By Lynn Capuano, Army Public Affairs
Resolute Bay, Nunavut — Military operations and exercises in any environment have an inherent element of danger, but when the most northern areas of Canada are the staging grounds, the risks are compounded by polar weather and a vast and bleak terrain.
Fortunately for the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF), the Canadian Rangers are part of the team that trains Arctic Operations Advisors in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories and Resolute Bay, Nunavut each season. The 2018 course concluded in late March.
The Canadian Rangers belong to the Army Reserve (ARes), and they live and work in remote and Northern regions of the country. They provide lightly-equipped, self-sufficient mobile forces to support national security and public safety operations within Canada.
As emphasized in the Strengthening the Army Reserve (StAR) directive, the Arctic Operations Advisor (AOA) course trains Reserve and Regular force members together as much as possible to ensure they can be combined into one team when the need arises. The graduates who are ARes members will serve in their Divisions’ Arctic Response Company Groups, which are ARes-only organizations, while the Regular Force members will use their knowledge within their units.
True partners with the CAF in the North, the Canadian Rangers carry out over 110 exercises and operations a year, including local sovereignty and training patrols, support to Canadian Armed Forces operations and exercises, and support to federal and territorial partners or other stakeholders.
Captain Wayne LeBlanc works closely with the Canadian Rangers to deliver a broad range of Northern knowledge and skills. He has been the course commander of the AOA course for the past three and a half years.
“We have one Ranger supporting in the Low Arctic Phase but we employ the bulk of the Rangers’ knowledge in the High Arctic,” noted Capt LeBlanc.
The 45-day AOA course, which sees candidates split their time between Yellowknife and Resolute Bay, provides Canadian Army personnel with the tools they need to advise their commanders on how to more safely conduct military operations and exercises in Canada’s North, an environment that can be deadly if not understood and treated with respect.
“I think this year's candidates in particular have been one of the best crops we've had.
They have been very enthusiastic,” said Capt LeBlanc. “One of the things we preach from day one is that you have to be enthusiastic about this. It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It's a part of the world that very few people ever get to see.”
Originally from Nova Scotia, Capt LeBlanc has been a Regular Force Army member for 10 years. Now posted to the Canadian Army Advanced Warfare Centre, which is part of the Canadian Army Doctrine and Training Centre in Trenton, Ontario, he alternates between Resolute Bay in the winter and Trenton during the warmer months, when he runs the Mountain Operations Platoon. “I spend my summers teaching mountain knowledge,” he said.
As for Arctic knowledge, he discussed some of the biggest challenges for those new to the North, solutions that he learned, in part, from the Rangers.
“Well, the obvious one is the cold. Not very many people get to experience that type of cold. It can go down to minus 75 degrees. I often find that it's the first thing that takes the candidates back a step,” he said. “It is the overarching challenge, just being able to function in the extreme cold. You have to learn to exist in it.”
Bundling up is not always the answer to keeping toasty, according to Capt LeBlanc.
“We teach them how to dress for the cold, depending on what they will be doing. Avoiding sweating is one of the key things that we teach.”
“So if you are going to be working, for example, cutting snow blocks to build an igloo, you will take off layers – we call it kitting down – because you don't want that sweat building up in your parka because it will get wet and then it will freeze and you will be that much colder.”
“So you leave your parka open on your snow machine so that moisture can evaporate and freeze,” he said. “And then you just bash it off your parka before you put it back on.”
If Rangers think the weather is bad, heed their Ihuma
“As for the High Arctic Rangers, I can't really sing their praises enough,” he said. “They bring a lot of cultural wisdom and good decision-making processes that we're looking for.”
Ihuma is an Inuktitut word that has many meanings, but the most basic definition is reason, wisdom and knowledge, according to training materials used for the AOA course.
A person with Ihuma is considered to have adult competence, and has what is needed not only for personal survival, but to have the ability to lead others in the harsh North. Known as isuma in some dialects, the concepts are important to Inuit across the Canadian Arctic.
Someone who has ihuma is calm, cheerful and patient, particularly in the face of difficulty and frustration, has a realistic and flexible approach to the environment and a strong respect for others’ independence.
Capt Leblanc described how, during the final phase of the course, participants must take advantage of the Rangers’ knowledge.
“Participants plan their own final exercise on this course, which involves a sovereignty patrol. They are assigned a community and then they’re given Rangers from that community to help them plan what they're going to do during their sovereignty patrol in that community.”
“A lot of that preparation is learning traditional Ranger skills: how to live on the land, how to fish and so on. Their advice is outstanding and their knowledge is such that we listen to them.”
“This year has been one of the worst for weather that I’ve seen on this course,” he said. “There were a lot of high winds and white-outs in Resolute Bay.”
Flexibility is a Ranger lesson to be taken to heart. “As much as humanly possible, when a Ranger looks out the window and says, ‘oh I wouldn't go out today,’ then we don't go out that day.”
Heeding the Rangers’ advice hard for goal-driven soldiers
He noted that this advice sometimes goes against the grain of the typical goal-oriented soldier. “We like our timelines and we like meeting our objectives.”
“So what we teach is that when we are acting as advisors, before we go to our commander and give advice, we should first go to the Rangers and ask them what they would do. You know the saying, ‘you can lead a horse to water but you can't make him drink?’ Well, it's like that, but I think we're getting better at it,” he said.
“After all, you can't tell candidates who are there to advise people to make good decisions and then make poor decisions just to get the course finished. And so we always have to err on the side of caution.”
“The weather has the final say.”
Course evolution addresses psychological aspects
The course evolves each time it is given. “We think the program's going in the right direction,” Capt LeBlanc said. “Lessons are being learned – and that is exactly why we are up here.”
For the past two years, a new aspect of the training, called the Sub-Arctic Survival phase, has been delivered.
Candidates spend three or four days out on the land without food or rifles. They may only use snares to catch small game and a ferro (short for ferrocerium) rod and metal striker to start fires. It emits a high-temperature spark when struck with a metal striker and is effective under cold, wet or windy conditions that would defeat matches or lighters.
“We have a priority of survival, and that is shelter, water, fire and food. Food is very low on the priority scale because of the ‘Rule of Threes,’ which is in the order of what’s going to kill you fastest,” he explained.
“So three minutes without air, 30 minutes exposed to the elements, depending on the conditions; three days without water; and three weeks without food.”
An aspect of ihuma that becomes important is keeping a positive attitude in the face of difficulty.
“Being out there without food contributes to what we are trying to teach,” said Capt LeBlanc. “We’re trying to create a psychological mindset. Things are going to start going bad if you don't maintain a certain level of positivity and keep your mind working.”
“You have to keep the human mind busy in a situation like that. The moment you stop being busy and trying to improve your situation, the depression and the self-doubt and the self-pity comes into play and those will impact your ability to survive, and so we want to put them in that state in as realistic a situation as possible while still maintaining safety.”