'The place at the edge'
By Nathan VanderKlippe
The Edmonton Journal
Sun 01 May 2005
ISACHSEN, Nunavut -- A little more than a thousand kilometres from the
North Pole, a line of snowmobiles snakes through a blistering wind.
Behind each snowmobile, a wooden sled called a kamotiq bounces its load
of jerry cans, tents and food across the rough and uneven ice of the
frozen Arctic Ocean.
Fluttering from the last snowmobile in line is a Canadian flag, its
bright red maple leaf the sole splash of colour in a landscape as
bleakly monochromatic as it is majestically vast.
This is the land that silence owns, a place where jagged sea ice runs
into sharp gravel cliffs and gently rolling tundra hills, all hidden
beneath a windswept coat of snowy sameness that obscures the border
between land and sea.
The snowmobiles ride over it all, the flag the sole indicator that this
land belongs to someone and that, though the men are closer to the
Russian coast than Ottawa, this is Canadian soil.
"We're trying to exercise sovereignty within the North," says Warrant
Officer Randy Cox, one of nine regular force soldiers participating in
a $1-million exercise that has brought the soldiers and 13 Canadian
Rangers to this barren corner of the Arctic on what's called an
enhanced sovereignty operation.
"In a nutshell, that means we just want to show a presence up here, in
the best interests of Canada," he said. "So that ever in the event that
someone else is trying to conquer this land or lay claim to it, then we
can at least say that we've occupied certain areas of it."
It's a claim that has drawn criticism from some quarters, from people
who dispute that expensive patrols like this one do anything to further
Canada's claims to the Arctic and the thousands of islands and
waterways in its archipelago.
But this is a critical exercise for the northern military, which is
charged with protecting the 40 per cent of the country's land mass that
lies north of 60.
The Rangers are Canada's most important contribution to northern
sovereignty. Their 1,500 northern members -- all military reservists --
in 58 communities monitor the land and waters within a 300-kilometre
radius of their hometowns, creating a federal presence with a wide
reach over the Arctic that is augmented by some 200 annual patrols.
Those parts that the Rangers do not touch are watched by occasional
overflights by surveillance aircraft, and the defence department has
begun work on Project Polar Epsilon, which will bring regular precision
satellite surveillance to the Arctic by 2009.
But there remain great uninhabited swaths of the Arctic, and part of
the tasking for the northern forces is to set "footprints in the snow"
on exercises like this one, called Operation Kigliqaqvik IV, after the
Inuit word for "the place at the edge of known land."
That perfectly describes the place where the Rangers and soldiers are
snowmobiling, breaking into two patrols as they leave Isachsen, the
site of an abandoned Arctic weather station on Ellef Ringnes Island,
for Meighen and Amund Ringnes Islands, smaller chunks of land to the
As they travel, a raging windstorm thrusts them on to another edge: the
outer limit of human survival.
Once every hour they stop, pulling their snowmobiles together into a
cluster against the wind and consulting a GPS unit for a brief location
check. The stop is short, however, and the GPS quickly tucked away
again inside a parka to preserve its batteries, which have already been
sucked of most of their energy by the frigid cold, a -50C windchill
that burns white frostbite circles on to the men's cheeks in minutes.
"As soon as you stop, the wind catches up with you and you can turn
into a casualty within 15 to 20 minutes if you're not careful," said
So the men soldier on, pushing against a hail of snow particles hurled
by the wind, not intimidated by the blizzard.
"It's how I grew up, being out on the land," said Paul Ikuallaq, a
22-year Inuk Ranger veteran from Gjoa Haven, Nunavut, whose grandfather
was Roald Amundsen, the first man to sail through the Northwest
"We're not scared of anything, because we're right there with the warm
stuff -- the Coleman stove and the tent."
As the men drive, the wind continues to shriek at gale force. Sometimes
it gusts to hurricane strength, the entire sky assaulting the land and
the men, its force unbroken by trees or buildings.
And unbroken by land. Ellef Ringnes Island lies at the western edge of
the Canadian Arctic archipelago. From here to Russia, the wind blows
untamed over ice that never melts. When the island's weather station
was still active, the men stationed here sometimes had to crawl on
hands and knees between buildings to avoid being toppled by its
But lives spent above the 60th parallel have hardened the men on this
patrol against the cold. Some of the Inuit leave their faces uncovered
as they travel, but their weather-hardened skin is barely touched by
the lashing wind, which leaves only a few small "caribou kisses" --
purple frostbite marks.
David Nanook leads one of the patrols. A quiet Inuk man who speaks
little English, this land is his home and he is gifted with a
remarkable ability to navigate through the limited visibility. Instead
of using landmarks, he finds his way by keeping the wind at one side
and using the snowdrifts as compasses.
The drifts, some as hard as concrete, form according to the prevailing
winds and point in the same direction; to keep on course, Nanook cuts
across each one at a similar angle.
By evening, the men have reached their destination, and stop for
another GPS check. Nanook has led them for 84 kilometres, and largely
by his use of the wind, snow and sun they have stopped 250 metres away
from their target. They patrol the coast for a valley, where they set
up canvas tents in the searing wind.
The next morning, they hammer the feet of a metal cairn into the frozen
gravel, leaving a permanent marker of their presence for anyone who may
pass by here.
For some of the men, this is the longest they have ever been away from
home, and the farthest north they have ever travelled. Being here as
Rangers evinces a chest-swelling pride for many, who feel they are
protecting the territory they call "our land" for future generations.
"I wouldn't want a foreign person to own this land because of all the
animals around here," said Manasie Kaunak, an Inuk Ranger from Grise
Fiord, Canada's northernmost civilian community. "When we went on the
patrol, we saw caribou and there were lots of tracks -- I wouldn't want
anyone to hunt those besides Inuit people."
The military, too, sees this patrol as an exercise in guarding Canada's
frontiers from unknown intruders who might one day claim parts of the
High Arctic for the petroleum or mineral riches that could lie hidden
in its frozen depths.
"We're up here patrolling the boundaries of Canada to show that it is
ours," said Capt. Brian Wiltshire, the deputy commanding officer of the
northern Rangers. "If we can't put people here, then other countries
are just going to take it."
But experts say that while exercises like this may perk a few ears at
foreign embassies, they actually have very little bearing on Canada's
The Kigliqaqvik patrol is "next to irrelevant," said Franklyn
Griffiths, a retired University of Toronto professor who specializes in
Arctic matters. "If we really were interested in sovereignty, we'd get
ourselves some ice-strengthened naval vessels able to operate in the
ice up there," he said. "And that is not coming on."
Unlike Denmark, Canada has no military ships that can operate in
ice-choked waters, limiting the country's ability to enforce its
sovereignty over the Arctic.
And the Rangers have been dispatched largely on land, which no one but
"They call them sovereignty patrols but nobody is threatening the land
mass of the Canadian North," said Rob Huebert, a northern sovereignty
expert and the associate director of the University of Calgary's Centre
for Military and Strategic Studies. "Our sovereignty disputes are over
the waterways and that's really where we have to have sovereignty
Asserting ownership over those waters now could become increasingly
important as climate change melts the Arctic.
In the past 50 years, temperatures in some parts of the Arctic have
risen as much as four degrees Celsius. The thickness and extent of sea
ice have diminished by about 15 per cent in the last three decades.
Scientists expect the future to bring a continued rise in temperatures,
which could melt away the permanent ice in the polar ice cap in
summertime by the year 2050.
ICE-FREE WATERWAY WILL SPUR A FLURRY OF RESOURCE EXPLORATION
That could bring a host of sovereignty challenges, as temperatures
unlock the Arctic's vast network of waterways, clearing the way for a
burst of resource activity in the unexplored hinterlands. It could also
open the Northwest Passage to transcontinental marine traffic,
potentially exposing the delicate Arctic to environmental disaster
since the international community does not recognize Canada's claim to
the passage as internal waters. If designated as an international
waterway, Canada would be unable to set its own environmental rules on
shipping through the passage.
Canada faces two other significant Arctic sovereignty disputes: the
U.S. does not recognize our claim to parts of the Beaufort Sea, an area
rich in petroleum resources, and the state of Alaska has for the past
few years invited oil companies to buy parcels of the disputed zone.
In the far eastern Arctic, Denmark and Canada both claim Hans Island,
an otherwise insignificant speck of gravel between Ellesmere Island and
Greenland, but one that has highlighted Canada's indifferent approach
to its actual sovereignty issues in the Arctic.
The past few years have brought increasing lip service to solving
Canada's far northern sovereignty dilemmas. Last summer, Prime Minister
Paul Martin travelled to Nunavut to underscore the Arctic's growing
importance to Canada, which was again emphasized in the October 2004
speech from the throne, which promised a strategy to "protect the
northern environment and Canada's sovereignty and security."
But despite a pledge in the April defence policy statement of steps to
"to preserve our sovereignty, including that of the Arctic," Canada has
done little to actually resolve the Arctic's sovereignty challenges.
Over the past two summers, the Danish navy has sent frigates on
flag-planting exercises to Hans Island. Canada has not responded in
turn. The Canadian Rangers, frequently held up as the country's
foremost northern sovereignty contribution, have only patrolled in
areas that are indisputably Canadian territory. They have gone nowhere
near Hans Island, or to any of the other disputed zones.
In fact, the closest the Canadian military has come to Hans Island was
two years ago in a chartered commercial aircraft, when Stewart Gibson,
the commanding officer of the northern Rangers, flew near the island.
He never landed on the island because, he said, "my boss has not told
me to go there. Right now, this dispute between the Danes and Canada is
at the political level, with (the department of) Foreign Affairs, and
they're trying to resolve it at their level."
But at Foreign Affairs, the various disputes have garnered little
attention -- none have prompted bilateral negotiations, and department
spokesman Reynald Doiron said there are no plans to send a military
presence to Hans Island.
"At this time and place there's no particular reason for either party
to either negotiate or to bring it to the International Court of
Justice, so therefore any presence over there by either side's military
forces would not be welcome," he said, despite Denmark's persistence in
sending its navy there.
At the same time, social change is beginning to shake Canada's
strongest argument for Arctic ownership: the fact that the Inuit have
used this land since "time immemorial."
Today in some places, their presence is dwindling, and several
communities along the Northwest Passage route have been left as ghost
towns, or are near collapse.
No one is left at Shingle Point in the Yukon, while settlements like
Bathurst Inlet and Bay Chimo, both on the northern coast of the
continent, have dwindling populations now at just over a dozen people.
Sachs Harbour, the only community on Banks Island, is dying away: it
lost 16 per cent of its population between the 1996 and 2001 censuses,
and is now home to only 114 people.
More worrisome still, the hunting traditions that once pushed Inuit to
the farthest reaches of the North are losing a battle against the
modern wage economy, which brings sustenance from a cubicle and a
grocery store rather than from the land. For those who still do hunt,
escalating prices have made it difficult to scrape together enough cash
to pay for bullets and snowmobile fuel. Ultimately, that has diminished
Canada's presence, and its "eyes and ears" across the tundra.
N.W.T. Premier Joe Handley said the remedy is to invest in the
communities themselves, and called on the federal government to invest
in tourism and municipal subsidies to help keep hamlets like Sachs
"The best way of ensuring sovereignty and security is to have good
strong healthy communities along right across the Arctic," he said. "It
wouldn't be very expensive because people who live in those small
communities are not looking for a six-digit salary. They like the
independence that comes with hunting and living off the land. It could
be a good investment to keep that going ... and much cheaper than
bringing in military hardware."
Still, both Huebert and Griffiths see value in exercises like
Kigliqaqvik, even if not for sovereignty in particular. By most
standards, the Ranger program is impressively cheap, costing about $6.5
million per year to run, and Griffiths says the patrols allow Canada to
be better keepers of the land --"in the sense of looking after it, we
keep it in good order and we manage and see that it is used properly."
Another part of the value is in showing the military's Arctic
deficiencies. On this most recent patrol, for example, the winds and
heavy ice fog grounded military aircraft for more than a week, delaying
the exercise. One Twin Otter scheduled to operate out of Isachsen never
made it there because it was equipped with skis that crippled its
"The lessons learned in and of themselves are of critical importance,"
said Huebert. "They drive home to those that pay attention the fact
that we are so severely limited in what we can do in the North that
hopefully the policy-makers make some decent policy decisions on what
we can do to shore up that capability.
"They call them sovereignty (patrols) but nobody is threatening the
land mass of the Canadian North. Is it really sovereignty? No," he
"But it is a very clear enforcement and presence capability, so it does
say to people, 'we're up here and we have this capability'."