It was a memorable day on May 13, 1997, when Winnipeggers lined the street to wave goodbye to about 135 military vehicles containing personnel who helped protect the city from the Flood of the Century.
Back then, Manitobans were exceedingly grateful to the military for its emergency help. Today, many of us would be exceedingly grateful if the military returned for a different crisis.
Elderly Manitobans who reside in personal care homes are dying at an appalling rate, victims of COVID-19. It’s so bad, Mayor Brian Bowman and New Democratic Party leader Wab Kinew have urged the provincial government to call in the military.
So far, Premier Brian Pallister has resisted the advice, and his government has been vague when asked why it won’t ask for military help. Some of us suspect the Manitoba PCs would see it as a sign of weakness, as a repudiation of Health Minister Cameron Friesen’s statement last week that "the people in charge have got this."
If they won’t call in outside help because they fear it would appear they are not up to the job of leading Manitoba through this pandemic, that perception should be immediately dispelled.
No one regarded former premier Gary Filmon as a poor leader because he called in the troops in 1997. And no one thought less of former premier Greg Selinger when he sought military aid in the 2014 flood.
Those two premiers used the military to prevent flood damage to property and infrastructure. Today, the need is even more urgent because it’s about the deaths of people. Everyone will agree people are more important than property.
No reasonable person expects the Pallister government to go it alone against the pandemic. They didn’t sign up for this. The people around the caucus table on Broadway Avenue have many gifts and skill sets, but when it comes to protecting care-home residents against a viral outbreak of epidemic proportions, none of them has relevant training or experience.
People who do have such training and experience include the military, as it showed in Ontario and Quebec. In those two provinces, some long-term care homes were wracked by COVID-19 early in the pandemic. Their premiers asked for help, and the military sent 1,650 troops into those homes.
Some people may mistakenly believe military personnel are not a good fit to rescue Manitoba’s care-home residents, perhaps imagining weapon-trained soldiers in combat boots who are better suited for battle than the compassionate care that elderly Manitobans deserve.
But many troops have a high level of medical expertise, and would come with stethoscopes instead of rifles. They would arrive in great numbers to relieve Manitoba’s overtaxed care-home aides, bringing a rich supply of personal protective equipment, and the "get-the-job-done" discipline that characterizes the military.
Importantly, the military is zealous about filing reports about its activities and it would chronicle in detail the crises inside Manitoba care homes. In Ontario and Quebec, the military issued lengthy reports that described conditions "nothing short of horrid and inhumane." They found insect infestations, rotten food, reuse of unsterile equipment like catheters, elderly patients in soiled diapers crying for hours without staff attention, and coronavirus patients kept in rooms with people who did not have the disease
The Pallister government recently promised an investigation into the care-home crises, but it’s unlikely to be transparent about its findings. This is the same government that already has annual report cards detailing conditions within Manitoba care homes but, unlike other provinces, refuses to give the public access to this information.
As independent observers, the military gave the public in Ontario and Quebec a wide-open window into their troubled care homes, and they can do the same in Manitoba.
Such reports would provide important information for a conversation Manitobans should soon have about whether to continue to permit for-profit care homes. The military reports could also be valuable evidence for the many lawsuits already filed against companies that own some Manitoba care homes, including Revera Inc.
The provincial government, through Manitoba Health, is responsible for licensing care homes — including those that are privately owned — and revoking the licences of those that are below inspection standards.
This provincial responsibility should include calling in emergency help when it’s needed. If there’s any doubt whether Manitoba has reached such a state, ask the grieving families of the 57 Manitobans in care homes who have been COVID-19 fatalities while under the government’s watch.
Carl DeGurse is a member of the Free Press editorial board.
Senior copy editor
Carl DeGurse’s role at the Free Press is a matter of opinion. A lot of opinions.