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Watchers of the North

“Op Nunalivut clearly underscores the value of the Canadian Rangers who are our eyes and ears in the North,” said BGen David Millar, Commander Joint Task Force North, during the recent Canadian Forces sovereignty exercise in the Arctic.

Since the Second World War, our vast northern expanse and extensive coastlines have represented a significant security and sovereignty dilemma for Canada. Having one of the lowest population densities in the world, and one of the most difficult climatic and physical environments for the conduct of operations, a traditional military presence would be too difficult.

For decades the Canadian army has been active in the Arctic, primarily through the Canadian Ranger program. The genesis of the Rangers lies with the Pacific Coast Militia Rangers (PCMR), created in March 1942 at the height of the Second World War. As volunteers, their job was military surveillance along the coastlines of British Columbia and in the Yukon. They were officially stood down on Sept. 30, 1945.

Recognizing the ongoing need for such an organization, on May 23, 1947, the Canadian Rangers were established. During the discussions that led to its creation in 1947, one officer wrote that the idea of the “citizen-soldier” lies at the heart of the Rangers. They provide Canada with a military presence in remote regions throughout Canada, in particular in Canada’s Arctic.

Recruited from 56 communities across the North and a further 109 communities south of the 60th parallel, they play a key role in protecting Canada’s sovereignty by conducting surveillance and sovereignty patrols, reporting unusual activity or sightings, and collecting local data of significance to the CF. They assist in training southern-based soldiers, sailors and airmen and women for tasks in the North. They are a volunteer force, paid only when training and on special missions. Their motto is “Vigilans,” often interpreted as “The Watchers.”

The Rangers are highly skilled Reserve members of the CF. Although the majority are either Inuit or Aboriginal, a number of members are non-aboriginal. All are experienced in Arctic survival and are deployed almost every time the CF operates on land. As well as expert guides, the Rangers provide predator control when required and assist in search and rescue when needed. They are a major contributor to the training and effectiveness of the military in the North. The CF draws on the indigenous knowledge of the Ranger members rather than “militarizing” and conditioning them through typical military training regimes and structures.

In 1998, five Canadian Ranger Patrol Groups (CRPGs) were formed across Canada to coordinate the activities of Ranger patrols in their respective areas of responsibility. English and Inuktitut are the two main languages used by the Rangers, although French is used in the Quebec region. A number of women have also become Rangers; in Ontario, as many as one in three are women. There is no compulsory retirement among the Rangers. A few are in their 80s and, while they do not go on sovereignty patrols such as the most recent one, they pass on wisdom and serve a function similar to military chaplains.

Major Luc Chang, the patrol Commander, and MWO Wayne Baldwin, the patrol Sergeant Major, both described the Rangers as excellent soldiers capable of dealing with all the hardships faced in the North. But the command structure has it’s own nuances from that of the rest of the CF. “It’s Nunavut,” Chang said. “In any army, orders are issued by officers and carried out by soldiers without a lot of discussion. Here it’s more of a relaxed atmosphere. There is a sharing of the plan with the Rangers, consulting them on the campsite, petrol supply, more of a traditional approach.” The Rangers elect their patrol leaders as opposed to the traditional CF promotion practices, Baldwin added.

Selection of the Rangers participating in operations is done in a Northern fashion as well. Notice is sent to the Ranger units in 56 communities that a patrol opportunity is coming up. The units, which number approximately 30 Rangers per patrol, decide who would best represent them. Then Chang and his staff make the final selection. “We’re looking for a combination of experience and physical fitness,” said Chang. “They have to have a good reputation.”

Back in 1947, each Ranger was given a red armband, a .303 Lee-Enfield rifle and 200 rounds of ammunition. Today, upon joining, they receive a red hoodie with the Ranger crest, army disruptive pattern pants, and the same Lee Enfield – a heavy bolt-action rifle considered extremely accurate and reliable in Arctic temperatures – items in which they place a great deal of pride.

The Rangers are paid the same as the Canadian Forces Reserves, not regular army, amounting to a little more than $100 a day. But Rangers who spoke to the author did not care about the money – it is about being on the land, they said. And all wanted to sign up for Op Nunalivut.

In August 2007, the government announced that it would expand the Rangers from 4,200 to 5,000. New patrols would be formed and existing ones strengthened. The Army has also begun a Ranger Modernization Project. Among other things, it will include replacement of the current rifles, uniform modernization and enhancement of transportation capabilities. Interestingly, many Rangers have expressed reluctance to give up their Lee Enfields. Together with the red hoodie and the camouflage pants, these are a symbol of who they are and what they do.

Rangers are non-commissioned volunteers of the Canadian Forces Reserves who hold themselves in readiness for service but are not required to undergo annual training; they are obliged to serve only when placed on active service by the Governor-In-Council or when called out in an emergency. Since no training obligations exist, Rangers must be in good health and be able to effectively live off the land in their area. They rarely operate as individuals but rather as patrols or groups.

The Rangers have a tremendous effect on the lives of the people in their local communities. Many hold leadership positions in their communities, such as mayors, chiefs or Ranger Sergeant, and are active community members who have a positive influence on their peers and are often held up as role models for youth.

They have been recognized for significant contributions to their communities in times of disaster, such as providing relief after the avalanche in northern Quebec (Kangiqsualujjuaq), responding to aircraft crashes, or participating as observers/guides on Canada’s west coast countering illegal immigration. In 2003, Canada honoured the Rangers with a commemorative Canada Post stamp.

A source of pride for Canada’s northern communities, the Rangers represent a practical partnership, rooted in community-based monitoring using traditional knowledge and skills. This promotes cooperation, empowerment of the individuals and their communities, leading to improved cross-cultural understanding.

The role of the Rangers is likely to become even more important in future years. Climate change in the Arctic will present new problems for security as new passageways open in the ice. Surveillance in the North will be increased, raising the profile of the Rangers.

“I’ve been a Ranger for five years,” Ernie Eetak, a 28-year-old Ranger from Arviat, Nunavut, wrote in an e-mail expressing his appreciation for the role. “Thanks to the Canadian Rangers and the army, I went to Alexandria Fjord, about 800 miles from Eureka, [and] I saw glaciers, mountain ice and huge mountains. My group of eight Rangers…helped each other pulled sled kamutik with our hands over mountains that had too many rocks, and [it] took us four hours.”

An important success story for the Canadian Forces, the Canadian Rangers provide a flexible and culturally inclusive means of “showing the flag” and asserting sovereignty while fulfilling vital operational requirements. Their unique combination of traditional knowledge and modern military technique has established them as Canada’s best kept secret in patrolling and protecting the North.

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