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Canadian Military Journal [Vol. 22, No. 4, Fall 2022]
Search and Rescue

Sgt Matthew McGregor, Canadian Armed Forces

Canadian Rangers, riding snowmobiles, move over the high arctic tundra on a sovereignty patrol near Baring Bay, Nunavut, during Operation NUNALIVUT 2012.

LCol Jean Leroux is an experienced Royal Canadian Air Force Search and Rescue (SAR) aircrew with over 5000 flying hours on both fixed wing aircraft and SAR helicopters. He is an Aircraft Commander on the CH149 Cormorant helicopter and has conducted over 350 rescue missions across Canada. LCol Leroux experienced the Arctic during multiple operational and training missions in Inuvik, Whitehorse, Yellowknife, Iqaluit, Resolute, Eureka, Alert and multiple communities in between. He also operated in Greenland, Iceland and Alaska. The culmination of four operational postings was the Command of 103 (SAR) Squadron based in Newfoundland and Labrador. Between 2017 and 2021, LCol Leroux traded the flying helmet for a pen and worked in HQ Ottawa as the RCAF project director for all Air Mobility and SAR acquisition projects. He earned a Master’s degree in Defence Studies from Royal Military College and a Master’s of Leadership and Management from University of Portsmouth, UK. LCol Leroux is now back on the flight line as the Commanding Officer of 442 SAR Sqn.


Sovereignty for a country of Canada’s size is not solved by borders and control but by an established responsibility of its territory. The Canadian Government has a “moral duty to protect,” and upholds this principle through law enforcement bodies, first responders, and in some cases a Search and Rescue (SAR) system. Additionally, the Canadian Government has a legal duty to provide a safety net to all commercial aircraft and marine traffic transiting Canadian territory. To meet this requirement, Canada participates in several international organizations, such as the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the International Maritime Organization (IMO), and the Arctic Council. The government has agreed to adopt SAR standards and practices following conventions outlined by these bodies.

Despite the challenging Canadian landscape and climate, SAR in Canada has been an enduring success story, thanks to the professionalism and dedication of the men and women that put their lives on the line every day to save others. The Canadian SAR force is comprised of federal and provincial government agencies and committed volunteers, who together respond to more than 15,000 calls for assistance each year and provide assistance to over 25,000 people annually in the most challenging conditions.Footnote 1 Canada’s immensity and climate diversity bring unique challenges to the coordination of resources. This challenge drastically escalates as humans move north and away from more populated areas, infrastructure, and SAR resources.

At the highest level, the coordination of SAR is a function of the Federal Government. The Government has divided the Canadian territory into three Search and Rescue Regions (SRRs): Victoria, Trenton, and Halifax to make coordination more manageable. Each of these regions is controlled by dedicated rescue centres called Joint Rescue Coordination Centers (JRCC). The largest of these regions is the Trenton SRR, which includes most of the Arctic and covers more than 10 million km2, stretching from Toronto up to Alert, the last piece of Canadian land before the Arctic Ocean.Footnote 2 In reviewing the current SAR region construct, this article proposes that Trenton SRR be divided in two. This division would produce a fourth region that would cover the Arctic. The government should equip this new region with a dedicated JRCC.

The Federal Government’s current SAR regional divisions do not reflect current policies; reorganizing the regions would increase the quality of the coordination, leverage Northern communities’ expertise and thus ultimately increase the potential for saving more lives in the Northern region. Hence, based on a paced pragmatic approach, an Arctic Search and Rescue Region (Arctic SRR) is the next logical step in the SAR system evolution.

Resources Allocation

Status Quo?

Global warming and recent increased human activity in the Arctic have made Canada and other northern states focus more intently on this region. This rising interest, fueled by economic opportunities, tourism, and subsequent increased activity levels in the North raised concerns among Canadians. One key concern relates to the country’s ability to respond to emergencies in the Northern region. The Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) defence policy, Strong, Secure, Engaged, states that “the rise in activity will also bring increased safety and security demands related to search and rescue and natural or man-made disasters to which Canada must be ready to respond.”Footnote 3 The defence policy announced the CAF will “enhance the mobility, reach and footprint of the CAF in Canada’s North to support operations, exercises, and the CAF’s ability to project force into the region.”Footnote 4 This footprint, however, is costly and more planes, vessels, and military bases come at a high monetary cost.

The Arctic Area of Operation (AOR) is massive and characterized by a harsh climate, low population density, and a lack of infrastructure. The Canadian Arctic represents 40% of the country’s landmass, but only 0.3% of Canadians live in the region. These population statistics represent approximately 110,000 residents located in Nunavut (NU), North West Territories (NWT), and the Yukon (YK), or less than 0.1 people per square km.Footnote 5 Most SAR missions occur in the southern portion of the country, where the level of activity and the population are the highest. Correspondingly, SAR resources are concentrated in Southern Canada.

Despite an increase in activities in the Arctic, the number of incidents requiring SAR intervention has remained low. A study by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans conducted between 1996 and 2011 revealed no increase in SAR incidents requiring CAF resources north of the 60th parallel. All in all, the number of SAR incidents in the area represents less than 5% of all incidents prompting a CAF aircraft response. To Colonel Danny Poitras, the Chairman of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) SAR Capability Advisory Group, this low incidence rate justifies allocating resources to the more populous south instead of the Arctic.Footnote 6

Similarly, marine activities have also increased but have not resulted in more incidents, most likely thanks to safer transportation and advances in tracking technology and communications. This data also highlights an interesting pattern: increased human activities in the North with the associated infrastructure makes the area less austere and safer.

Another element making the North a safer place despite increased activity articles 131(1) and 132 of the Canada Shipping Act (2001). These articles state the obligation for seamen to be good Samaritans if another ship is in distress. Therefore, every additional traffic in the North brings potential distress and potential sources of help. The North-West passage traverse of the luxury cruise ship Crystal Serenity in 2016 illustrates this point. While CBC reported that if the Crystal Serenity were to become compromised, such a scenario would “break” the current Canadian search and rescue system, facts suggest otherwise.Footnote 7 The Crystal Serenity was escorted by the British vessel RSS Ernest Shackleton, a vessel ready for emergencies, fully equipped with an operating room with medical teams and two onboard helicopters.Footnote 8 The Crystal Serenity was self-sufficient and had enough SAR and medical capability to assist those who travelled in the same Nordic areas.

The Crystal Serenity was one of the first large luxury cruise ships to venture into the Arctic, and its preparation was impeccable. Evidences of that foresight were built through multiple years of research and collaboration with American, Canadian and Danish (Greenlandic) authorities which included route studies, mass evacuation, SAR response exercises and ultimately a full mission simulation at the marine training center in St. John’s, Newfoundland. Moreover, Crystal Cruises brought onboard four renowned Ice Navigators, survival equipment and rations well above prescribed requirements, oil pollution response gear, and rigid hull inflatable lifeboats.Footnote 9 It would be naïve for Canadians and Northern States to assume that all future adventurers and travellers will all have those costly means of assuring self-rescue. The 1989 accident that triggered a Norwegian rescue of more than 1000 people after a solo Russian cruise ship named Gorky hit an iceberg off Iceland is a contrasting case study that needs to be considered.

Cavalier Marc-André Leclerc, 5 CMBG, Canadian Armed Forces

A member of 12e Régiment blindé du Canada stands watch for polar bears at Crystal City Camp during Exercise GUERRIER NORDIQUE in Resolute Bay, Nunavut, February 28, 2019.

More is Required?

Despite the North seemingly becoming safer as activities in the area become more frequent, there remains concern about the lack of permanent Government SAR facilities in the Arctic. In light of increased activities, the current SAR governance fueled numerous debates and requests for establishing a CAF primary SAR unit in the North.Footnote 10

Due to the extreme cold weather and lack of medical care access, people who find themselves in trouble in the Arctic have fewer chances to survive than those involved in an incident in the South. This scenario is especially true if the emergency is a plane crash or boating incident, both of which require immediate care and shelter from the elements.

Research conducted in the early 2000s made two SAR-related observations. First, the requirement for capability is on the rise. Second, the current CAF/Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP)/Canadian Coast Guard (CCG) response times are potentially too slow. They concluded that the mismatch between the available SAR resources and the rising rate of activities in the North might lead to an inappropriate response to emergencies.Footnote 11 Additionally, not much progress has been made in the last two decades to improve Canada’s response to Northern SAR events.Footnote 12 It is problematic, as it creates discrepancies of resource access between Canadians, depending on their geographic location.


The proposed concept in this article can be divided into two phases: creating an Arctic SAR region followed by establishing a JRCC for that region. The creation element is simply a paper exercise to redefine region boundaries in the policy document called Canadian Air and Maritime Search and Rescue Manual (CAMSAR). This initial step, which could be implemented overnight, is a significant statement on the Canadian’s vision for Arctic SAR. Phase two, which would equip this newly defined region with a dedicated rescue centre, is more resource-intensive process and has the most significant impact. Not only is creating an Arctic SAR region cost-effective, but it also responds to the Government’s espoused policy approach to the Arctic. Canada’s Arctic Foreign Policy details how Canada will “show leadership and work with others to demonstrate responsible stewardship and to build a region that is responsive to Canadian interests and values.”Footnote 13

Three of the four published pillars are relevant here. The first concerns sovereignty, which again supports that military SAR services in the North are an effective and inexpensive means to ascertain sovereignty on its claimed territory. Second is the promotion of local economic and social development to empower Northerners.”Footnote 14 An Arctic Joint Rescue Coordination Center (JRCC) in Iqaluit or elsewhere in the North fits into this pillar. It would create a very stable employment platform to which the local indigenous knowledge and skills would be an invaluable asset. Much can be learned from the ingenuity and adaptability of the Northern population. The Arctic policy supports a “creative, dynamic, sustainable Northern economy and improvement of the social well-being of Northerners as essential to unleashing the true potential of Canada’s North.”Footnote 15 Additionally, Strong, Secure, Engaged puts at the forefront the importance of the Northern population; it states that “Indigenous communities are at the heart of Canada’s North, we will also work to expand and deepen our extensive relationships with these communities, …this will also include engaging local populations as part of routine operations and exercises.”Footnote 16

The last aspect of the Canadian Arctic policy, “Improving and Devolving Governance: Empowering the Peoples of the North,” is where the Arctic SAR region shines. This pillar strives for Northerners’ greater autonomy, economically and politically speaking.Footnote 17 Thus, giving the people of the North their own coordinated SAR network will contribute significantly to their empowerment.

Greaves stated that sovereignty in the Arctic needs to be conceptualized through the lens of its inhabitants, the views of whom need to become the center of policymaking.Footnote 18 A Southern Ontario-based organization cannot compete with the depth and the wealth of the local knowledge of the Northern population in their unique environment. A governance devolvement from South to North within the SAR network is an easy and significant step towards advancing the fundamental basis of the Canadian Arctic Foreign Policy, which is the well-being of the Northern population.

An Arctic SAR region is also in line with international conventions. Indeed, the Arctic expands beyond the Canadian territory and is a vast region shared by multiple Arctic states, namely Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, the Russian Federation, and Sweden. These countries created the Arctic Council in 1996, an intergovernmental forum promoting cooperation, coordination, and interaction among the Arctic States, Arctic indigenous peoples, and other Arctic inhabitants.Footnote 19 In May 2011, in Nuuk, Greenland, the Arctic Council signed their first legally binding agreement ever negotiated in the Arctic,” which played an “important role…for safe transport and enhancing cooperation in assisting people in distress in the Arctic”.Footnote 20

The members of the Arctic Council highlight SAR as a priority and a means of linking the communities together. SAR is a constant concern that requires cooperation between states, allowing them to act as a single unit. The current rescue centre representing Canada on the council table is Trenton. While Trenton is meeting its objectives, a group of Arctic SAR professionals like the proposed Arctic JRCC would be the ideal organization to provide leadership as subject matter experts for the entire international community.


A permanent establishment of SAR presence in the Arctic would ultimately require a similar footprint to bases located in the lower latitudes. This approach would include planes and infrastructure dedicated to Northern SAR responses. The optimum composition of that arsenal has to be researched to ensure they meet the operational environment of the Arctic. Research on the material challenge could consider UAVs and traditional SAR assets. While much work needs to be done on the procurement endeavour and site selections, using resources from existing SAR bases is the reality for the foreseeable future. In practical terms, the management and coordination of a SAR region do not necessitate instant new military or Coast Guard equipment. An Arctic JRCC would have access to Southern resources as required, as is the case for current coordination by Trenton SRR for SAR incidents in the North. Current JRCC teams leverage the most appropriate assets for the task. For example, if a missing mariner case occurs in Resolute Bay, a CC130H Hercules from Trenton and a CH149 Cormorant from Gander could be launched. This solution is all about having the right asset at the right time. Having a permanent SAR base and air assets in the Arctic would bring more effectiveness to the response. This article’s posits the concept of an Arctic SAR region with Northern management as an opportunity to establish and expand precise requirements to expand governmental assets and ultimately set an appropriate military/Coast Guard SAR base in the Arctic.

The current three SAR regions with their associated rescue centres are depicted in Figure 1.

Source: National Search and Rescue Secretariat - Quadrennial SAR Review

Figure 1: Current Canadian SAR regions allocation and associated JRCCs.

Click to enlarge image

Source: Author

Figure 2: Proposed Arctic SAR region boundary

Click to enlarge image

The proposed Arctic SAR region would divide the Trenton SRR with the current military defined Northern Area of Operation, as depicted in Figure 3.

Source: Author

Figure 3: Proposed construct for an Arctic Joint Rescue Coordination Center

Click to enlarge image

There are two distinct elements of SAR regional governance; a Command and Control (C2) structure with associated staff and Commander and an actual Rescue Center. For example, JRCC Trenton is located in Trenton, Ontario, while the SAR region C2 is embedded within 1 Canadian Air Division in Winnipeg. The two elements are complementary but do not have to be co-located. Additional research needs to be done to establish the appropriate home for Arctic C2 and JRCC. However, an existing military C2 construct in the North could be leveraged to reduce the required personnel and minimize cost. The current Northern defence governance is composed of the Joint Task Force North (JTF(N)), the military detachment in Yellowknife that oversees all defence operations north of the 60th parallel. Their mission is to “exercise sovereignty and contribute to safety, security and defence in the Canadian North.”Footnote 21 They have the framework and the command structure to assume similar responsibilities that other SAR regions enjoy. This existing military command structure can absorb the SAR command structure required for an additional region without much increase in personnel.Footnote 22

Complementary to the C2 but arguably the most significant commitment financially is the creation of an Arctic Joint Rescue Coordination Center (JRCC), which would be a physical place of duty to enable the coordination of SAR cases in this new region. An ideal location for an Arctic JRCC would be Iqaluit in Nunavut, and Nunavut is the Northern region with the highest rates of SAR incidents. Furthermore, most future Arctic activities would be based on the sea traffic enabled by the increasingly accessible North-West Passage and the increase of Northern adventurers on Elsmere Island, located near Iqaluit.

The traditional composition of a JRCC is a combination of RCAF staff who ultimately deal with aeronautical emergencies and the Canadian Coast Guard who coordinate maritime emergency responses. The proposed Arctic JRCC suggests an innovation that would include other players that coordinate ground SAR to truly make a 911-type centre for all incidents in the Arctic, whether air-, marine-, or land-based. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) is the lead agency for ground SAR in the North. The proposed Arctic JRCC would have a seat in the ops room for the RCMP to work side by side with RCAF and CCG staff.

One of the best resources in the Canadian North is the Canadian Rangers, a sub-component of the CAF Reserve and the military’s eyes and ears in the North. They provide patrols and detachments for national security and public safety missions in sparsely settled northern, coastal, and isolated areas of Canada.Footnote 23 They are recognized for their flexibility, cost-effectiveness, cultural inclusivity, and community outreach. These characteristics make the Rangers a vital defence asset in the North.Footnote 24 An effective and efficient way to develop SAR capability in the North would be to integrate the Rangers into the proposed Arctic JRCC. Incorporating Indigenous science and traditional knowledge into decision-making would allow for a better response to emergencies. This inclusion aligns with the March 2016 Canada-U.S. joint statement on Arctic leadership, which commits to harnessing the knowledge and capabilities of the North for Arctic decision-making.Footnote 25

Another organization that needs attention is the Search and Rescue Volunteer Association of Canada (SARVAC). The association represents 300 teams and 12,000 volunteers across Canada, and SARVAC is an active player for Ground SAR in Canada, including the North. SARVAC is a registered not-for-profit and educational organization that supports, coordinates, develops, informs, promotes and implements approved search and rescue emergency responses within the underlying principle of saving lives.Footnote 26 This group of trained volunteers has 34 SAR teams above the 60th parallel, giving them a wealth of Arctic experience.Footnote 27 SARVAC also has a place on the proposed Arctic JRCC. Figure 4 represents the concept of an Arctic JRCC.

To succeed, a new SAR region in the Arctic has to present eight key elements:

  1. Sovereignty: taking ownership of our environment.
  2. Local knowledge: using the unique skillset of the communities to save lives.
  3. Historical evolution: logical evolution with the increase of Arctic activities.
  4. Non-resource-based: use of assets of main Southern bases.
  5. Empower First Nations: integrating communities in SAR coordination.
  6. Arctic SAR council participation: empower the people of the North to become leaders.
  7. Inclusion: CAF, CCG, RCMP, SARVAC, and Rangers in the JRCC team for synchronized coordination of all SAR incidents in the North under one roof, as depicted in figure 3.
  8. Economics: this solution requires minimal capital spending.


SAR is not a new concept; it is an everlasting capability requirement. If the current statistics hold, there will be 6,000 lives in danger in the Canadian Arctic over the next 50 years that will require coordinated efforts, and arguably this number will be much more significant as Northern activities increase.Footnote 28 Logical and gradual changes such as an Arctic SRR will make Canada successful at fostering lasting change in the Arctic.

Canada’s commitment to Northern economic and social development includes a deep respect for indigenous traditional knowledge, work, and cultural activities. Through its current Arctic foreign policy, the Government is also sending a clear message that Canada controls its Arctic lands and waters and takes its stewardship role and responsibilities very seriously.Footnote 29 In the future, Canada needs to promote a better understanding of the North in all of its aspects and better express its commitment to the Arctic.

Creating an Arctic SRR through the coordination of Arctic assets is a crucial step to empower Northerners. The strength of this proposal is the ability to plug and play into the current system, without having to change in the current SAR governance. This solution adds value and improves the system at minimal cost.

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