On August 22, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s annual northern visit included a visit to a Canadian Rangers camp near Gjoa Haven, Nunavut. Images of the PM and Defense Minister Rob Nicholson conducting firing practice with the Rangers drew mainstream attention to the little-known component of the Canadian Forces Reserves. During his visit, the PM pledged to replace the Rangers’ equipment, including the long-outdated Lee Enfield rifles, which have been in service since the Second World War. This renewed commitment is a welcome change for a long-neglected, though increasingly crucial component of the Canadian Forces Reserves, and for longer-term security in the Canadian Arctic.
Guardians of the North
The Canadian Rangers are a component of the Canadian Forces Primary Reserve tasked with providing a military presence in sparsely-populated regions. The Rangers were formed in 1947, though their origins lie in the Pacific Coast Militia Rangers, a volunteer force established to provide local defence against a potential Japanese invasion. Numbering approximately 5000, Ranger membership is drawn typically, but not exclusively, from Inuit, First Nations, and Métis communities.
The Canadian Rangers fulfill a number of supremely important roles in the Canadian security landscape. They continue to fulfill their original mandate of conducting and providing support to sovereignty operations in the vast northern reaches of the Canadian arctic. This comes in the form of conducting patrols and inspections of North Warning System stations, reporting unusual activities to the Canadian Forces, and collection of local data that may be of military significance.
Though reinforcing Arctic sovereignty is an important geopolitical goal for Ottawa, it remains a largely abstract concept. More tangible to most Canadians is the Rangers’ role in rescue operations and community outreach. Canada’s north is a sparsely-populated, unforgiving expanse, making it imperative to have local forces capable of providing rescue support in times of need. By drawing membership from locals, the Rangers are able to provide local knowledge in missions supporting regular CF personnel. Gjoa Haven, the Ranger camp that Mr. Harper selected to visit, highlights this exceptionally well. The symbolism behind choosing a location like this was not lost on the Prime Minister, as the area is home to the Nattilik Inuit, instrumental members of the Rangers who are experts in first aid and rescue, navigation, and survival.
In addition to the traditional military-civil linkage provided by the Canadian Forces Reserves, the Junior Canadian Rangers program is a strategy to engage youth in some of the most isolated communities in the country. The program’s objectives are threefold: imparting traditional community, life, and Ranger skills. Providing a structured youth programme in these regions allows the Rangers to serve as an important tool in combating some of the many issues facing First Nations, Métis, and Inuit youth.
Prime Minister Harper committed to the expansion and modernization of the Rangers in 2007, when they numbered approximately 4000. Since then, the Rangers have swelled to 5000, conducting more than 178 patrols across northern Canada. There are numerous reasons to support continued expansions of this niche force.
Canada’s northern population is set to grow. The rapid melting of Arctic ice facilitating increased trade in previously-frozen sea routes, and the expansion of oil sands refinery projects across Alberta will both contribute to this growth. An influx in new inhabitants will necessitate a greater Ranger presence in the region. A skeleton crew of 5000 simply will not be able to provide the level of support currently available.
The Rangers’ crucial role in maintaining the North Warning System must also be supported. Fears of a Great Power clash over Arctic resources are overblown, and any large-scale incursion into Canadian territory is unlikely for the foreseeable future. However, modernizing and developing the next generation of Arctic monitoring systems is a task that will need to be taken up in the decades to come. Continued expansion of the Rangers represents a crucial opportunity to reinforce one of the pillars of Canadian Arctic sovereignty.
The Rangers’ importance to Canada’s security architecture is directly tied to the natural environment. Mr. Harper’s visit highlights that as climate change alters the face of Arctic Canada, so too will it change the region’s security needs. The Prime Minister has long sought to brand himself as a champion of Canadian Arctic sovereignty. Redoubling support for this neglected force will go a long way in reinforcing this image.