Issue 44: Military ethics and the nursing home catastrophe

Canadians have an uneasy relationship with their armed forces, but it turns out that some of the military's virtues come in handy during a pandemic

THIS SEEMS LIKE A GOOD TIME to talk about the various roles the Canadian military has been playing during the COVID-19 pandemic, and about the place of the Canadian Armed Forces in Canadian society more generally. 

1. Operation LASER

The deployments of CAF personnel for pandemic support across Canada are a part of Operation LASER, which is the umbrella mission for the Canadian Forces’ response to the global pandemic.

Since the COVID-19 outbreak began in Canada, the CAF has received a number of requests for assistance from eight provinces. These responses include patrols by Canadian Rangers in northern Quebec and Saskatchewan and the deployment of a team of military dental officers helping Public Health Ontario with contact tracing. 

But the most substantial contribution by the CAF to the civilian pandemic response has been the deployment of troops to Long Term Care facilities in Ontario and Quebec after a request was made by the two provinces in mid-April. The prime minister has not really hid the fact that he’s not super-delighted with the deployment, and it is not hard to see why.  By any measure it’s been a bit of an off-brand mission for the military, and certainly not one they expected to be performing.

The LTC deployments have also soaked up almost all of the military’s medical capacity -- a capacity that is supposed to serve the medical needs of the men and women in uniform. While they have started to pull back from some of the facilities, in Ontario there are currently 449 military personnel deployed at five LTC homes. In Quebec, there are 1316 military personnel deployed to 18 facilities, down from a high of 28.

In many cases, these soldiers are being used as medical orderlies and janitorial staff. They’ve been doing a lot of manual labour -- cleaning, doing laundry, delivering meals, and helping residents. This has naturally put them on the front lines of the fight to control the COVID-19 outbreak, and so far 42 members of the forces have contracted the illness -- 14 in Ontario, and 28 in Quebec. Thankfully, there have been no deaths so far. 

2. The Reports 

At the end of May, the CAF pointedly released two reports to the media summarizing the observations and experiences of the military personnel deployed at the LTC facilities in Ontario and in Quebec

While the Ontario report was the more devastating, both portrayed systems in a high state of dysfunction and decay. In Ontario, CAF personnel reported everything from roach-infested rooms and spoiled food to patients being neglected, bulled, drugged and abused. The less-graphic Quebec report nevertheless highlighted a great deal of dysfunction, in particular relating to poor management practices and neglect of safety protocols. 

While these reports were hailed in some quarters as a sort of “wakeup call” for the respective provincial governments,  a lot of journalists pointed out that none of this was news. Newspapers and other media outlets in both provinces have been reporting on the sorry state of the LTC system for years, even decades. 

So why were the military reports taken so seriously? Partly it is because it is happening in the middle of a pandemic, so the stakes are much higher. But it’s possible that it is also because of the unique, and perhaps uniquely serious, place of the military in Canadian life.  

The military code of conduct

Like most professions, the “profession of arms in Canada” is governed by a code of ethics that sets out the standards of conduct for members of the profession, while also defining the work of the profession and regulating how it is performed. For the Canadian Forces, that code of professional ethics can be found in a manual entitled Duty With Honour: The Profession of Arms in Canada. It is a fascinating document, and it is worth the while of every Canadian to take the time to read. 

According to the manual, the core function and responsibility of the Canadian Forces “is the defence of Canada and Canadian interests.” The members of the profession fulfill this responsibility “through the lawful, ordered application of force under government direction.” That is, the military is prepared to engage in extreme violence in the service of state interests. This is an awesome responsibility that demands an enormous amount of discipline from its members. What provides coherence to this responsibility, giving the profession of arms a centre of moral gravity and establishing the ethical framework for all military conduct, is what the manual calls “the military ethos.” 

The three main elements of the military ethos are 1) a set of beliefs and expectations regarding the military, which constitute the warrior’s duty;  2) Canadian values; and 3) Canadian military values. The most important of these is the first, the set of military beliefs that make up the concept of duty

Duty begins with the idea that the profession of arms in Canada is first and foremost voluntary. The military professional commits to the idea of service before self, while operating under the principle of unlimited liability. This gives rise to the ordered priorities that define duty: the mission comes first, then one’s own troops, then finally, self. 

To the notion of duty the manual adds Canadian values, which emphasizes that soldiers are also citizens. What makes the military and its activities legitimate is that it embodies and embraces the same values as the society that it defends. And finally, there are Canadian military values, which encompass the first two in the form of duty and loyalty to Canada, and add military values such as integrity, discipline and courage. When these three elements are upheld, honour is earned. The ultimate goal of the profession of arms in Canada is to perform one’s duty with honour.

The crucial concept here is the notion of unlimited liability. This is the idea that all members of the Canadian Forces “accept and understand that they are subject to being lawfully ordered into harm’s way under conditions that lead to the loss of their lives.” This is what sets the military apart not just from civilians, but from all other agents of public security, peace, and order. No other member of society -- not the police, not doctors -- is subject to unlimited liability. It is, ultimately, why hundreds of untrained military personnel could be sent into pandemic hot zones to do jobs that the trained professionals were in many cases refusing to do. 

Unsurprisingly, unlimited liability is something that is at best poorly understood by most civilians.  For most Canadians, honour is at best an outdated concept, at worst something laughable, or as Jack Nicholson’s Col. Jessep puts it in A Few Good Men, “a punchline.”  

It wasn’t always this way. Honour was for hundreds of years a social virtue, reflecting the sorts of qualities that gentlemen were expected to have: dignity, integrity, courage and so on. But today, honour is taken seriously only in small and isolated precincts of society where how you behave in front of your peers matters more than money, more than health, more than family, maybe even more than life itself.

A lot of people find this incredible. Most members of the public have no experience with communities of honour and so can't understand that something other than civilian norms might be at stake. This is especially so for journalists, whose own professional ethos is somewhat at odds with the values that underwrite the concept of duty with honour. 

But if you understand the notion of duty with honour, and what it means to the members of the CAF, it helps explain the punchiness of the military’s reports on the long term care facilities in Ontario and Quebec. Because at their core, these are cases of extreme dereliction of duty -- something the members of the armed forces simply cannot abide. (AP)

Policy for Pandemics is produced and edited by Andrew Potter. If you have any feedback or would like to contribute to this newsletter, please send an email to If you liked this, why not share it?