Op Nanook 2017
Sep 18, 2017

Even among those who have never visited the Canadian Arctic, our North has long been a significant factor in Canadian’s view of ourselves and the nation we call “home.” The Arctic draws global interest for several reasons: the maritime shortcuts it provides to ships seeking to reduce transit times and expenses, and the region’s large reserves of fossil fuels and large mineral deposits, including gold and diamonds, to mention only two. 

Climate change is gradually melting the Arctic icecap, making Arctic waters easier to navigate, and ships are entering the region in increasing numbers. Air traffic in the North is also growing, from fewer than 1,000 flights in 2003 to almost 10,000 in 2010.

Pilots from 440 Transport Squadron fly to Voisey’s Bay, Labrador in support of Operation Nanook. (Photo: LS Brad Upshall, 12 Wing Imaging Services, Shearwater, N.S)

The increase in sea and air traffic, along with the new interest in mineral resources, brings new threats. Risks include sovereignty challenges, environmental problems, search-and-rescue demands, international and transnational crime, and illegal migration.

As the polar icecap recedes, opening the North to growing commercial opportunities, the Canadian government has established a clear vision to project Canadian sovereignty. 

Canada’s military is a major factor in the federal government’s presence in the North, demonstrating that it can operate effectively in the harsh and demanding environment to deliver a federal presence, security, and defence, as well as to work collaboratively with other federal, provincial and territorial government departments and agencies. 

Operation Nanook is an annual deployment of Canadian Armed Forces personnel and equipment to the North. Its aims are to assert sovereignty over Canada’s northernmost regions while improving how the military operates in Arctic conditions. Working with other Department and Agency partners helps establish best responses to safety and security issues in the North.

15 Aug – Deployed members from Operation Nanook practice driving on steep terrain during an all-terrain vehicle driver safety course in the training area in Rankin Inlet, NU. (Photo: Cpl Dominic Duchesne-Beaulieu)

This year’s two-week deployment began August 14 and, for the first time in its 10-year history, was concurrently led by two headquarters – Joint Task Force North (JTFN) in Yellowknife, and Joint Task Force Atlantic (JTFA) in Halifax. 

Joint Task Force North
In JTFN’s scenario, the CAF worked with other departments and agencies in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, to respond to a simulated barge fire and explosion. This simulated emergency, designed to tax the local community beyond its capacity, allowed responders to react with the full range of crisis response and consequence management activities. Multiple tiers of government and partners including the Canadian Armed Forces were engaged.

JTFN’s launch and conduct of Op Nanook can point to a number of significant successes. The annual exercise has undergone numerous scenarios from full military response, an earthquake, and a major air disaster. This year’s exercise, conducted in Rankin Inlet, featured a whole-of-government response to a local community disaster.

WO Ron Demchuk, a loadmaster with 435 Transport and Rescue Squadron watches as a CF-188 Hornet refuels from a CC-130J Hercules aircraft while conducting an exercise during Op Nanook over the coast of Labrador. (Photo: Cpl Anthony Laviolette, 12 Wing Imaging Services, N.S.)

JTFN spokesperson, Navy Lieutenant Jamie Stewart explained that “a lot of resupply in the North is done by ship,” and Barges are used to bring the goods (everything from tools to perishables) ashore. 

“So, this year we simulated a major barge explosion that immediately overwhelmed the community’s capabilities. Our fictitious barge’s cargo included some chemically-based materials that produced a toxic plume causing the evacuation of the community and requiring a whole-of-government response, including the Canadian Armed Forces, the RCMP, federal public health authorities, as well as the local fire department and health workers.”

The widespread lack of infrastructure and the non-forecasted need for additional supplies makes humanitarian assistance and disaster relief in the North more challenging than in southern Canada. This thin infrastructure translates into the reality that if you don’t bring what you need with you, you have to do without.

According to Lt(N) Stewart, “The toxic plume caused a local evacuation and closed the airport, leaving community and territorial authorities to depend on a whole-of-government response. It also caused JTFN to invite other potential benefactors to the table, including Agnico Eagle gold mine about 30 kilometers outside Rankin Inlet.”

19 Aug – Corporal Andrew Biscardi of 1 Platoon with the Arctic Response Company Group nets an arctic char during Operation Nanook near Rankin Inlet, NU. (Photo: MBdr Lynn Danielson)

Agnico Eagle immediately became enthusiastic players in the fictional catastrophe, adding their onsite health care professionals and mine site roadway (which doubles as a small aircraft runway).

“This opens another opportunity for the territorial government,” Lt(N) Stewart noted. “This year’s Op Nanook opened the door for northern corporate partners to become engaged in these contingency operations and exercises – not only for the crisis itself, but also for the recovery period immediately following the incident when the community is working to return to its state of normalcy. This is far more problematic in the North than in southern Canada.”

JTFN is uniquely positioned to provide more than just northern-base eyes and ears for Canada’s Defence Department. Detachments in Iqaluit and Whitehorse give the Yellowknife-based headquarters a reach across all three territories, augmented by Canadian Ranger Patrol Groups in Rankin Inlet, Whale Cove and Chesterfield Inlet.

“The North’s Canadian Ranger Patrol Group is exceptional. They provide essential services for us, including predator control for military exercises and operations in the North, and they liaise with local communities on our behalf, and so much more.”

This year, as the JTFN Commander, Brigadier-General Mike Nixon, told FrontLine, “participants engaged in coordination, planning and execution of a simulated emergency scenario alongside our local, territorial, other government partners and industry which involved a response to an explosion on a supply barge. As safety and security in Canada’s North is particularly dependent on a whole-of-government approach, conducting Operation Nanook is significant to strengthening emergency response capability in the Arctic.”

22 Aug – Rear-Admiral John Newton Commander of Joint Task Force (Atlantic) and Maritime Forces Atlantic, talks to members of the Canadian Rangers in the community of Nain, Labrador during Operation Nanook(Photo by: Leading Seaman Dan Bard, Formation Imaging Services)

Joint Task Force Atlantic
In the JTFA scenario, CAF members collaborated with other federal, provincial and territorial government departments and agencies partners to respond to a defence and security scenario in northern Labrador. 

Objectives for the Labrador portion included demonstrating the strength of civil-military partnerships by establishing an operational hub at Voisey’s Bay mine on the northeast coast of Labrador about 2,000 kilometers from St. John’s; air and naval deployment of land force elements as far north as Saglek, Labrador; providing planning opportunities to various headquarters to meet complex logistical challenges; and building community partnerships in key communities.

The JTFA portion included military personnel from the 5th Canadian Division, health care professionals, combat engineers, signals and communications, air movement control, logistics, military police, air maintenance, military intelligence and the Canadian Rangers. 

Deployed aircraft reflected almost the full spectrum of airframes in the RCAF inventory, including Aurora maritime patrol aircraft, Globemaster III, search and rescue Hercules transport aircraft, fighter-bomber, Twin Otter and Polaris aircraft.

20 Aug – Members of the Arctic Response Company Group board a Rigid Hulled Inflatable Boat to be brought out to HMCS Goose Bay at Voisey’s Bay, Labrador during Operation Nanook(Photo: LS Brad Upshall, 12 Wing Imaging Services, Shearwater, N.S)

The Navy contributed the frigate HMCS Montreal and the Kingston-class HMCS Goose Bay to the effort.

As its name suggests, the key to JTFA’s operation in Labrador is joint operations, using the defence and security scenario to test its capabilities in the North, while taking the opportunity to conduct joint training objectives not normally accomplished on such a large scale. 

While Canadian soldiers are not strangers to helicopter operations, Op Nanook included tasks like operating a pick-up point, preparing loads to be carried by helicopters, and marshaling a helicopter. Sailors operated underwater unmanned vehicles, embarked soldiers on a ship and conducted landings using rigid hull inflatable boats (RHIB). The Air Force conducted a short-notice CF-188 scramble, intercept and recovery task, air-to-air refuelling and refined air-maritime skills by conducting attack runs on HMCS Montreal. For their part, the Canadian Rangers provided surveillance expertise, taught survival techniques, conducted predator control, and joined other troops for patrol and surveillance requirements.

As Op Nanook was launching, Rear-Admiral John Newton, the recently-retired Commander of Maritime Forces Atlantic and JTFA, predicted that “the challenging and remote coastal zone of northern Labrador will test the ability of Joint Task Force Atlantic to command and control Royal Canadian Navy, Canadian Army and Royal Canadian Air Force elements in mobility, surveillance and security tasks. Capitalizing on synergies with other government departments, communities, and industries, defence and security can be assured across Canada’s vast northern regions.”

Simulated casualties are secured for ambulance transport to the casualty collection point for further treatment as part of Operation Nanook in Rankin Inlet, NU. (Photo: MBdr Lynn Danielson)

Operating in the North in the winter comes with its own set of challenges, however, operating in that same region during summer months has an “equal, yet different set of challenges,” explains Major Amber Bineau, a JTFA public affairs officer. That climate dichotomy is probably the biggest training advantage of deploying to the same region in different seasons. “Not only is this training valuable for land, air and sea manœuvre elements, it is valuable for the staff who is responsible for keeping the training scenario rolling, while also solving the real-time logistical issues that arise,” says Maj Bineau.

While the number and composition of CAF members participating in Op Nanook changes from year to year, based on planned activities and exercises, it always includes the 1st Canadian Ranger Patrol Group and 440 “Vampire” Transport Squadron. 

Previous Nanook deployments have included allied military partners, Canadian federal government departments and agencies, provincial, and territorial and municipal governments to meet threats to security and the environment.

Canada’s North is vast – comprising more than 40% of our landmass, and home to more than 100,000 Canadians. It is a challenging environment, unwelcoming and perilous for the unprepared. Few Canadians from the South have visited that part of the globe, where north meets north, however, we see ourselves as stewards of the Arctic, its environment, its animals and our fellow Canadians who call it home.

Operation Nanook is one of a series of northern deployments that provides the opportunity for the Canadian Armed Forces to be a catalyst to bring other government departments, territorial and local governments, and now corporate partners, together for common cause and to provide help and assistance when and wherever necessary.

Tim Dunne is a FrontLine correspondent based in Nova Scotia.