The eyes and ears of the North – Eye on the Arctic

RIGOLET, Newfoundland and Labrador – Oswald Allen and Levi Wolfrey remember the day more than two decades ago that they heard the Canadian Rangers were looking for members and decided to go and check it out.

“They wanted people that knew the land, where to go and not go, so when [the military] came here to recruit, we both went together,” Wolfrey said.

Allen said he was immediately intrigued.

“It seemed like a cool thing to do and I joined to see what it was like,” he said.

Now commander in charge of the 18-person Canadian Rangers patrol in Rigolet, the world’s most southerly Inuit community, Allen gets serious when asked about what’s kept him with the Rangers for the last 23 years.

“You learn about so many different things in the Rangers,” Allen said. “You’re working for the safety and security of your country, that’s why I’m involved.”

Rangers mark their 75th anniversary

The Canadian Rangers are part-time reservists within the Canadian Armed Forces. Rangers are not trained combat soldiers, but with their knowledge of their local environments and the ability to easily navigate in the country’s harshest and most challenging regions, act as the military’s presence.

There are approximately 5,000 Rangers located in 200 of Canada’s most remote and isolated communities. The majority of the communities, located in the North and on the country’s east and west coasts, are Indigenous. Founded in May 1947, the Rangers are marking their 75th anniversary this year, and experts say it’s an important milestone to reflect on their role in Canada.

A map showing the five Canadian Ranger Patrol Groups. (Department of Defense)

“The Rangers are a very distinct form of service in that they are considered trained upon enrollment,” Whitney Lackenbauer, Canada Research Chair in the Study of the Canadian North, and a professor at the School for the Study of Canada at Trent University said. “It’s their ability to harness all of their local and traditional knowledge, skills and expertise that makes them such a wonderful contribution, not only to Canadian security, but also community resilience.”

The Canadian Rangers were created during World War II, partly modeled on the Home Guard, the United Kingdom’s volunteer civilian militia put together as a back up to the regular forces Germany should try to invade Britian.

After Japan entered the war in 1941, concerns emerged about the vulnerability of Canada’s rugged and sparsely populated Pacific coastline. The Pacific Coast Militia Rangers (the PCMR), were created in 1942 to protect and patrol the isolated regions and were made up of locals like loggers or trappers that had intimate knowledge of the remote and rugged terrain. At its height it had some 15,000 members in British Columbia and Yukon. PCMR was stood down after the war, but its model was used to create the Canadian Rangers enabling the military to have a presence all along Canada’s coastlines.

Paul Atagoota of 1 Canadian Ranger Patrol Group shares his knowledge about Inukshuks with the soldiers of 32 Brigade in Resolute Bay, Nunavut, during the 2010 iteration of Operation Nanook, a recurring Canadian Forces operation that takes place in northern Canada. (Sgt Marco Comisso/Canadian Armed Forces)

“Who better than people living in an area, who know their homeland intimately, to be able to detect an anomaly when something’s off?” said Lackenbauer, also an author of several books about the Canadian Rangers and Honorary Lieutenant Colonel of 1st Canadian Ranger Patrol Group from 2014-2020.

“The Rangers were created in recognition that Canada does not have, and probably doesn’t need, to have a large conventional military presence the way some countries or heavily populated areas do, because quite frankly, the threat environment in our Arctic, even today With the war in Ukraine, doesn’t warrant a massive buildup of sort of regular forces or relative regular military infrastructure.”

Whitney Lackenbauer, Canada Research Chair in the Study of the Canadian North

Working with local and military expertise
“Just putting on that uniform, I have so much personal pride,” says Cyril Lane, a Canadian Ranger with the 13-person Makkovik Patrol in the Atlantic Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador. (Eilis Quinn/Eye on the Arctic)

Cyril Lane, a Ranger who grew up in Postville in Labrador and now lives about 40 kilometers to the northeast in the community of Makkovik, says the Rangers’ fusion of local knowledge with military expertise enriches everyone.

“Growing up I learned how to read the weather and survive out on the land from my father and my uncles,” Lane said.

“If you look outside, you’ll see different things than me. I can recognize traditional travel routes where you’ll just see a forest because you don’t know what to look for. That’s what we can bring to the military. But we also learn from them things like navigating with a compass and GPS.

“We apply a lot of our personal knowledge to our work as Rangers but the military teaches us things as well.”

Cyril Lane, Ranger

Allen from Rigolet agrees saying the ongoing Ranger trainings with the military keep both sides up-to-date on their different areas of expertise and is why he still finds being in the Rangers so valuable

“I learned from my father that if you go just North of here and hear the ice groaning, you better watch out and not go out too far because it could break up and you could end up stranded out there. The military doesn’t know that, and that’s why they got us.”

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