go to the clinic. They can also set up a command post as needed or be ready to advise Chief and Council as needed.
We also cut wood to bring to people, especially homes that are in confinement. Lots of general duties, as we call it. Snow removal is a good citizen.
TVO.org: How are rangers called for help?
McArthur: We are not the leader, and I am not the authority — it goes through the Province of Ontario and Public Safety. Emergency Management Ontario and federal agencies make all decisions and request CAF assistance. Depending on where it is and what the problem is, the CAF says, “Okay, Canadian Ranger Patrol Group, can you support that? We’ve already done some homework, and the staff checks and says, “Yes, we can.”
We raise the sentries to make sure we have at least three days in advance [of a request]. We try to make sure we can cut [preparation time] as possible while these approval processes are ongoing. We are not always able to fly into these communities in a timely manner due to requirements and restrictions.
TVO.org: So it’s the communities that go into the province through Emergency Management Ontario, that go to the CAF, that then contact you?
McArthur: Yes. Email traffic happens very, very quickly – almost a few minutes – but it sounds very complicated.
TVO.org: You mentioned restrictions making it difficult to respond quickly. Can you elaborate?
McArthur: We comply with all provincial and federal health protection measures. Then there are the needs of the Canadian Armed Forces, which are growing, and we will always strive to meet them. For some communities, we may need to be tested before entering – and then be tested when we enter. We are the visitors there and we do not want to be seen as the vector of contamination. We’re doing everything in our power to make sure it’s not us.
Sometimes these things take 24 hours, sometimes 48 hours, because of the type of tests used. It doesn’t always work out in our favor, which means [requests] sometimes catches us off guard, and there are delays. But we try to do everything in our power not to have these delays.
TVO.org: A particularly difficult situation in the Far North was Bearskin Lake First Nation, where more than half the community tested positive, leading to the declaration of a state of emergency on December 29. the number of rangers and the respect of deadlines of their response. Has this changed how rangers respond to COVID-related requests for assistance?
McArthur: We practice Bearskin exactly as we practice [other communities]. There are a few things that have happened that have been a disconnect in communications. It hasn’t changed our practices, because we’ve done everything in accordance with what we’ve done for the past two years. There was a misunderstanding about which resources were going to stay in the community, and when we arrived they weren’t there. It took us some time to seek approval to commit new forces. When we did that, we put those strengths out there and supported the community like we always have.
Unfortunately we were taken a bit poor so we had to rearrange. I had to go back to look for authorities, and this process took time. It also takes us time to rid people of COVID. Meanwhile, the impression was perceived differently. And, again, we regret that this happens. But the processes we’ve been using have proven themselves to us over the past two years, and we’ve done a damn good job overall.
TVO.org: Are there any individuals or groups that you have seen go above and beyond in their response?
McArthur: If you start naming a name, you will always miss someone. They do a great job in difficult circumstances. They help their communities while living in these conditions themselves. That’s no small feat, and the accolades go to all of them. I received compliments for my rangers from many community leaders. And, in particular, the NAN [Nishnawbe Aski Nation] great leader [Derek Fox]. The support we have received from the communities, from the chiefs, has been incredible, so I give them my congratulations.
This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.
This is part of a series of stories about issues affecting Northeastern Ontario. It is brought to you with the assistance of Laurentian University.
Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust and Goldie Feldman.