Watch­ers in the North

On pa­trol with the Cana­dian Rangers in Nu­navut

The Walrus - - FRONT PAGE - By philip che­ung

When I was eigh­teen and go­ing through my train­ing with the armed forces, I trav­elled to Gjoa Haven, Nu­navut, to learn sur­vival skills from a unit of the Cana­dian Rangers. It was my first en­counter with the mil­i­tary branch, which is made up of 5,000 part-time mem­bers, many of whom are Indige­nous, spread out across more than 200 com­mu­ni­ties in re­mote re­gions of Canada. The Rangers are of­ten tasked with teach­ing south­ern mil­i­tary units tra­di­tional sur­vival skills: they give in­struc­tion on how to hunt, fish, and trap game and how to build shel­ters in harsh en­vi­ron­ments. They also share their ex­per­tise in track­ing and land nav­i­ga­tion.

In the sum­mer of 2017, I re­turned to the Arc­tic, this time as a pho­tog­ra­pher, and spent two weeks with the Rangers. I tagged along for a pa­trol on and around King Wil­liam Is­land, near the com­mu­nity of Taloyoak, Nu­navut. The pa­trol was orig­i­nally meant to last five days, but bad weather forced us to con­tinue on for an­other four. As our sup­plies thinned, the Rangers re­plen­ished our wa­ter from nat­u­ral streams and hunted cari­bou for food.

Orig­i­nally formed to mon­i­tor the coun­try’s north­ern and Pa­cific coasts dur­ing the Sec­ond World War, the Rangers

now op­er­ate from the At­lantic to the Pa­cific, as far north as Ellesmere Is­land in Nu­navut and as far south as Hearst, On­tario. Though their early man­date fo­cused on pro­tect­ing Canada’s Arc­tic sovereignty from neighbouring na­tions such as the United States and Rus­sia, it has since ex­panded. Be­cause many Rangers live in the com­mu­ni­ties they serve, they of­ten be­come first re­spon­ders in places where other help is not al­ways close by.

Rangers are called upon to re­spond af­ter avalanches and for­est fires, miss­ing­per­sons cases and air­plane crashes. In June 2017, the Wapekeka First Na­tion was one of sev­eral north­ern On­tario com­mu­ni­ties to de­clare a state of emer­gency fol­low­ing a se­ries of youth sui­cides. Rangers or­ga­nized on-the-land ac­tiv­i­ties with youth, teach­ing them to pitch tents, build fires, and catch fish. Last spring, Rangers helped evac­u­ate Kashechewan First Na­tion res­i­dents in north­ern On­tario amid fears that the nearby river would flood due to ice jams.

Un­like with other mil­i­tary units, there is no manda­tory re­tire­ment age for Rangers, and many choose to stay in ser­vice un­til they are no longer able to per­form their du­ties. As the phys­i­cal land­scape in the North changes due to shift­ing cli­mates, the Rangers’ knowl­edge has be­come more im­por­tant than ever. Ris­ing ocean and air tem­per­a­tures are con­tribut­ing to sea ice loss, and there is in­creas­ing in­ter­na­tional in­ter­est in the con­tested North­west Pas­sage, where Arc­tic na­tions are com­pet­ing for con­trol over ship­ping routes and re­serves of oil and gas. The Rangers of to­day par­tic­i­pate in and sup­port sur­veil­lance pa­trols and pro­vide sta­tus re­ports to mil­i­tary com­mand in the south. Maybe most im­por­tant, they pre­serve es­sen­tial knowl­edge about how to live off the land.

above RangerKeith Pood­lat drinks from a stream at Maleru­a­lik Lake.

above Dur­ing pa­trols, Rangers some­times hunt game such as cari­bou (shown) and seal for food.

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