Preparedness in the Great Remote North
© 2016 FrontLine Defence (Vol 13, No 6)

It’s late August and a balmy 5°C here in Rankin Inlet, and the wind is howling at 40 km per hour. The first snow is not expected until September, but today there is an eerie silence in this remote area of Nunavut, infamous for its chilling winds and severe winter storms. The landscape is flat, treeless, remote, riddled with ankle-breaking rocks embedded in uneven terrain, and lakes and rivers that pop out of nowhere. There are no immediate signs of life except for a few Arctic foxes and local ground squirrels and birds. This place may as well be a different planet.

Op Nanook is a uniquely Canadian exercise that adds important skills and expertise to the Canadian soldier. 

Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, there is movement on the barren landscape. Soldiers, camouflaged in tundra colours, are cautiously navigating the terrain, taking cover as best they can. 

Corporal Jonathan Nlandu is walking along the spongy, dizzying tundra, carrying a heavy rucksack, which includes radio equipment, night vision goggles, laser binoculars, meal packs, and water. 

The wind is muffling his words but his eyes are focused on the horizon and his mission on this exercise. He is manning a PRC 117 multiband radio that is used for voice and data transmission. It works in harsh environments ranging from a temperature of –40° to +70°C. Communication, like many other necessities we take for granted elsewhere, is extremely challenging in the Arctic.

For many of these soldiers, it is their first time in the Arctic and their first time participating in Operation Nanook, Canada’s premier Arctic sovereignty exercise. 

They are members of the B Company Platoon of the 2nd infantry battalion of “Le Royal 22e Régiment”, as it is officially named (but more commonly known by the phonetic nickname “Van Doos”). 

The Royal 22nd Regiment is the Canadian Army’s largest infantry regiment, with three regular force battalions, two primary reserve battalions, and a band. The regiment served in both World Wars, in Korea, and in all of the UN missions that Canada has been a part of. Many of the 158 Canadians killed in Afghanistan were Van Doos, others terribly wounded. It turns out that 10 of the soldiers here in Rankin Inlet served in Afghanistan.

In 2016, the Van Doos were part of a seven-month tour that deployed to train approximately 1,300 Ukrainian soldiers. 

  Major Alexandre Boisvert-Novak, the officer commanding B Company, 2e Bataillon Royal 22e Régiment, is described as a soldier’s soldier. He deployed three times on combat missions in Afghanistan in 2007, 2009 and then 2010, and recently returned from a deployment in Kuwait on Operation Impact. This was the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) contribution to the Middle East Stabiliz­ation Force, the multinational coalition to terminate and take out Daesh (ISIS). From October 2014 to February 2016, members of the CAF conducted airstrikes on targets in Iraq and Syria.

Major Alexandre Boisvert-Novak

Right now, the Major is flat on his stomach crawling up a rocky hill in the vast tundra with a large rucksack on his back. He has been up North a few times, close to Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories, but “it’s the first time that I have really operated in the North,” he tells me when he joins his team (they have already cracked open their ration packs during a short morning break). He whips out his notepad and starts writing with an intense look on his face; it must be important.  

  Corporal Jonathan Nlandu was born in Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). He came to Canada with his family when he was six years old. “There was a civil war going on in the Congo, and the military was attacking civilians. It was total chaos. That’s what pushed my dad to move out of that country.” Corporal Nlandu’s father was a military man and took his family to South Africa and England before immigrating to Canada. 

Corporal Jonathan Nlandu

He joined the CAF at the age of 18, and  completed two tours of Afghanistan (2007 & 2009). This is his first Arctic exercise.

Corporal Nlandu explains what he does for a living. “I am qualified to use radios in the military. In the field, on this operation, I am behind Major Alexandre Boisvert-Novak who is in charge. I make sure that his radio works. I make sure that he is informed on what’s going on with the element that he is using to accomplish the mission and the task that we have to do.”

Corporal Nlandu, married with a toddler, was wounded in 2009 while on patrol in Afghanistan. As we trek across the tundra, he admits to having shrapnel lodged in his right foot, but he doesn’t really want to talk about Afghanistan – it is an emotional and harsh reality for many of the Van Doos who lost close friends and brothers and sisters in arms trying to do good and help with the Afghan nation-building process. We start chatting about how the new word on the street or tundra is no longer “peacekeeping”,  it’s “peace operations.” He describes Canada as a peaceful nation. 

He is up for the new challenge of peace operations. His cultural sensitivity, language skills, military experience and professionalism make him the right soldier for the job. “I’d be happy to go back to Africa to serve as a peacekeeper/peacemaker,” he says in English before switching back to French. 

The Canadian military’s francophone skills are considered assets in a French-speaking African country such as Mali or the DRC (where the Van Doos may well be enroute in early 2017).

The DRC, which has a large UN mission in place, is trying to recover from what has been dubbed “Africa’s World War”. The conflict resulted in six million lives lost, some from the fighting and others from disease and malnutrition. Corporal Nlandu lost several family members including his grandparents and uncle in the war. Still he effuses optimism about his country of birth and he believes Canada could help with its nation-building process.

  Like Cpl Nlandu, Captain Ken Wang has never been to the Arctic before. He was born in Changsha, in the Hunan Province of China and left with his family when he was nine years old. After a year in the United Kingdom, his family moved to Montreal. “As a first-generation immigrant, I was always told by my parents that it’s good to give back to the nation that welcomed us and gave us all these opportunities. I studied in business. I worked for about a year in the private sector but it felt like there was something missing. I wanted to do something that was bigger than just my immediate interests.”

Captain Ken Wang

He has been in the military for just over four years now. “I did go abroad to Brazil to train alongside the U.S. Marine Corps as well as the Brazilian military and several other foreign military forces.”

Capt Wang admits that being in the infantry puts lots of wear and tear on the joints and back. “We carry a lot of heavy equipment. The typical weight load out on patrol, I would say, would be roughly 60 pounds (27 kilos). That would be roughly for the rucksack. Then the equipment on us is another 20 to 30 pounds (9-13 kilos), so the total overall is easily over 100 pounds (45 kilos) on an average patrol,” says the 4 Platoon Commander.

“We are the troops on the ground. We have to face all kinds of environments. We’re the underdogs of the military. We have to face weather, difficult terrain – anytime, anywhere. When vehicles cannot go in, we are called to go in, walking in. Ultimately we are the troops that determine the victory in any battle or war. [Canada has] a lot of firepower available at a national level but, ultimately, you need boots on the ground.” 

  Major Boisvert-Novak exchanges brief words with Corporal Castro Gonzalez. Born in Caracas, Venezuela, Cpl Gonzalez came to Montreal with his parents and siblings in 1982, and joined the Canadian military 13 years ago. He goes by “Pablo” to his fellow Van Doos. He too deployed to Afghanistan in 2009.

Cpl Castro Gonzalez

As part of the Van Doos deployment in Rankin Inlet, Cpl Gonzalez says: “This is kind of new for us because this terrain is very unstable. There are plenty of rocks, plus it is pretty hard to walk with the kit and the weight on us, so we need to be careful not to injure an ankle or something else. It’s really challenging terrain.”

Compared to his Afghan deployment, he says this is an “easy exercise, it’s a domestic exercise, but actually the terrain makes it more difficult. And out of a scale of 10, I rate it a seven or an eight.”

His next mission may well rate a 10 out of 10 in terms of difficulty and danger, especially if he gets deployed on a UN mission in Africa.

Training, Training, Training
The soldiers who served in Afghanistan emphasize that the training they received is what ultimately saved their lives.

Cpl Gonzalez says: “I am ready for anything because I believe in the training of the army. In battalion we say “train as you fight.” And if I survived Afghanistan, and if I did a good job in Afghanistan, it was because of good training.”

He believes that the Canadian soldier is respected. “I think the Canadian soldier is loved around the world because he is really a good human being. He is understanding the culture, and respecting the local culture. Yes, we do combat – when we have to fight, we fight.”

The Liberal government has announced that in 2017, Canadian men and women of the Armed Forces will be sent to keep the peace on at least one, or possibly several, UN missions in Africa (the Congo, Central African Republic, South Sudan, Mali), plus a NATO deployment in Latvia. These dangerous peace support missions will certainly test the training levels of our troops.

Canadian Rangers: Lessons from Op Nanook
The North is a big, mostly inhospitable place. It’s about 40 percent of Canada’s landmass, with a small population of about 120,000. General Walt Natynczyk once joked that if anyone was to attack in the North, he’d need to know how many were coming – in order to organize the search and rescue effort! In fact, the only real and present dangers in Rankin Inlet are the weather and the wildlife (polar bears, wolves, and wolverines in particular). 

Pathfinder signals to his team.

Members of the 1st Canadian Ranger Patrol Group, in their distinct red sweatshirts and caps, are darting around the landscape on their ATVs (all terrain vehicles), carrying their Lee-Enfield rifles. The Rangers are here to act as guides, and are on “predator patrol” ahead of the Van Doos.

Here in Rankin Inlet during Op Nanook 2016, you hear all three of the official territorial languages: English, French and Inuit (Inuktitut and Inuinnaqtun) being spoken. That’s also a first for many members of the Van Doos on this exercise.

Captain Wang shares what he learned on this Arctic exercise: “From a platoon level, an infantry perspective, the biggest takeaway was how to move out in the open. In Valcartier, Quebec, we are used to working in covered areas – in wooded areas. We are not used to moving around right in the open like this. So one of the big takeaways was how to use the ground to maximize concealment despite the lack of it.”

Other important lessons were in the amphibious operations, he says. “For many of us – myself included – this is the first time working with the Canadian Navy.” Operations included transferring from a frigate (HMCS Moncton), into a zodiac, “and then we hit the beach.”

Corporal Gonzalez is impressed by what he has learned in Rankin Inlet: “The Rangers know how to navigate without GPS and without maps. They know essential survival skills. They can bring more experience to us. We learned how to use the terrain in our favour and how to navigate [in the tundra]. And we learned some hunting skills and survival skills and a little bit of the local language – Inuktitut.”

When asked about how these experiences could impact a potential peacekeeping mission, Captain Wang states: “It definitely adds to our repertoire of skills. Every time there is a mission elsewhere, we always get briefed ahead of time – the kind of terrain and situation we could face. There is always preparation training. We usually aim to train in areas that are similar to the environment we will operate in. We also have expertise from people who have already worked there – so there is a whole process of preparation, we don’t just get thrown in and told to survive.”

  Master Corporal Ranger Andy Aliyak (below) is teaching a captive audience of army, navy and air force personnel how to survive in the hostile Arctic environment. He is in clearly in his element. “You never know when you have to survive and live off the land,” he warns. “Always be prepared for the inevitable.” Although the weather is more agreeable during the short summer months, temperatures will stay below freezing from late September to early June, and Rankin Inlet is noted for its chilling wind and relentless winter storms.
Ranger Aliyak explains that the Inuit consume a diet of foods that are hunted, fished and gathered locally. The locals eat seal, walrus, polar bear, caribou and musk ox. The traditional Inuit dish of “muktuk” (the raw blubber and skin of a whale) is effective in keeping the body warm and the body strong. Major Boisvert-Novak is chewing on his second piece of muktuk (in this case it is a beluga whale caught by the locals). “I was pleasantly surprised after eating the muktuk. You don’t know what to expect when you eat it, but it was an interesting taste – a bit like sushi.” Bannock, the local bread, is also on the menu tonight. After that, an introduction to Arctic berries. 

•  Ranger Kelly Kadjuk and her husband Ranger Barnie Aggark from Chester Inlet are helping erect a white tent. Lines are secured with rocks, and Ranger Aggark demonstrates how to make an emergency sleeping pit or shelter. “First you need two caribou skins. Caribou skin is one of the warmest skins that you will find anywhere in the world.” Many of the non-Inuit participants jump into the caribou sleeping shelter one by one. “It’s very comfortable and cozy,” is the common response.

Ranger Kelly Kadjuk and Ranger Barnie Aggark

“Our ancestors, who were hunter gatherers, would be very proud of the fact that my wife and I are Canadian Rangers,” Ranger Barnie Aggark tells me. “This is our land that we share with the rest of Canada.  We are the protectors.”

Living Off the Land: Survival Skills Training
Navigating this terrain is something these soldiers have never experienced before. It presents challenges that are completely new. In the summer, the ground is extremely soft underfoot, and a 20km walk challenges leg muscles in unexpected ways. 

One exercise mission was to secure sensitive components that were part of a simulated UAV crash site. Major Boisvert-Novak explains the process. “We had to deploy two forces: one by land on all terrain vehicles, and the other from maritime coastal defence vessels that belong to the Canadian Navy via small rubber boats that would land us on shore and allow both forces to manœuver on the ground in order to secure the component.”

Corporal Nlandu is very pleased with his Arctic experience: “I got a chance to work with the navy, I had an opportunity to work with elements of the Pathfinders. I worked with the Rangers who were always by our side; the knowledge they possess is incredible. We don’t know this terrain so well, but they sure do. They taught us how to survive, how to hunt, build tents and how to live off the land.” 

“The Rangers are an incredible force,” agrees Major Boisvert-Novak. “Their knowledge of this land and what they bring to the table is just phenomenal. I learned more in one day here about survival than I have in the 15 previous years,” he exclaims.  

“When I look at the land over here, it’s absolutely humbling. You are just a small speck in an extremely vast land. You see for kilometres and kilometres around. You realize how small you are in the grand scheme of things. It is absolutely beautiful and it is nature in its natural state. You see caribou carcasses on the ground that were taken by predators. You see live caribou walking around. You see prairie dogs that are completely oblivious to the human presence. It is absolutely phenomenal.”

Joint Task Force North
The Commanding Officer of Task Force Nunavut is Lieutenant Commander (N) Terrance Cross who is enjoying the view of the tundra and Hudson’s Bay from his tiny, spartan office within the compound belonging to the Canadian Forces’ Fighter Forward Operating Location (FOL). Not far from his temporary headquarters are two Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) vessels: HMCS Shawinigan and Moncton.

LCdr Terrance Cross

Rankin Inlet is a busy and noisy place during Op Nanook 2016. In conjunction with NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command), the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) maintains two FOLs in the Northwest Territories (Inuvik and Yellowknife), and two in Nunavut (Iqaluit and Rankin Inlet). They provide the infrastructure and supplies to support the deployment of CF-18 aircraft to remote locations.

Commander Cross joined the RCN in 1991 but his original master plan was quite different. “Originally a brother of mine and I were going to open a diving business. I would drive the boat and he would teach the diving,” he smiles at the memory.

“I’ve had the good fortune of serving all over the place. In the last six years alone I have lived in five different cities on three different continents, including being in the Sinai in Egypt before and after the revolution. From there, I went to Ottawa for a little while, then off to England to teach the Royal Navy – maritime warfare. And from there I came to the North.”

His regular job is with Joint Task Force North, where he leads the planning effort for all Northern operations.

 Outside, a handful of Rangers from 1st Canadian Patrol Group are pulling up in their ATVs. They are here to act as the guides for this operation, which includes the all-important predator patrol. 

“The Rangers are great, knowledgeable, friendly, motivated. We can’t operate in the North without their assistance. They’re our eyes, our ears and our guides. They provide an invaluable service, and we would have a tough time without them,” says the Commander.

He explains that Op Nanook changes locations from year to year to avoid putting too much of a burden on any one territory or community. “Rankin Inlet has come up because we were looking at places where we could stage effective operations in the event of a contingency. It has been a very good [location] for us – it has enough infrastructure locally that we can move in quickly – but it’s only about 2,500 people and if we come back too often, we will put too much of a burden on that community.”

Lt-Commander Cross says that Op Nanook is an “incredible opportunity” for joint operations. “On top of that, we were very lucky that we were able to include the personnel from Rankin Inlet – the community itself.” He also understands the value of training in the North. “I know that we can send defenders up here who will be able to operate effectively and a few people will be able to stop a great many because of the environment.”

When asked how this could add a new dimension of expertise to the Canadian soldier on a potential mission to Mali, the Democratic Republic of Congo or Latvia, he says: “the Canadian Armed Forces prepare to serve anywhere, and we’re very fortunate that Canada has enough different climates and geography that we can do it at home, so it doesn’t really matter where we are asked to go by our government. We are going to be ready to go there.”

Corporal Nlandu, a family man under the age of 30, is willing to make the ultimate sacrifice. In the Canadian tundra he disclosed that life is a beautiful gamble and politely asserts that “you have to try and do good in this world.” With his two tours in Afghanistan and his Arctic experience here as part of Operation Nanook 2016, he feels confident that he will make his family and Canada proud – no matter where he gets deployed.

Each mission brings a new experience, followed by new opportunities. “I think the skills that I learned on this exercise will help me in the future. I am talking about skills I could apply to a situation or exercise or mission in a country where it is extremely cold such as Greenland or an African nation,” says Nlandu.

“I will never forget the lessons that I learned from the Rangers. They taught me so much about survival skills and their knowledge of the land which was so impressive.“ It is beyond evident that Cpl Nlandu takes away some valuable experiences from the tundra that he can apply anywhere in the world.

Major Boisvert-Novak has this to add: “The takeaway for the soldiers from this exercise is, first of all, how to react to the unknown. Most of my soldiers, like myself, were not familiar with this land; they had to quickly analyze it, and react to it, and learn how to operate on it.” 

He further describes Op Nanook as “a gem” and “a unique opportunity to learn and train.” He is also enthusiastic with praise of the Canadian Rangers who taught them how to survive off the land, how to properly shelter themselves, and, according to Major Boisvert-Novak, “you can also use these skills in other parts of the world, say a desert where you have wide open spaces and you need to manœuver in them.”

Lunch on the tundra: life-sustaining Inuit food “muktuk” – the raw blubber and skin of a whale.

It is important to keep in mind, he says, that “nobody has a crystal ball to know where we will be deployed next, and I have to make sure that whether it’s in a foreign land or at home, in response to a disaster or a war, my soldiers are ready to respond and to serve Canada proudly and efficiently.” 

When asked about spending long spells of time abroad, he said: “Well I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I miss my fiancé. A life in the military can bring you to deploy to the far reaches of the world, and you always miss the people that you leave back home. On the other hand, and it’s hard to explain, but I am with my second family right now. And even though I am far from home, I am still, to a certain degree, at home.”

Cpl Gonzalez agrees wholeheartedly that team cohesion is huge: “In B company we are very strong together. It’s a privilege for me to serve in the Canadian Armed Forces and I am open for new challenges.”

What was his takeaway from Op Nanook? “We are practicing a real life situation and I think it’s a great experience to learn how to deal with the terrain, how to deal with the weather, how to deal with your equipment. This is a solid exercise.”

After the Arctic exercise, Cpl Gonzalez relaxes at base camp, reading One Hundred Years of Solitude by Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez. It is a story of a family searching for a better life and a new home, and Gonzalez says he wants to help people who are living in countries that are experiencing nation-building challenges.  “We need to protect our country because we have good values, we have good citizens. I am from Venezuela, and I came here to Canada, and I became a citizen, and I am very proud to be Canadian. I will give everything I have for Canada now.”

All photos in this article: Jane Kokan

Cpl Gonzalez suddenly puts his book down as a local Inuit woman comes in to sell sealskin mitts and other wares – there are immediate buyers.

Team Canada
The Canadian brand is definitely very well recognized across the world says Captain Wang. “We’re not viewed as a particularly aggressive country,” he says, citing the diversity of cultural backgrounds as another important factor in how the world views Canada. While not necessarily a neutral force, Canadians are often seen, at the very least, as an understanding third party. 

These soldiers – who proudly represent Canada’s multicultural society – are excited about new challenges and are aware that the world today essentially needs a new breed of professional, multi-skilled soldier who can step into a variety of roles and situations whether it be in a domestic, UN, or NATO mission. In any event, we shall soon be seeing more Canadians on the ground, sea and air – from the Arctic to eastern Europe to Africa.  

Jane Kokan is an independent writer, filmmaker and educator. She has worked in conflict zones including: Afghanistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, South Sudan and Chechnya. She is currently working on a multimedia project on Arctic sovereignty through the lens of the Canadian Armed Forces and Rangers. 
(All photos by Jane Kokan)