Double crisis for Royal Military College

Published in The Pioneer on Feb. 18, 2021 (Feb. 18 Pioneer)

The Royal Military College of Canada, or RMC, in Kingston, Canada’s military academy, was not only hit by the current health crisis, but also by a cyber attack that took its computer network down in 2020.

Like other institutions, RMC had to significantly modify the way it was delivering its programs this past year. But in addition, and in the midst of the pandemic, RMC was also hit by an attack on its computer network in July that left the college scrambling for solutions. The attack affected RMC in a significant way as it was counting on this network to help deliver its many academic programs remotely.

“This was a crisis within a crisis,” says Dr. Harry Kowal, the RMC principal.

“This was worse than the pandemic,” says Brigadier-General Sebastien Bouchard, the commandant of RMC. “The network is still being rebuilt now.”

“The silver lining in this case was that because of COVID, a lot of the faculty had been teaching from home and much of their material was at home, so it scoped the problem down a bit,” says Kowal.

RMC is known as a university with a difference because its mission extends far beyond academic education. Its mission, as stated in its Strategic Map 2023, is “As a military university, The Royal Military College of Canada educates, develops, and inspires bilingual, fit, and ethical leaders who serve the Canadian Armed Forces and Canada.”

To meet this mission, RMC has developed four pillars to prepare officers. In addition to academics, which are required to meet the same standards as any other Canadian university, RMC expects its graduates to meet a high standard of fitness, bilingualism and leadership capability. This is accomplished with a strict regimen of military training and sports, in addition to the academic programs required to attain each cadet’s chosen study discipline and the required level of bilingualism.

For the majority of undergraduate students, this requires that they live on campus as most of the hours of the day are occupied with some form of training and education. That means the campus normally accommodates up to 1,200 in-residence students, plus the many graduate students who pursue advanced degrees at RMC.

When the pandemic hit in March 2020, RMC, like most other educational institutions, decided to start delivering its programs online and send most students home. RMC is now left with 84 students still living on campus because of a variety of personal reasons.

“One of our biggest challenge was to maintain communications when we couldn’t gather together,” says Kowal. “We started using multiple platforms, but we all needed to learn how to use those.”

It was understood that sending the students home would have some impact on their development, but their health and well-being was paramount and the goal became to minimize the impact of this decision on the quality of the graduates.

As the students come from all parts of Canada, sending them home across the country also added to the complexity of teaching in all the Canadian time zones. This was accomplished by manipulating the schedule and adopting a blend of synchronous and asynchronous classes.

“Some accommodations have been made for students to opt for a late withdrawal of a course as it was done in most Canadian universities,” says Kowal. “The hands-on lab requirements for engineering students were able to be pushed back and only a few of them will be required to come back before graduation,” adds Kowal.

“The standards for graduation requirements have not changed,” says Bouchard. “The students are still expected to maintain a rigorous fitness regimen, as well as their academic programs while at home,” he adds.

As the pandemic dragged on into the summer and fall, it affected the whole of the Canadian Armed Forces including most of the basic military qualification training.

“The Canadian Armed Forces decentralized basic military qualification training to various bases across Canada in an effort to continue this important training while maintaining all public health measures recommended,” says Pascal Guindon of the Military Personnel Generation Group in National Defence Headquarters in Ottawa.

This meant that the new cadets arriving at RMC in August, about 220 of them, who would normally have undergone some basic military training before arriving at RMC, were now completely fresh off the street.

“This was an additional challenge for us, but we developed a program where we brought in some senior cadets, who isolated for two weeks, and then brought in the new cadets and isolated them in small groups,” says Major Robert Curtis, one of the division commanders responsible for military training at RMC.

The new RMC cadets were able to complete some basic military training plus the normal challenges thrown at them to become members of the RMC family, like the obstacle course, before entering their full-time academic programs. Then, around Thanksgiving, they were sent home to complete their first academic semester, but not before they had the chance to bond together and develop that unique sense of community at RMC.

Officer-Cadet Nicole Strickland, a fourth-year aerospace engineering student who is planning on becoming a pilot says, “RMC did an excellent job at reacting quickly to this crisis. It’s not ideal, as we would all like to be on campus to get the full experience but this is good, given the circumstances.”

Officer-Cadet Drew DeBruin, a third year student at RMC, leads Navy Cadet Yuki Kwan, second year, and officer cadets William Lee and Darian Mayer, both first year, to lower the flags at exactly 5 p.m. Despite the fact that the campus is almost empty, with only 84 students living on campus as opposed to the normal population of 1200, those that are there carry out the essential military duties such as raising and lowering the flags each day. Photo by Daniel Geleyn

Kingston’s third crossing progressing

Published in The Pioneer on Feb. 18, 2021 (Feb. 18 Pioneer)

The third crossing, a significant infrastructure project for Kingston, is making serious progress towards its completion at the end of 2022.

For Kingston, a third crossing across the Cataraqui River is a project that has been discussed for over half a century. The first real transportation study, which proposed the current location for the additional bridge, was developed in 1980. The need for additional crossing capacity was again justified in a follow-up report in 1992. But, due to affordability issues, the project was put on the shelf until 2007 when it started to gain traction by the city again.

“I suppose you can say that there has been third crossing fatigue for quite some time up until the funding was secured and the final phase was initiated in 2017,” says Dan Franco, the third crossing project manager for the city of Kingston.

The project is important for Kingston as traffic modelling has consistently shown that there is a deficiency in crossing capacity, especially the mid-town, east-west link in Kingston. The two existing crossings of the Cataraqui River are Hwy. 401, which is owned by the province, and the LaSalle Causeway near Lake Ontario, which is owned by the federal government.

“While there will be several benefits once the crossing is completed, from our personal point of view, the major impact will be the improved, and much quicker and safer access (no 401 travel), to the north and west parts of Kingston,” says Jim Petryk, a resident of the east end of Kingston.

“In the short term, the benefits of the construction are needed. In the long term, we hope that the crossing will provide an opportunity to bring both sides of the river closer together,” says Russ Phin, a long-time Kingston resident from the west side of the river.

The LaSalle Causeway is over a century old and it needs regular maintenance. This results in occasional closures that bring significant congestion and inconvenience to Kingston. It also incorporates a lift bridge and its capacity is limited.

“The new crossing will provide active transportation linkages and access to employment lands that are currently expanding on the city’s east end. It will also help the city reach its goal of reducing its carbon footprint by reducing the amount of travel and time by 63 million kilometres per year and 3.4 million hours per year,” says Franco.

The cost of the project is $180 million but a cost benefit analysis conducted by the city concluded that the cost savings over a 30-year period would amount to $1.2 billion, or 6.7 times the cost of the project. The cost analysis included the benefits to non-users as they will also benefit by having less congestions on the roads to get downtown. Based on this, the city decided that it was cost-effective but it could still not afford it.

It was not until the three levels of government agreed to share the cost that the project was made possible. The federal and provincial governments have both agreed to fund $60 million for the project, leaving the city to fund the remaining $60 million.

Although the residents of the east will see the greatest benefits, Petryk points outs that “If we have one concern, which will hopefully not come to pass, is that the bridge does not become the Emergency Detour Route (EDR) when there are issues on the 401. To date we have not seen anything that suggests this will be the case, but the thought of convoys of semi-trailers using Hwy. 15 is concerning. Hopefully the EDR will continue to be to the north. Time will tell.”

Like everything else this past year, this construction project was affected by the current health crisis. However, it was considered an essential project early in the pandemic so construction has continued throughout the past year.

“The foundation was the highest risk because it is hidden, but that is complete now so the biggest risk has been overcome already,” says Franco.

The river is 1.2-km wide at that point but it is quite shallow at about five to six feet. However, the rock is another 40 metres below the bottom of the river so the foundation has to be that deep. The best construction approach was to build a causeway which can be removed once the construction is complete. The causeway was started in January 2020 and it allowed access to complete the foundations by early 2021.

The current phase of the construction, which started on Feb. 1, involves the installation of almost 100 concrete girders that are manufactured in Utopia, Ont.

According to a Global News report on Feb.1, the girders are about 50 metres long and they weight from 78 to 84 metric tons each. Bruce Cockerill, an escort supervisor with DECAST Ltd., the company that builds and transports the girders, talked with Global and told them “I have been down here about six times previous to today to measure corners, to make sure we’re going to be able to get around the corners.”

The girders are transported from Utopia to Kingston at a rate of about four per week and they are installed shortly after they arrive on site. The whole process should take close to six months.

“Projects of this size and scope will always have some negative aspects and we feel for the residents who have lost what at one time were pristine views of the river, soon to be marred by a bridge, and also those that are now affected by ongoing work (noise and traffic),” says Petryk. He quickly adds, “We look forward to the completion of the third crossing. We feel that communication has been good, and that the community has been given ample opportunity to participate in the process.  The designs we have seen bode well for a functional and attractive site.”

The third crossing bridge in Kingston viewed from the east side of the Cataraqui river. Photo by Daniel Geleyn

Lionhearts Inc. responds to call

Published in The Pioneer on Feb. 4, 2021 (Feb. 4 Pioneer)

Lionhearts Inc. was started in 2014 to improve the lives of marginalized people in Kingston, but the organization has seen a significant expansion because of the pandemic.

The initial focus of Lionhearts Inc. when it was founded by Travis Blackmore in 2014 was on food rescue. Food that would normally be thrown out by businesses was collected by volunteers daily and distributed to a number of food security organizations in Kingston. Food that was not fit for human consumption would be provided to local farms as feed to avoid any waste.

In 2017, Lionhearts Inc. expanded its services to Ottawa. In 2019 alone, Lionhearts distributed over $2.4 million worth of food into the community, by providing what they collected to food security organizations, with the help of many volunteers.

But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, many of the organizations served by Lionhearts closed their doors, not because the need was no longer there, but because either the facilities had to close to meet government guidelines or simply because their volunteers, many of them older, stopped coming, fearing they would get infected themselves.

“Lionhearts did not provide meals before COVID but in March we saw the need so we started providing that service,” says Monika Cook, a Lionhearts volunteer and the community liaison.

By November, Lionhearts had served over 150,000 meals from an outdoor park in the city of Kingston.

With the colder weather settling in, Lionhearts was able to secure Stages, a night club in downtown Kingston which had been forced to shut its doors because of the pandemic, to deliver their nightly meals starting in November.

“We have an arrangement to be here at Stages for six months and then we will re-evaluate what the need is then,” says Liam Thomas, another long-time Lionhearts volunteer. The owners of Stages are providing the facility at no cost and the City of Kingston provided funding to pay for the utilities.

The colder weather also highlighted the need for a warming centre for the homeless in Kingston. The City of Kingston has a new Integrated Care Hub with limited capacity and a new warming centre opened on Jan. 20 closer to downtown.

However, another warming centre which was operating at St. Andrew’s Church by the Kingston Street Mission was forced to close because of COVID, the need for social distancing, and the lack of volunteers. And once more, Lionhearts saw the need, rallied more volunteers, and opened a warming centre at Stages, initially for three evenings a week.

“Because of COVID, we can no longer use St. Andrew’s Church. We’re glad Lionhearts has picked up the job so I’m helping here. We built this relationship now,” says Marilyn McLean, the executive director for Kingston Street Mission and now also a Lionhearts volunteer.

Many of the volunteers for the Kingston Street Mission were older or had young kids and were worried about COVID. So new volunteers are now stepping up.

Keri Oosterhof has lived in Kingston since 2006 and she was happy to help.

“I follow Lionhearts and support them financially so when I saw the advert, I thought ‘I could do that’,” she says.

Mary Frink has been working with the Kingston Street Mission for the last seven years so the transition to Lionhearts was easy.

“I always believed that there are times in life when you are a taker; you have to take because you have small kids or whatever. But now is the time in my life when I can give, so this is what I like to do,” she says.

Lionhearts volunteers at the warming centre at Stages in Kingston are getting ready to welcome members of the community. Photo by Daniel Geleyn

Community comes together to help Verona fire victims

Published in The Pioneer on Jan. 21, 2021 (Jan. 21 Pioneer)

The McMullen Manor in Verona, a 28 single-bedroom apartment complex, was gutted by fire on the night of 7-8 January 2021. But the communities of Verona, South Frontenac, Kingston and beyond all responded overwhelmingly to support those who lost everything. The Verona Free Methodist Church, just steps away from the complex, was especially helpful to help those affected by the fire. Photo by Daniel Geleyn

Community members from the small south Frontenac community of Verona demonstrated their compassion as they rallied together to help residents who lost everything in a tragic fire on Jan 7.

At about 10 p.m. on Jan 7, a fire broke out in the McMullen Manor apartment complex in Verona. The complex had 28 one-bedroom units and was home to about 30 residents. Fortunately, there was no loss of human life, thanks to smoke alarms in the building which alerted residents.

Three of the residents of the complex were also members of the Verona Free Methodist Church, less than 100 metres away.

“One of them texted me and said my house is on fire,” says Pastor Kathy Casement. “That’s all I got so I phoned 911 to confirm the extent and found out the whole building was indeed in flames.”

The pastor then started making calls to her members for help. Within minutes, members of the congregation had opened the church and informed the authorities that the victims could use their facilities. Kielo Carlson, a member of the congregation since 2011, said “There was no one here when I arrived but then the emergency people started directing the residents to the church, so they started coming in.”

The residents were offered warm and cold drinks and snacks but most of them were in a state of shock, many of them still wearing their pyjamas.

“I’ve been running a clothing store called Style Revival where I provide clothing for free in the basement of the church since 2012,” says Carlson. “So I took many of those residents to our store so they could at least get some clothes.”

By the early hours of the next morning, all the residents were able to either go with friends or family in nearby communities, or they were lodged in a Kingston hotel coordinated by the Kingston Frontenac Housing Corporation.

“We stayed until all the residents were safely placed and were able to close the church at about 2:30 in the morning,” says Casement.

The Verona Community Association stepped up the next morning and used the cooking facilities at the Free Methodist Church to provide meals for the emergency people working at the scene all day Friday and Saturday. “The food was all donated by local stores and restaurants,” says Casement.

The news of the fire spread quickly and donations to help the people who lost everything in the fire started coming in.

“We started getting donations from people as far away as Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa,” says Carlson.

They received so much that they had to divert the donated items to other neighbouring communities which also became overwhelmed with all the items being donated. More than a week later, they still have large bags of unopened donations filling the basement of the church.

Susanne Casement, a long-time resident of Verona who found out about the fire the next morning was inspired by the outpouring of support from her community. “Thank goodness that the church and the community association were there,” she says. “It makes me feel very happy to be part of such a caring community.”

Kielo Carlson has been a member of the Free Methodist Church in Verona since 2011. Wanting to do more for her community, she started Style Renewal, a clothing store that accepts donations and provides its products free of charge for anyone that needs it. Carlson was one of the first members of her congregation to open the church for the residents of the McMullen Manor who lost everything in a fire on 7/8 January 2021. She supported the residents and opened her store for them as most of them were still in their pyjamas and in shock. Photo by Daniel Geleyn