Federal government caught off guard by Saskatchewan ‘unforeseen’ request for COVID-19 help

Federal government caught off guard by Saskatchewan ‘unforeseen’ request for COVID-19 help

SASKATOON – Public Safety Canada and the Canadian Armed Forces have been surprised by a request for assistance from Saskatchewan at the height of the fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Documents obtained under freedom of information laws show staffers at federal departments were surprised when Saskatchewan Health Secretary Paul Merriman sent a letter to then-Federal Health Secretary Patty Hajdu in October 2021 asking for help.

“Unforeseen (requests for assistance) for (Saskatchewan) came to Ottawa through (Minister) Hajdu,” the Maj. Gen. said in an email. Paul Prevost, who heads the military center called the Strategic Joint Staff on October 18.

“(The Government of Canada) is as surprised as we are,” Lt. Col. Dave Morency said in another email.

It was unexpected because Merriman had turned down an offer of federal assistance and emails show there was no indication a formal request would be in sight.

The Saskatchewan government has not responded to a request for comment.

Saskatchewan opposition NDP health critic Vicki Mowat said federal officials should not have been taken by surprise and the request for help should have been made earlier.

“These emails show that Paul Merriman and the (Saskatchewan) party have completely mismanaged the response to COVID-19,” Mowat said in a statement.

The 50 pages of partially redacted emails show that towards the end of September 2021 and early October 2021, the two federal departments tracked a rising number of infections, hospitalizations and ICU loads in Saskatchewan.

Saskatchewan reported a record number of people in hospitals, and frontline healthcare workers expressed concern it was about to get worse. Surgeries and tests have been canceled and staff moved to COVID-19 wards.

Prevost said in an email on September 29 that the situation was “worsening; worse than Alberta in some parts of the (province).”

“We continue to discuss with (Saskatchewan) but there is no mention of (request for assistance),” Prevost wrote.

Alberta was also under significant pressure at the time, with hospitalizations and infections soaring after it lifted COVID-19 public health orders over the summer. Then-Prime Minister Jason Kenney faced significant backlash as he backtracked on his comments about the “best summer ever”, tightening restrictions and asking for federal government support.

The Saskatchewan government was watching what Alberta was doing, emails show.

Maj. Dave Fedoruk wrote Oct. 5 that Saskatchewan may be interested in a federal response like Alberta’s, but the province had no information of its own available during a recent meeting to “sensibly” talk about what was needed be.

The email added that attendees at the Saskatchewan meeting “declared that they do not currently have authority to submit a (request for assistance).”

However, at the time, the Saskatchewan government was reaching out to several places in the United States for assistance.

Saskatchewan Public Safety Agency President Marlo Pritchard later said the province had reached out to members of the Northern Emergency Management Assistance Compact through the International Emergency Management Assistance Memorandum of Understanding and to the Pacific Northwest Emergency Management Agreement, which the province has with possible aid links from states such as Illinois, Montana, Indiana, Michigan, New York, Minnesota, Ohio, North Dakota, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

No state helped.

Hajdu said she urged the province to seek federal assistance in the weeks before they finally came forward. She said in an interview with The Canadian Press in late September 2021 that if the province needed nurses, respiratory therapists or doctors, the federal government needed to know sooner rather than later.

“I really stressed to Secretary Merriman that the best plan is the one we create in advance, and we need to work together to ensure we can adequately understand what Saskatchewan needs,” Hajdu said.

A few weeks later, Hajdu’s office received a request for urgent help.

“Saskatchewan is reaching a critical juncture in our response to the fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, and we need external support to manage patient care in a safe and sustainable manner. We urgently need help from the federal government,” read Merriman’s Oct. 18, 2021 letter to Hajdu.

Public Safety Canada and the Canadian Armed Forces quickly began emailing each other to determine how best to respond to the unexpected request.

“Maybe we should discuss this fairly urgently,” said James Gulak of Public Safety Canada in an email. “All surprised and coming from politics.”

Generally, a formal request for assistance is submitted to Public Safety Canada, the lead coordinator of the federal response to these operations, outlining how much assistance is needed and in what areas.

Even frontline workers in Saskatchewan emailed saying they weren’t expecting the request.

“Sorry, this was only brought to my attention in the last five minutes,” Kim Olsen, director of interstate relations at the Saskatchewan Public Safety Agency, said in an email regarding the request.

Public Safety Canada spokeswoman Magali Deussing said in an email that occasionally during the pandemic, requests for help were coming in through health channels and being routed to the right departments. Due to the dynamics of the pandemic, according to Deussing, not all requirements are foreseeable.

Jessica Lamirande of the Department of National Defense said in an email that the Canadian Armed Forces are monitoring trends to assess potential requests for assistance.

The Canadian Armed Forces responded to the 2021 request with aircraft support and personnel to fly patients from Saskatchewan to Ontario. They also provided critical care nurses to help at Regina General Hospital and other nursing supports.

“Given the unpredictable nature of the pandemic, we were prepared for situations to change quickly and made sure the Canadian Forces remained ready to assist provinces and territories that needed assistance,” Lamirande said.

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on February 1, 2023.



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