Guardians of the North
Jul 15, 2009

Relatively few Canadians have ever visited our nation’s vast Arctic region, and only about 100,000 souls actually inhabit it. Yet, in recent decades, the future of Canada’s North and the issue of Arctic sovereignty have become more pressing than ever before.

Pitisulaq Ukuqtunnuaq of 1CRPG flies the Canadian Ranger flag on his snowmobile at Eureka, Nunavut. The Rangers carried out patrols starting from Eureka and CFS Alert, Nunavut, during OP NUNALIVUT, one of three major sovereignty operations conducted each year by the CF in Canada’s North. (Photo: MCpl Kevin Paul, Canadian Forces Combat Camera)

Our sovereignty over the Arctic islands themselves is not widely contested; the most widely reported dispute is over Hans Island, a small, barren piece of rock between Ellesmere Island and Greenland. Many perceive sovereignty over the straights and ­channels within the Canadian archipelago – the fabled Northwest Passage – as the crucial issue. Several nations, including the United States, insist that the Northwest Passage is an international straight that should be open, without restriction, to ships from any country. Washington underscored its position in 1969 and 1985 by sending vessels through the Passage without seeking ­permission from Ottawa.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s ­government has made the Arctic one of its major domestic concerns. When first elected, Harper made a trip to Ellesmere Island; the main purpose was to reassert Canada’s claim of sovereignty over Arctic waters. “Sovereignty is not a theoretical concept, you either use it or lose it,” he declared. It is predicted that sovereignty and security challenges will become more pressing in the coming years as the impact of climate change leads to enhanced activity throughout the region.

Protecting national sovereignty over the Arctic territory requires a presence on the ground, in the air and at sea.

With one of the lowest population ­densities in the world, and some of the most difficult climatic and physical conditions in which to patrol, it has always been a challenge for the Canadian Forces to maintain a traditional military presence in the North – a region that comprises approximately one third of Canada’s land mass. As a result, the Canadian Rangers, a unique paramilitary force consisting of part-time reservists, continues to have an important, if not essential, function North of 60°.

The Canadian Rangers can trace their origins to the Pacific Coast Militia Rangers, a force created during the Second World War to act as coastal watchers. More than 15,000 British Columbians served in the PCMR before it was disbanded in 1945. By 1947, Cold War tensions and a new focus on northern security, coupled with renewed sovereignty concerns relating to a U.S. military presence in the North led the government to establish the Canadian Rangers. Their official role has been to provide a military presence in sparsely settled northern, coastal and isolated areas of Canada where an effective presence cannot conveniently or economically be provided by other components of the Canadian Forces. They are often described as the military’s “eyes and ears” in remote regions.

Joint Task Force North is home to 1st Canadian Ranger Patrol Group, which encompasses Nunavut, the Yukon and the Northwest Territories. 1 CRPG has approximately 1600 Rangers in 35 communities. The demographics of the group can scarcely be compared to Canada’s conventional reserve units. With only three relatively large settlements in an area the size of Western Europe, it consists of many small communities. Some of these remote hamlets are only accessible by air or by ice in the winter.

Canadian Ranger Gary Kalluk fires the C9 Light Machine Gun during a live-fire range exercise in Resolute Bay, Nunavut. Rangers are issued Lee Enfield .303 rifles, and were firing weapons supplied to the Winter Warfare Advanced course, which was conducting a live-fire small-arms shoot outside Resolute Bay, Nunavut. (Photo: MCpl Kevin Paul, Canadian Forces Combat Camera)

Major Luc Chang, the Commanding Officer of 1 Canadian Ranger Patrol Group, is tasked with overseeing this vast network from his Yellowknife headquarters. “Sometimes, if there’s a snowstorm, it can be ­difficult to reach a community,” notes Chang. “It’s often necessary to rely on telephone or fax. It’s a great challenge, but I think we overcome these challenges really well with the various technologies that exist. It’s a completely different context than a commanding officer of a base down south,” he stresses.

Most members of 1 CRPG are bilingual or multilingual. A large number speak languages other than French or English as their primary language. Inuktitut is the first language of many; others speak Dene or other native dialects.

Although there are no official statistics, the 1 CRPG patrols are representative of the diverse ethnic composition of the North. Most of the Ranger patrols south of the tree line are comprised of members of Dene, Métis or predominately white communities. While north of the tree line, the majority of the patrols are Inuit. In Nunavut, the Rangers are almost entirely Inuit and most operations are conducted in Inuktitut.

Appropriately, the fundamental require­ments for those wishing to join the Canadian Rangers are distinct from the regular force and other reserve force units. The only formal entry criteria for the Rangers is that men and women who join must be over eighteen years of age and have Canadian citizenship or landed immigrant status. They must also be in good health and be willing to be members of the Canadian Forces. There is no upper age limit – if an individual is capable of performing his or her duties, he or she can remain serving as a Ranger.

A key principle behind the Rangers has always been to enable citizens in isolated and coastal communities, far from Canada’s southern belt of population, to perform useful military functions while ­carrying out their everyday civilian lives.

A significant number of Rangers hold leadership positions as mayors, chiefs, teachers or social workers. Rather than asking these talented and diverse individuals to leave their communities to join the Regular Forces or Primary Reserves, they are permitted to make meaningful contributions to their country on the home front. Chang has nothing but praise for the 56 Ranger patrols under his command “They are doing an excellent job; they’re serious and proud about their role,” he says.

According to Chang, and many others, the Rangers are an indispensable operational resource for the Canadian Forces. They often represent the only CF presence in some of the least populated parts of the country. The Rangers assist the Canadian Forces by reporting unusual activities and by collecting local data of significance in support of military operations. They must also be prepared to conduct sovereignty patrols as tasked.

The patrols are physically demanding as well. A 2005 operation, based out of an abandoned weather station at Isachsen, saw a 22-member Ranger patrol travel 1,000 kilometres in two weeks, exploring various Arctic islands and leaving behind cairns. The next year, five teams of Rangers patrolled nearly 5,000 kilometres – from Mould Bay in the Northwest Territories, and from Isachsen, Grise Flord and ­Resolute Bay in Nunavut. They gathered information on equipment and airfields that could be helpful in emergencies such as a major air disaster.

More recently, Major Luc Chang led his Rangers in Operation Nunalivut 2009, one of three sovereignty operations conducted by the Canadian Forces each year. As a joint operation involving the Rangers and the air force, the goal of the operation was to display Canadian sovereignty in the high Arctic. It sought to provide a “boots-on-the ground” Canadian Forces patrol presence. Starting in late March and ending on April 20 the exercise saw two patrols head west from Eureka to circumnavigate Axel Heiberg Island, and two patrols traverse to the eastern coast of Ellesmere Island.

Each of the four patrols consisted of approximately eight personnel, including Canadian Rangers and a Search and Rescue Technician. Three CC-138 Otter aircraft and one chartered aircraft conducted ­regular re-supply flights to the patrols and performed aerial surveillance throughout the operation. To coordinate the patrols, re-supply flights and aerial surveillance, a Command Post was deployed to Fort Eureka. From there, Chang headed the exercise supported by a staff of Rangers, Joint Task Force (North) and 440 Squadron personnel. In total, approximately 100 personnel participated.

Although some have disparagingly referred to the Rangers as ragtag or unorthodox by military standards, the success of such missions is evidence of the militia’s overall professionalism and devotion to duty.

All members of the Canadian Rangers receive basic training, annual training and optional training. Upon enrolment, Canadian Rangers participate in a 10-day Basic Ranger Qualification Course that includes seven days of training at a facility in their local community. Their core curriculum consists of basic drill, rifle training, general military knowledge and navigation (map, compass, GPS). First aid and search and rescue skills are also covered. Once they have mastered these basics, Rangers receive patrol sustainment training, which may involve courses in flood and fire ­evacuation planning, major air disaster assistance and setting up bivouac sites (igloos or tents).

Unlike other reserve units, the Canadian Rangers are issued only minimal Canadian Forces equipment and clothing. Their uniform consists of a red Ranger sweatshirt, T-shirt, ball cap, brassard, vest and toque. Each Ranger is issued a No. 4 Lee Enfield rifle and each patrol is also provided with a first aid kit, a Global positioning System, a compass and a short wave radio. Rangers are required to provide their own personal equipment such as ­skidoos and boats. However, they are ­eligible to receive compensation for the use of such articles.

From an Inuit or Aboriginal perspective, the Canadian Rangers are viewed as more inclusive and culturally sensitive than traditional military units. Some analysts have argued that Canada’s political emphasis on the non-assimilation of ­Aboriginal peoples conflicts with the ­typical assimilationist goals of mainstream military culture. Military socialization has historically been designed to eradicate ­individual differences and instill an overriding commitment to unit and nation-state. By contrast, it is difficult for anyone to envision a more inclusive and flexible unit than the Rangers. “We definitely like working with them,” says Chang. “It’s a cultural exchange between my instructors in ­Yellowknife and these small Arctic communities. It’s an opportunity to learn form each other.”

The perceived value of individual Rangers is directly linked to their civilian experiences and practices. Above all, a Ranger has usually lived in an area for many years and is intimately familiar with the local people, terrain and weather conditions. He or she is often engaged in activities on or near the land or sea, and thus in a position to observe any unusual incidents. As well, a Ranger will often possess Arctic survival skills that have been passed down for generations. It’s not unusual for a Ranger patrol to hunt seals to supplement their military rations or be capable of ­navigating the Arctic waters without the assistance of a compass or GPS.

The Rangers have become an important institution among the Inuit of Canada’s North. They continue to foster a sense of honour and self-esteem in the inhabitants of many isolated northern settlements. When Inuit members of the Rangers in Nunavut set out on exercises, they are members of the their local communities as well as representatives of the Canadian Forces. Their self-administering, autonomous patrols, rich in traditional knowledge and culture, allow them to represent both their peoples and Canada simultaneously. “Ranger patrols are the spirit of a community. It’s their pride,” notes Chang.

Canadian Rangers strap supplies onto their kamotics under wing of a Canadian Forces CC-138 Twin Otter in Alexandria Fiord, also the site of a Royal Canadian Mounted Police Post. Operation Nunalivut employs the unique capabilities of the Canadian Rangers in support of Joint Task Force (North) in the extreme environment of the High Arctic. The operation ran from 30 March to 20 April out of Eureka, a remote installation on Ellesmere Island, Nunavut. (CF Photo: Sgt Errol Morel, CFLAWC)

That pride is presently being passed on to the next generation through initiatives for youngsters. While visiting Canadian Ranger patrols, Canadian Forces members perceived a need to provide meaningful activities for young people in isolated communities. This idea gave birth to the Junior Canadian Rangers Program, which was officially launched in 1996. Youth (ages 12 to 18) become active and engaged citizens of their local communities under the ­mentorship and supervision of experienced adult Rangers. The Program has been ­credited with providing a safe, positive alternative to “at-risk” youth in remote and ­isolated communities across the Arctic.

In recent generations there have been significant changes for indigenous people in Canada’s Arctic, this transformation has included the construction of settlements and hamlets, and the establishment of schools, medical centres and airports. This quasi-urbanization of the territorial north since the mid 1950s means that younger people have not had the same degree of exposure to traditional activities on the land as their elders. Thus, in a constructive way, the Junior Ranger program supports the retention of traditional knowledge within communities.

In June of this year, 170 Junior Rangers from across the North gathered in Whitehorse for a Junior Ranger Summer Camp. The emphasis was on the practical implementation of skills learned during the year and on having fun in a natural, outdoor ­setting. For some, going to camp meant seeing trees for the first time, or meeting other young Canadians of differing ethnicity and background. The camp provides an opportunity to practice their second ­language, or to learn and practice traditional skills. Others were able to enhance the skills that they had been taught at their JCR patrols. According to Chang, it was an outstanding opportunity for the young people to meet, exchange ideas and be part of a tradition. “They follow in the footsteps of their fathers or grandfathers by joining the Junior Rangers.”

And so, the Canadian Ranger program will continue to evolve, building a bright future of opportunity in our most northern communities.

Jaqueline Chartier is a frequent contributor to FrontLine Magazines.
© FrontLine Defence Magazine 2009