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Feds caught off guard by Saskatchewan 'unforeseen' request for COVID-19 help

Minister of Health Paul Merriman answering questions during a scrum on April 25, 2022. (Gareth Dillistone/CTV News Regina) Minister of Health Paul Merriman answering questions during a scrum on April 25, 2022. (Gareth Dillistone/CTV News Regina)
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Public Safety Canada and the Canadian Armed Forces were caught off guard by a request for help from Saskatchewan during the height of the fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Documents obtained under freedom of information laws show employees in the federal departments were surprised when Saskatchewan Health Minister Paul Merriman sent a letter in October 2021 to then-federal health minister Patty Hajdu requesting help.

"Unforeseen (request for assistance) for (Saskatchewan) came into Ottawa through (Minister) Hajdu," said an email from Maj.-Gen. Paul Prevost, who runs the military centre called the Strategic Joint Staff on Oct. 18.

"(Government of Canada), as us, are surprised by this," said another email from Lt.-Col Dave Morency.

It was unexpected because Merriman had turned down an offer of federal support and, emails show, there was no indication a formal request would be on the horizon.

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

The 50 pages of emails that are partially redacted show that near the end of September 2021 and early October, the two federal departments were tracking an increasing number of infections, hospitalizations and pressures on intensive care units in Saskatchewan.

Saskatchewan was reporting record-high numbers of people in hospital and front-line health-care workers were voicing their concern that it would get worse. Surgeries and tests were being cancelled and staff were redeployed to COVID-19 wards.

Prevost said in an email on Sept. 29 that the situation is "getting worse; worse than Alberta in some parts of the (province)."

"We continue to discuss with (Saskatchewan) but there are no mentions of (request for assistance)," Prevost wrote.

Alberta was also facing significant pressures at the time with soaring hospitalizations and infections after it lifted COVID-19 public health orders over the summer. Then-premier Jason Kenney faced significant backlash when he walked back on his "best summer ever" comments, tightening restrictions and asking the federal government for assistance.

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

Maj. Dave Fedoruk wrote on Oct. 5 that Saskatchewan was possibly interested in a federal response such as Alberta's, but the province did not have its own information available during a recent meeting to "speak meaningfully" to what was needed.

The email added that Saskatchewan participants in the meeting "stated they do not have authority to submit a (request for assistance) at this time."

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 would later say the province 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 connects the province with possible help from member states including Illinois, Montana, Indiana, Michigan, New York, Minnesota, Ohio, North Dakota, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

No state helped.

Hajdu said she had urged the province to take federal support in the weeks before they finally reached out. She said in an interview with The Canadian Press at the end of 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 Minister Merriman the best plan is the one we make ahead of time, and we need to work together to make sure we can adequately understand what Saskatchewan needs might be," Hajdu said.

A few weeks later, a request for urgent assistance would come to Hajdu's office.

"Saskatchewan is reaching a critical point in our response to the fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, and we are in need of external support to manage patient care in a safe and sustainable manner. We have an immediate need for assistance from the federal government," said Merriman's letter to Hajdu on Oct. 18, 2021.

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

"Perhaps we should discuss this fairly urgently," said an email from James Gulak with Public Safety Canada. "Caught everyone by surprise and originated in the political realm."

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 help is needed and in what areas.

Even Saskatchewan front-line workers emailed they were not expecting the request.

"My apologies, I was only made aware of it in the last five minutes," said Kim Olsen, director of intergovernmental relations with Saskatchewan Public Safety Agency, in an email about the request.

Jessica Lamirande, with the federal Department of National Defence, said in an email that the Canadian Armed Forces monitor trends to evaluate possible requests for support.

The Canadian Armed Forces responded to the 2021 request with aircraft assistance 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 quickly change, and ensured that the Canadian Armed Forces remained ready to help provinces and territories that required assistance," Lamirande said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 1, 2023.

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