Op Nunalivut
Jul 15, 2011

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Few get a chance to visit the High Arctic, let alone experience an Arctic sovereignty exercise, even though 40% of Canada’s land mass is located above the 60th parallel – a territory approximately the size of Europe. Flights to the Arctic are extremely expensive, and food and lodging don’t come cheap (a jug of cranberry cocktail in Resolute Bay costs $40, a head of lettuce will cost you $7, and a jar of Cheez Whiz, $29).

I first went to Resolute Bay in August 2010, to witness Op Nanook, Canada’s largest sovereignty exercise. At a balmy –3°C, Resolute Bay wasn’t very Arctic-like, with the exception of a myriad of different shaped icebergs, but the exercises encompass a wide variety of potential safety and security requirements. So I was very excited when I got call from Joint Task Force North with an invitation for Op Nunalivut 2011, also headquartered out of Resolute Bay. I am working on a long term project on Arctic sovereignty issues and I am researching the “why” and “what” that Canadians and other Arctic states can learn from these types of exercises.

Northern Challenges
One of three major operations conducted every year by the Canadian Forces in the North, Op Nunalivut takes place during April, when weather conditions are at their most challenging in the High Arctic.
Lieutenant-Colonel Gino Chretien, Chief of Operations, Joint Task Force North, explains that Canadian Forces personnel from the Canadian Rangers, the army, and the air force, conduct sovereignty exercises between Resolute and Isachsen, an uninhabited weather station 500 kilometres north of Resolute on the western shore of Ellef Ringnes Island. “We have a forward base in Resolute Bay in Cornwallis Island. From here we support the Ranger patrols that we have deployed in the area. One patrol is going to the western side of Bathurst Island. Another patrol is going to the eastern side following a planned route to Ellef Ringnes Island. The tactical command post is strategically positioned in Lougheed Island. So from that position we have good communications and a good overview of the area of patrol.”
One of the main missions this year is to test the communication systems and assess how operations can be improved. “The goal of Op Nunalivut for the Canadian Forces, and following the Northern Strategy – is being able to deploy and to exercise our capability to support our troops and, most importantly, how we can communicate with those elements in the field,” points out LCol Chretien. “It’s very important to ensure the security of those patrols out in the field.”
The Arctic’s treasure chest of minerals and important resources are coveted across the globe. Resolute Bay, located on the south coast of Cornwallis Island, is the second northernmost civilian settlement in Canada. In Inuktit, the name for Resolute Bay is Quaasuittuq, “the place with no dawn.” This hamlet of around 250 people is also home to the Polar Continental Shelf Project research camp, a weather station, several avid hunters, a handful of artists and a charismatic entrepreneur who runs two hotels in town. We have to be mindful of the impacts that research activities impose on this very fragile and sensitive environment.
Why are sovereignty exercises necessary?
In broad terms, Operation Nunalivut is a patrolling exercise in some of the most inhospitable parts of the country. These patrols require a planned operation using the skill sets of the Rangers. According to Joint Task Force North, these operations enhance the CF’s “knowledge and capacity to operate in austere locations and challenging environments, and to demonstrate the ability to respond effectively to safety and security emergencies in the Arctic.”
Navy Captain Sean Cantelon, Deputy Commander of Joint Task Force North, notes that “we are trialing our rapid response force north construct, which is a blended group of regular force personnel from the Rangers headquarters and the regular force personnel based in Yellowknife, to be able to respond to a safety or security crisis in the North.”
Sovereignty in the North is an oft-repeated phrase, but what does it really signify? “There is a bit of a misnomer when people use the word sovereignty,” notes Capt(N) Cantelon. “It implies that you don’t have it. Here’s an analogy. Would you consider to be mowing your lawn a sovereignty operation, proving that you own your front yard? Most of us would never frame it in that context. I am just cutting my grass, making my lawn look pretty for my neighbourhood. And I would suggest that is really what we are doing with the Rangers. We are going on a skidoo ride in a classical sense through our territory: Canada’s territory. Nobody is debating that Polar Bear Park isn’t Canadian. But, yes, in doing so, in being there, and acting, we are showing that it is sovereign Canadian territory.”
Michael Kristjanson, logistics manager for the Polar Continental Shelf Program in Resolute Bay says: “Sovereignty exercises are absolutely a positive aspect of being in the North, and there are definite benefits to all of us, whether we are scientists, biologists, Rangers or members of the Canadian Forces,” adds Kristjanson.
Ranger Paul Ogruk, 19, has ambitions of becoming an air force pilot.
Economic Impact
As Kristjansen says, “Certainly [the Canadian Forces] bring a number of different perspectives to the table in terms of the sovereignty aspect, which is obviously a very important part of these operations, as well as bringing the communities together. It’s a very good opportunity for government departments to work together, to learn how one another works. Especially in the Arctic, it’s important to understand the resources that are available, the challenges, especially for developing search and rescue plans, and being able to work together. Certainly, there is an economic spin off to the whole aspect … for the communities as well as for the North in general.”
The most successful businessman on the island is Mr. Aziz Kheraj, also known as “Ozzie.” Born in Tanzania, Ozzie came to Canada over 30 years ago. He tells me that his partner is the world’s only female polar bear guide (she is now retired). Ozzie, often seen driving around town in a red Rangers sweatshirt, appears to run the place. He can be spotted driving ice scientists and Twin Otter pilots around the area; helping the Rangers fix their snowmobiles; discussing dinner menus at his hotel, and dealing with technical issues at the Polar Continental Shelf building. He houses members of the CF in his hotels, and assists with their logistical needs.
The snowmobile station at Resolute Bay is bustling with activity. Ranger Paul Ogruk, 19, is repairing a skidoo with the assistance of his good friend, Ranger Andrew Aiyout, also 19. The two young men, who hail from Taloyoak, joined the Rangers in November 2010 and both have big ambitions for the future, which include careers in aviation. “It’s my dream to become an airforce pilot,” says Ogruk with determination.
But for now, the two friends are content doing a variety of jobs around the camp. “We have a bunch of different tasks including fixing skidoos and sleds and we also have some cleaning duties,” he explains. He learned how to repair snowmobiles from his father. “In the Arctic, we have to learn how to be resourceful. And trust me, there are no spare parts here in Resolute Bay.”
Lt(N) Jason Stewart understands supply challenges. “There are a lot of unknowns and a lot of variables that you can’t account for, such as the cold weather. Also, you don’t have a local community that can necessarily supply you with all the resources you require, like spare parts; and all your food and gas for example. So you have to deploy with all of your interval assets.”
Ranger Andy Aklah, 23, has aspirations in the search and rescue side of operations. “As Rangers, we have a lot to offer, and we should be given new areas of responsibility. I think it’s great that we are participating in operations like Nunalivut and Nanook, where we are learning how to use new technology, but we could be doing more.” I asked what he does when he isn’t called up for a Ranger patrol. “I am one of the lucky ones back home at Taloyoak. I work at the Co-op in a small town where unemployment is very high.”
According to Rob Huebert, Associate Director of the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies, at the University of Calgary, “there is certainly a two tier system in existence here in Canada. We have raised expectations when it comes to the Rangers, including increasing their numbers, however there are legislative issues. On the one hand we refer to the Rangers as the eyes and the ears of the North, yet legally, they are not able to command ships and aircraft.”
Logistics, logistics
There are stockpiles of fuel on the airport landing strip. “An operation like this one, requires a massive amount of airlift and months of planning,” notes Navy Lieutenant Jason Stewart, Logistics Officer for Op Nunalivut, JTFN, Yellowknife. He loves his job. “When I joined the Navy, I didn’t think I’d be standing here, in the middle of the Arctic, planning operations,” he grins. “Before I became a member of Joint Task Force North, I probably wouldn’t have been able to find Resolute Bay on a map, and now this is one of our major logistical hubs that I deal with regularly.”
Last year, Op Nunalivut had a canine component and a Danish dogsled team joined the exercise. However, snowmobiles, helicopters and Twin Otter air craft were the key modes of transport this year.
Dogsleds vs Snowmobiles
I was hoping to jump aboard a dogsled team in Resolute Bay for the start of Operation Nunalivut. Like many southerners, I have a romanticized picture of our environmentally friendly, furry friends in the Arctic wilderness. But we traveled by snowmobile instead. Every muscle in my body was aching after my first ride over limb-breaking ice – I had already seen one Ranger with her arm in a sling after her snow vehicle had tipped over at a low speed.
On the snowmobile patrol, some of the Rangers up ahead were carrying traditional hunting tools such as spears and harpoons. I noticed that one of the search and rescue personnel was carrying a rifle just in case a Polar bear became a little too interested in the military operation.
Sending supplies via komatik (wooden sled). Dressing for Arctic ­conditions makes a huge difference in a frigid and numbing –45°C. I noticed some of the Rangers sporting overalls made of polar bear skins over their winter pants and wearing seal skin mitts. I made a comparison, and the real furs were definitely supreme to the man-made fibers.  

Search and Rescue
“Search and Rescue capacity in the North is not as simple as having resources planted at one particular location,” says Kristjanson. The risks from exposure are great in the North; timing can mean the difference between recovery and rescue. “You never know where an incident will occur, or when it will occur. Our network includes particular agencies including private helicopter operation and other private companies that have logistics capabilities in the North.” To help prepare, search and rescue technicians are embedded with the patrols.
Being this far North, Kristjanson notes, “we are first responders, in many cases, to the search and rescue activities that happen here around Resolute and around the North. It’s all about networking with one another. An area the size of Europe requires a number of different modes of transportation to get researchers to and from the field. We are dealing with multiple time zones, and multiple requirements. We operate primarily with helicopters – especially, light helicopters such as the Bell 206, and Twin Otter [planes]. It’s our challenge in the Arctic to be able to deliver logistics to various locals through those means with very little support in terms of airports and alternate means of support. Our challenge is to be able to find ways to move the aircraft to and from, safely, given that the weather can always throw curve balls at the organization and the operation. The type of weather we are flying in can vary from blizzard conditions to heavy rains, to low cloud and fog. So we use a lot of our skill and understanding of weather patterns using tools like satellite images, local knowledge about the geography and weather patterns to ensure the logistics can happen safely and efficiently.”
Technical Challenges
Sergeant Raymond Hollywood with the Signals group is setting up a satellite outside of the Polar Continental Shelf building. His job is to ensure that the computers, telephones, GPS locators and radios are working. Sgt Hollywood explains that a variety of manufactures have given him “gear” to test. “For example we are testing out this satellite, and right now we are having problems zeroing down into Yellowknife. We are going to try it out and give our recommendations. Some of the wiring may be a bit thin for up here, because they’re only made for –20 or –30°C temperatures. When you come up to an area like Resolute, where it gets to –40 or –50°C, it makes it a little harder.”
Arctic veterans like Sgt Hollywood believe that soldiers from “down South” should experience, first hand, working in the High Arctic during the winter months to realize that the extreme cold and wind can play havoc with equipment and logistics. He points out that even the smallest details simply cannot be overlooked. He says, “sure your fingers might be freezing, but if the spikes aren’t “pounded in appropriately, you could ruin the entire mission.”
Camp Lougheed was home to a functioning meteorological station during the operation. When the temperature plunges to –50°Celsius (which it frequently does in the High Arctic for several months of the year), equipment doesn’t always work that well. Sometimes it simply breaks down. Even the ink in pens freezes, not to mention the very real threat of frostbite due to an exposed piece of skin. The MetRanger I portable meteorological station, was doing its job, accurately predicting the incoming storms and weather.
According to Major Tom Bachelder, communications advisor, with JTFN. “A lot of communications stuff doesn’t work at –40 or –50°C temperatures unless it is specifically built to operate in those temperatures. The majority of stuff will operate in –10°C. For example, the Iridium Satellite phone website advertises that the phones operate up to –10°C.”
“We have developed procedures where you keep the sat phone inside your jacket to keep it warm. You only use it when you are inside your tent, where the temperature is warmer.”
Major Bachelder says: “The reason we do operations such as Nunalivut and Nanook is to exercise our equipment and to exercise our personnel and have the confidence that we can operate in winter and summer, high Arctic, mid Arctic, whatever the case may be.”
The Northern Environment
The Arctic Archipelago is home to a very fragile ecosystem. When asked about the effects of military exercises in this sensitive region, LCol Gino Chretien stated that: “operating in the North is all about co-operation with other government departments, co-operation with the territory and the environment and the locals who live here. One aspect of planning for an operation like this, is you have two major things to consider and follow: First of all, the Land Claims Agreement, so, you need to do all the right paperwork, making sure that when you operate in those areas you are not impeding with the hunting or fishing grounds of the local population here. The other aspect is obviously the environment. We need to protect the pristine environment in the Arctic. So, there are a lot of regulations in place regarding how we can operate in the North and how we can mitigate some aspect of having soldiers on the ground force at certain times.
“You need to get permits to operate in certain areas, and the compliance of the rules set by Parks Canada. For Op Nunalivut 2011, we had to get permission in an area of Bathurst Island. They gave us a permit with certain restrictions on where we were crossing and operating so we would not disturb the wildlife. We had to make sure to keep the area clean and respect the environment. Parks Canada are big players in all these decisions. We also co-operate with Natural Resources Canada, and the Polar Continental Shelf Program personnel, who have been very helpful to us, having us in their buildings, providing us with air support and also with civilian charters. So it’s been a very careful, close collaboration over the past year.”
MetRanger I portable meteorological station.
Environment Canada maintains the Canadian Ice Service, which provides ice and iceberg information. LCol Chretien says their collaboration is much appreciated. “At one point we had to adjust one of our [patrol] routes because of ice conditions. We sent a reconnaissance mission to the area, and with that we were able to change the route of the patrol, finding the safest way for the patrol.”
A spokesperson clarified in an email: “Environment Canada has participated in past exercises for emergency response, but we do not monitor the effect of the exercise on the environment. Activities which take place on Crown land are managed by INAC [now Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada[. In the Nunavut Settlement Area the Nunavut Impact Review Board (NIRB) assess the biophysical and socio-economic impact of proposals and will make recommendations and decisions about which projects may proceed. NIRB may also monitor the impacts of projects that have been reviewed and approved to proceed.”
Sovereignty exercises – is it money well spent?
“Absolutely,” answers Rob Huebert, a professor of Political Science and Associate Director of the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary. “You can’t stop your Arctic neighbours from crossing over into your lawn.”
For his part, Sergeant Hollywood was pleased with the operation results. “We’ve learned a lot about the different systems that we are using right now in the military. Some of the young people that have come up here got to experience and learn how to use the different communication systems. So hopefully they can improve them when they return down south. Op Nunalivut is a great arena to test new equipment.”
Will the Rangers get all the opportunities they deserve?
I recently spoke to the energetic Corporal Gary Kalluk, whom I met during Op Nanook 2010. He has a job for the moment, working in construction on the new ice rink in Resolute Bay. He also keeps very busy fishing and hunting. “The price of ‘Western’ food is crazy expensive here,” he says. He has just been called up to participate in Op Nanook 2011, and feels like he has just “won the lottery.”
Understandably, Cpl Kalluk is concerned over the “very high unemployment amongst the young people across Nunavut. And there are too many young people taking their own lives. My only wish is to contribute to my country. In my heart, I will always be a Ranger, whether they need me for a sovereignty exercise or not, I am here.”
The Rangers and their extended families live in what Joint Task Force North describes as “austere locations” and a “challenging environment.” Youth in the North know the land, but they are also exposed to so much more than their parents ever were, and they are hungry for challenges.
“Perhaps,” Kalluk muses, “the Federal government should be thinking long term here, and offering the Rangers bigger challenges in these sovereignty exercises and their role in the Arctic.” Hear, hear!

Jane Kokan is an independent video-journalist and writer based in Vancouver.
© FrontLine Defence 2011