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Patrolling the North: Inside Op Nunalivut

The Arctic represents 40 percent of Canada’s landmass. Given the effects of global climate change and through increasing exploration, Canada’s Arctic has been demonstrated to be a vast storehouse of mineral and oil reserves. We are on the verge of year-round accessibility to the fabled Northwest Passage, resulting in shorter shipping routes from Atlantic to Pacific. This will in turn lead to many critical issues for Canada with respect to control of the Arctic and its exploration.

Although the Canadian government considers the Northwest Passage part of Canadian internal waters, other countries maintain it should be an international strait or transit passage, with free and unencumbered use. As a result, Canada recently approved a Canada First Defence Strategy. “We are placing greater emphasis on our northern operations, including the High Arctic,” said Vice-Admiral Dean McFadden, Commander of Canada Command. “This operation underscores the value of the Canadian Rangers, our eyes and ears in the North.”

Operation Nunalivut, Inuktitut for “land that is ours,” focuses on military operations in the High Arctic. Its primary objective each year is to project Canadian sovereignty in the High Arctic, providing a boots-on-the-ground Canadian Forces patrol presence. This year, it provided the opportunity to carry out air surveillance patrols, and the search and rescue community took advantage of the operation to embed four technicians to operate with the patrols in the harsh northern climate.

It was my first visit to Canada’s North and was an incredible eye-opener. I arrived in Eureka, Nunavut on April 9 at the beginning of 24 hours of daylight. Except for the biting cold, the North was not what I expected. Incredible mountains, ice covered fjords and temperatures in the -35°C range were the norm. I realized at last why people fall in love with the North.

To give you some idea of the distances involved, once in Yellowknife, your trip has just begun. The flight from Yellowknife, NWT to Eureka, Nunavut takes another seven and a half hours, with stopovers for refueling in Cambridge Bay and Resolute Bay.

ALTHOUGH THERE WAS no in-flight service from Yellowknife to Eureka, a hardship to be sure, I remembered reading about the day in April 1947, when the first joint Canadian/U.S. team arrived in Eureka to establish a weather station in this remote location. They faced a frozen landscape, a temperature of -37°C and the absolute necessity of setting up a shelter and preparing to issue their first weather report. In his journal, J.C. Courtney jokingly stated that the reception committee was, with the exception of the wolves and the polar bears, non-existent. Now, in late March 2009, sixty-two years later, 32 members of the Canadian Rangers plus several members of the Canadian Forces, both army and air force, were gathered.

Joint Task Force North (JTFN) is the regional military command responsible for CF operations north of the 60th parallel, and tasks the Canadian Rangers. The Arctic patrols include members of the Regular Forces as well as the Canadian Rangers, who are part-time reserve soldiers based in northern communities.

A month before, BGen David Millar, the Commander of JTFN, Canada Command’s single largest region, attended the ceremonies surrounding the founding of Nunavut ten years previously. He dedicated this year’s sovereignty patrol to the people of Nunavut in recognition of the historic event. “This operation is a golden opportunity to expand our capabilities to operate in Canada’s Arctic. In addition to carrying out ground and air patrols, the operation calls for a range of supporting military capabilities – communications, intelligence, mapping, and satellite imaging.” Op Nunalivut, he added, is one of the three major sovereignty operations conducted annually in the North.

Following their arrival in Eureka, the Canadian Rangers were divided into four patrols. Including the deployment and return phases, the total operation ran for three weeks, with the patrols beginning and ending in Eureka. This year the focus was the circumnavigation of Axel Heiberg Island, and the traversing of the whole eastern coast of Ellesmere Island, with each patrol traveling a distance of approximately 1,000 kilometers. In addition to the sovereignty patrol, the Canadian Rangers also tested commercial GPS technology as a means to track Arctic patrols. All of the patrols returned to Eureka on April 17 and subsequently were re-deployed south by April 20.

The patrols consisted of members of 1st Canadian Ranger Patrol Group (1CRPG) representing several northern communities ranging from Arviat in the south to Carmacks in the west and many communities across the eastern Arctic. The teams, riding new Bombardier Ski-doos, encountered windchill ratings in excess of -55°C, strong head winds, gigantic and often-impassable sea ice pressure ridges and crevices, and periodic equipment failures due to the cold and extremely difficult terrain.

All told, more than 100 personnel including Rangers and staff from 1CRPG and the Air Force participated in the operation. “[This] operation proved that the Canadian Forces are prepared to operate in the High Arctic,” said Millar. “The Canadian Rangers and search and rescue technicians who patrolled the ice, rock, and snow, and the Air Force personnel who supported them with re-supply flights, airlift and surveillance, all demonstrated the dedication, determination, and skill that is essential to operate in this environment. This operation was a clear demonstration of tactical-integrated effect.”

440 (Transport) Squadron provided vital air support by conducting sustainment flights, aerial reconnaissance and Arctic surveillance missions. The airlifts were carried out by three CC-138 Twin Otter aircraft. This workhorse of the North provided the re-supply for the patrols with much-needed rations, fuel, kerosene, komatiks (supply sleds pulled behind snowmobiles), spare snowmobiles and parts, and other necessary equipment. When one of the patrols was faced with crossing an impassable ice barrier, the squadron carried out a number of flights in a single day to move all the people and equipment over the obstacle.

It is impossible not to marvel at the ability of the Canadian Rangers, the Regular Force staff and the members of 440 squadron, both air and ground crew, to work together so effectively during some of the most difficult situations to ensure the success of the mission.

This year’s operation had an added bonus for the participants when the Commanding Officer of 1CBPG, Maj Luc Chang and his staff, briefed Millar and Danish Rear-Admiral Henrik Kudsk, Commander of Greenland Command. Admiral Kudsk’s command is, among other things, responsible for the military defence of Greenland, maritime and sovereignty maintenance and enforcement, as well as the conduct of search and rescue operations. As such, he was interested in seeing how the Canadian Forces and the Rangers conduct northern patrol operations. Future military collaboration between Denmark and Canada in the North, including the possibility of future joint patrols, was discussed.

OP NUNALIVUT WAS a resounding success. Favourable weather conditions enabled the four patrol groups to proudly display the Canadian Flag over thousands of kilometers. When four exhausted but proud patrol groups arrived safely at Eureka, Premier Eva Aariak of Nunavut, Ron Elliott, Member of the Legislative Assembly for Quttiktuk, and Millar were on hand to greet the patrols, recognizing the importance of their accomplishment and to congratulate all the participants.

Recognizing the role of the Inuit and Nunavummiut as guardians of the Arctic, Premier Aariak stated: “All Nunavummiut are committed to supporting Canada in exercising sovereignty in the Arctic. I am honoured to be here today to welcome their return from their patrol of Ellesmere Island and to thank them for their dedication.” Elliott added, “Nunavummiut live, work and patrol in the Canadian Arctic and we are proud to support Canada’s activities.”

“Operation Nunalivut is but one example of how…Canada actively and routinely exercises its sovereignty in the North,” said Minister MacKay. “The Canadian Forces play an important role in achieving our goals in the North, which is why the government…is making sure they have the tools they need to carry out a full range of tasks in the Arctic, including surveillance, sovereignty and search-and-rescue operations.”

Stewardship of the North requires the on-going support and participation of the CF, which has already committed to working closely with all their partners at the federal level. However, for Canada to be truly effective in the North, it is equally important that there are productive partnerships with territorial departments and agencies, and in particular with the peoples of the North.

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