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Operation Nunalivut 2012 – Part Two: Guardians of the North

The polar bear has been running across the ice for more than an hour and she is tired; dead tired, it’s impossible to resist saying.

The patrol stops to get its bearings. [PHOTO: ADAM DAY]

The patrol stops to get its bearings.

The polar bear has been running across the ice for more than an hour and she is tired; dead tired, it’s impossible to resist saying.

Ranger Debbie Iqaluk’s snowmobile coasts to a stop as the bear saunters kind of amiably, about 50 metres away. Deb shoulders her government-issue rifle and fires one shot.

The bear leaps, her head swivelling to see what hurt her; she sprints a bit, slows, and then flops to the ground like a housecat on a sunny carpet—shot through the heart.

Deb and her hunting partner Phillip approach cautiously. I move up beside Deb. For a while no one says anything. We just watch the bear laying there motionless, steaming.

Deb, still staring at the bear, says: “So.”

It takes me a second to realize she’s asking me a question.

“Very, very sad,” I say.

She punches me hard in the chest.

“Hey,” she blurts. “This is not sad. This is how we live.”

Debbie’s looking at me; I’m looking at the bear.

What she says next has to be understood in the context of where we were and what was happening in order for it not to sound like the trite fulfilment of an Inuit stereotype.

We’d been chasing this bear for many hours, way out in the middle of Wellington Strait off of northern Devon Island—an area so remote and hostile that it was literally one of the last places in the world to be fully explored and mapped.

It’s something like -40º Celsius. Deb has spent much of her life living out on the land, hunting as a way of life. She stands at the long end of many, many centuries of Inuit tradition. She is perhaps one of the last of her kind in Canada, or anywhere. And in this way, she is even more endangered than the bear she just shot.

“I love this bear,” she says. “The bear has given me its spirit.”

Debbie and the bear. [PHOTO: ADAM DAY]

Debbie and the bear.

Defending a Difficult Claim

Operation Nunalivut 12, this now-annual expedition to the Far North, is just one way Canada—and the Canadian Forces—are trying to show the world that the great mass of Arctic islands up there are genuinely Canadian territory.

Debbie and Phillip and the rest of the Canadian Rangers—dubbed the CF’s ‘eyes and ears’ in the North—are in some ways the focus of the operation. They are the ones who live here and learning to partner with them, to understand how to work with them, is ultimately more vital to sovereignty than planting flags in the snow.

That said, proving a strong command of the territory is also a priority. And even the quickest overview of the past seven years of Nunalivut operations shows there is a pattern to the effort—each Nunalivut covers a new patch of territory in what appears to be a deliberate attempt to cover as much ground as possible.

Past Nunalivut operations have ranged from the northernmost point in Canada—right up around Canadian Forces Station Alert on Ellesmere Island—to the far western Arctic to this year’s operation, which is centred on two 12-man snowmobile-mounted patrols leaving Resolute to conduct a fairly complex search and rescue operation on northern Devon Island.

As to whether there’s a pattern to the locations of the Nunalivut operations, Lieutenant-Colonel Glen MacNeil, deputy chief of staff at Joint Task Force North and the commander of Nunalivut 12, is in full agreement. “We are [trying to cover the whole territory], we should be, and quite frankly we’ve proved that we can. It is a sovereignty operation.”

How much of this sovereignty is real or symbolic can be understood by the following: in the 1980s Brian Mulroney considered it a key policy victory that he convinced the Americans to always ask for permission to transit the Canadian Arctic, on the somewhat gutless condition that we would always grant permission. Despite our hard bargain, there is much evidence that the Americans don’t always abide by the deal and sometimes transit the Northwest Passage without asking.

And most of the time, in most practical ways, there’s not much we can do about it. The reason for this is that our military capability in the North lags behind that of most other Arctic nations—the Russians, in particular, but also the Danish, the aforementioned  Americans and, to be honest, many others. “I don’t think there’s any great defence threat [in the Arctic],” says MacNeil. “But in order for us to be able to respond to those things, we need to prove that our people and equipment can operate in these conditions. So unless we go up and practice it, we don’t know that we can do it.”

MacNeil traces the military’s involvement in the North back to 1898 and notes that it continued in many forms throughout the 20th century, whether it was mapping operations or Cold War activities such as the DEW (Distant Early Warning) Line. “With climate change there are more countries interested in the North. China’s interested. India’s building icebreakers. There are vast natural resources,” says MacNeil.

“[A few years ago] we were experts at survival in very harsh conditions and we thought nothing of it,” adds MacNeil. “But the Army was almost consumed by [Afghanistan]. What that meant was that we weren’t paying as much attention to the skills needed for winter warfare, particularly in the Arctic. But as we wind down there, we’re trying to regain our expertise here.”

Master Corporal Billy Cornish and Debbie plot a route. [PHOTO: ADAM DAY]

Master Corporal Billy Cornish and Debbie plot a route.

Into the Empty Frontier

There are many reasons why it took so long for explorers to make it this far north. To get a sense of some of them, here is a brief toll of our patrol’s calamities: dozens of crashes, multiple injuries, one qamutiq destroyed and many broken, two snowmobiles destroyed, one stove burned up, got lost an uncountable number of times despite GPS systems, a few low-level supply issues and more than a couple of encounters with deadly wildlife.

But none of the bare incidents really capture the numbing difficulty of travelling overland in the Arctic in winter. And I’m not talking about the physical hardships—of which there are no end—but instead how crushingly unsympathetic the place feels, and how this hostility makes every decision something to consider deeply, and how the stress of all of this undermines your ability to consider things with any sophistication. In short then, the land itself seems to inspire human failure.

This is just the experience. It’s what makes travel so tough. At the same time, the visuals of the place are beautifully bewildering—thousand-foot rock faces, vistas so big they reach out dozens of kilometres or more through translucent air, the impossible animals that find a way to survive in a place where it seems like nothing could be alive, the sheer variety of ice and snow.

“The North is a powerful place,” says MacNeil. “You look at the vastness of it. It’s stunning. It really is. When you sit there and the silence is real silence, and you’re looking out at the snow, it’s an amazing place, it’s spiritual almost. Sometimes I just stand outside and look around. You don’t want anyone to talk to you, you just want to stand and take it in.”

A chartered helicopter drops off some gas and supplies. [PHOTO: ADAM DAY]

A chartered helicopter drops off some gas and supplies.

Camping Among the Bears

The Arctic, you may be surprised to learn, originally got its name from the Greek word ‘arktos,’ which means: bear. Now, there’s some debate about whether this refers to the actual polar bears or some night-sky constellation, but that really doesn’t matter, because for the length of our patrol to northern Devon Island, it’s the polar bears that are on everyone’s mind.

In the fine tradition of military rumour-mongering, during a stop on the first day’s ride, our patrol’s extremely competent search and rescue technician, Sergeant George Olynyk, tells a fantastical story of polar bears crossing the Strait of Belle Isle to Newfoundland. While I immediately dismissed the story, it, like most of the scariest rumours, turns out to be true.

As the days passed and the bear sightings mounted, it seemed that the soldiers became kind of reconciled to their existence. And while the CF may be used to dealing with dangerous animals, I’d decided early on I’d rather have a wrestling match with a Taliban than a polar bear any day. The Rangers, meanwhile, seemed to consider the bears as little more dangerous than stray dogs.

Over the very long days and nights of patrolling, time blurred into one long frozen sunny day, for there was no night. After more than a week of this it became, as the patrol’s medic Corporal Doug McCallum noted, an odd kind of purgatory. There was nothing to do but survive which, in day-to-day life, meant piloting your snowmobile as perfectly as possible, often at very high speeds for up to 12 hours a day and then building your tent and falling asleep as fast as you could manage.

In the last phase of the operation, more than a week after both patrols had left Resolute, the two columns of snowmobiles spent a couple of days circling northernmost Devon Island, searching, somewhat symbolically, for the group of hunters last heard from in these parts and now presumed lost.

The terrain is challenging. [PHOTO: ADAM DAY]

The terrain is challenging.

While the scenario was notional, there was an actual group of role-players pretending to be the lost hunters—and they’d snowmobiled all the way from the distant community of Grise Fiord to take part. That there were actual people hiding in the vast expanse of ice and snow and rock did somewhat animate everyone involved, but even then, by this point the Arctic’s virulent form of entropy had set to work and our particular patrol, cut in half by equipment malfunctions and running extremely low on supplies, was in no position to rescue anybody, even notionally.

Even when the operation’s commanders tipped us off to the exact location of the lost patrol, they were still some distance out of reach. “We have a maximum range of 200 kilometres, probably less,” patrol leader Sergeant Billy Cornish informed his commander over the satellite phone.

He listened for a second and then ended the call.

“They’re pushing the lost patrol toward us,” he told the assembled group.

“I thought we were rescuing them?” asked patrol’s second-in-command, Cpl. Sean Thompson.

“We don’t have enough gas to rescue them,” replied Cornish.

In true military fashion, this unfortunate turn of events led to many hours of dark jokes and general humour, everyone envisioning the scenario in which our patrol would rescue the lost hunters and thereafter requisition their supplies.

“Hello, we’re here to rescue you,” we imagined our leader saying. “Now, we’re going to need all your gas, your food and your oil. Also, what have you got to drink?”


A New Kind of Cold War

How many Canadians are aware that the Arctic islands comprise just under half of our land mass and way more than half our coastline? Or that Canada shares a hugely long border with the European Union, Denmark to be specific? Or that there is a great and fascinating game now afoot to see which countries can manage to stake the most valuable claim over the landless area near the North Pole?

There is a struggle going on in the North and while there have not been any shots fired—nor, in all likelihood, will there be—it is still a high-stakes struggle between competing nations over land and the division of resources. It is, to be sure, a new kind of cold war.

Political interest in the Arctic is high. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has made the Arctic the centrepiece of his defence policy since 2006, at least.

Much talk, much evidence points to a big thaw, but still, as of now, the Northwest Passage is only really open to shipping one month of the year and even then, the icebergs and bad-weather hazards are pretty extreme.

The Arctic’s potential—both as a conflict zone and as a resource goldmine—thus remain somewhat hypothetical, dependent on climate change and discoveries of genuine value.

The patrol on north Devon Island. [PHOTO: ADAM DAY]

The patrol on north Devon Island.

For those tasked with defending our northern claims, however, the debate is not hypothetical at all. “People talk about sovereignty in the North as if it’s a debate, but to me there’s no question, this is Canada,” says MacNeil. “We are here all the time. In terms of sovereignty, we live it.”

Nunalivut 12 was a big operation—far larger and more complex than this article can show—and it was done for equally large and weighty reasons—quite literally to defend Canada against those who would seek to diminish it. As for MacNeil, his conclusion is simple: “We proved our capabilities.”

And while in the end, the notional lost patrol was never “rescued” by either of the two ground patrols, it definitely didn’t diminish the sense of accomplishment felt by all the patrol members when they finally snowmobiled back into Resolute, having gone so far out into the empty frontier.

For Debbie and many of the other Rangers—especially those from Resolute and Grise Fiord—the sovereignty operation may have ended but they are still on patrol, fulfilling their role as guardians of the North. Right now, Debbie is likely out on the land hunting, wearing her Ranger uniform, struggling across the Arctic, never giving up—a Canadian emissary in a very distant place.


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