Last August, and for the sixth time since 2007, the Canadian Forces (CF) completed their annual major Arctic military exercise, Operation Nanook. This year’s operation was the largest one ever held with two different scenario-driven exercises in Canada’s Western and Eastern Arctic.

Commanded by Joint Task Force North (JTFN), this whole-of-government exercise deployed more than 1,250 CF personnel to Inuvik and Tsiigehtchic in the Northwest Territories, and in the Hudson Strait and Bay in the Eastern Arctic. Two separate security scenarios were carefully crafted months in advance and conducted simultaneously in the North to test the Forces’ responsiveness to different types of emergencies in remote communities of the Arctic.

But testing capabilities in the North is only one feature of Op Nanook.

In addition to landing a Twin Otter on the narrow and unpaved Dempster Highway (for the first time ever) or setting-up a temporary military camp alongside the Mackenzie river (transported to the Arctic by road from Montreal), the CF are being trained to witness the North, to work with northerners and to become military explorers of Canada’s Arctic.

Those who bring their boots on the ground in the North and, for example, land on an abandoned gravel airstrip at 69 degrees North and 134 degrees West, where huge pingos (small cone-shaped hills with a center of ice), rivers and lakes dominate the McKenzie Delta landscape, become firsthand observers of some of the most remote places on Earth.

Others who work with locals or the RCMP in Tuktoyaktuk get access to some of the most accurate information on what is going on “up there.” These individuals become additional and useful Arctic insiders who can offer different accounts on the North.

Not only do their learning experiences create valuable expertise for the purposes of Op Nanook, their personal narratives of the Arctic become contemporary testimonies of what today’s Arctic is and is not. The CF and most of those working out of JTFN headquarters in Yellowknife are unquestionably gaining precious knowledge about Canada’s Arctic and are putting some of this to the test through year-round military exercises.

But they are certainly not working alone. Stating the opposite would be a grave error.

The Canadian Rangers have been essential actors in the planning and execution processes of Op Nanook. Their indigenous skills and traditional knowledge provide the means for the military to operate in austere or “foreign” territory, on land and water. Younger northerners from the Junior Canadian Ranger Program are the next generation of skilled individuals who will guide and assist the military in the North for future exercises. Op Nanook therefore also seeks to promote traditional knowledge and inclusiveness of northerners.

Reaching out to the 59 northern communities also provides the proper framework for mutual understanding between the CF and northerners. Over the last two years, JTFN’s commander, BGen Guy Hamel, has sat down with indigenous representatives, Rangers and elders in almost every community in Canada’s Arctic.

Outreach also travels beyond borders. Military officials from the United States and from Denmark have been invited by the CF over the last years to take part in Op Nanook as observers. These foreign allies are exposed to Canadian Northern realities and security issues and get a glimpse at how JTFN personnel conduct these large-scale deployments in some of the most difficult terrain of the circumpolar north.

Indeed, cross-border information and knowledge sharing are becoming imperative at a time when bilateral or multilateral search and rescue operations will need to increase with growing human and economic activity in the melting Arctic. Therefore, regional military cooperation between Arctic neighbors is also on the rise as Canadian military officials are being invited to visit other “norths,” as was the case last summer when Canadian military officials were invited to observe the U.S. Coast Guard District 17 Arctic Shield operation in northern Alaska.

Throughout Op Nanook planning and exercises, and indeed other activities, the CF are exploring today’s North in a way that very few southerners can. They are becoming aware and knowledgeable.

One of their biggest task is to make sure that the northern expertise they gain is used for Canada’s security and defense, but also that their stories, ideas and testimonies on the North are shared with Canadians so that the whole country can learn and grow together as an Arctic nation.

Joël Plouffe is a Research Fellow and PhD Candidate at the Raoul Dandurand Chair of Strategic and Diplomatic Studies at the University of Québec at Montréal. In August 2012, he was embedded with the Canadian Forces during Operation Nanook in Inuvik and Tsiigehtchic, NWT ( or twitter @joelplouffe).