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The Great White North


DND photo 8977

Canadian Rangers travel by snowmobile in the winter and all terrain vehicles in the summer. Road access is limited in many areas and non-existent in others.


The Canadian Rangers: A “Postmodern” Militia that Works

by P. Whitney Lackenbauer

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The Centre of Gravity for CFNA is our positive relationship with the aboriginal peoples of the North, all levels of government in the three territories, and all other government agencies and non-governmental organizations operating North of 60. Without the support, confidence, and strong working relationships with these peoples and agencies, CFNA would be unable to carry out many of its assigned tasks.

– Colonel Kevin McLeod,
former Commander Canadian Forces
Northern Area1

Canada’s vast northern expanse and extensive coastlines have represented a significant security and sovereignty dilemma since the Second World War. With one of the lowest population densities in the world, and one of the most difficult climatic and physical environments to conduct operations, a traditional military presence is prohibitively costly. As a result, the Canadian Rangers, a little-known component of the Reserves, have played an important but unorthodox role in domestic defence over the last sixty years. This component of the CF Reserves, managed on a community level, draws on the indigenous knowledge of its members, rather than “militarizing” and conditioning them through typical military training regimes and structures. Embodied in its communities and peoples in isolated areas, the Canadian Forces continue to benefit from the quiet existence of the Rangers.

While commentators typically cast the Canadian Rangers as an arctic force – a stereotype perpetuated in this article – they are more accurately situated around the fringes of the country. Their official role since 1947 has been “to provide a military presence in those sparsely settled northern, coastal and isolated areas of Canada which cannot conveniently or economically be provided by other components of the Canadian Forces.” They are often described as the military’s “eyes and ears” in remote regions. The Rangers also represent an important success story for the Canadian Forces as a flexible, inexpensive, and culturally inclusive means of “showing the flag” and asserting Canadian sovereignty while fulfilling vital operational requirements. They often represent the only CF presence in some of the least populated parts of the country, and serve as a bridge between cultures and between the civilian and military realms. The Rangers represent an example of the military successfully integrating national security and sovereignty agendas with community-based activities and local management. This force represents a practical partnership, rooted in community-based monitoring using traditional knowledge and skills, which promotes cooperation, communal and individual empowerment, and improved cross-cultural understanding.

The current roles and structure of the Canadian Rangers retain a strong connection with their original, early Cold War conception. Nevertheless, the Rangers embody several “postmodern” characteristics described by military sociologists – although in potentially unexpected forms. Military socialization has historically been designed to eradicate individual difference and to instil a paramount commitment to unit and nation-state. By contrast, postmodernity celebrates diversity and multiculturalism lies at the core of Canada’s official identity. In this light, Defence Strategy 2020 and other strategic documents have stressed that the CF must be a “visible national institution” reflecting the country’s geographic and cultural diversity.2 Sociologists Charles Moskos and James Burk have postulated that postmodern forces would increasingly feature sub-national social organizations, and would reflect dramatic changes in military cultures and opinions.3 In the Canadian case, a political emphasis on the non-assimilation of Aboriginal peoples conflicts with the typical assimilationist goals of mainstream military culture. This article will argue that observers would be hard pressed to contemplate a more inclusive and flexible force than the Rangers.

The following analysis, using theoretical traits associated with “postmodern” military formations, helps to explain the vitality and success of the Canadian Rangers in recent years. It highlights the permeability between civil and military structures, the “erosion of martial values,” and increasing democratization driven by internal rather than external considerations.4 Rather than wading into the tumultuous debate on the precise meaning of postmodernism, this article accepts the functional definitions put forward by sociologists Bradford Booth, Meyer Kestnbaum, and David R. Segal. At its core, “postmodernism is not a developmental construct, but is essentially a mode of discourse” designed to deconstruct basic assumptions rather than to uncover cause and affect relationships through positivist, social scientific methods.5 In this light, even though the Rangers were designed during the “Last Modern” or Cold War age, this analytical model can be useful to understand their form and contributions.

This article draws mainly upon examples from the territorial north, where most media and official attention to the Rangers has focused.6 The author has met with headquarters staff, instructors and Rangers with 1 Canadian Ranger Patrol Group on several occasions since 2000, and participated in an annual training exercise with the Ross River, Yukon patrol in winter 2004. This article is also informed by theoretical discussions about arctic sovereignty and security that link northern development issues with military, economic and political security considerations, as well as Aboriginal values and traditions. Political scientists have observed that post-Cold War arctic strategies are less state-centric and military-focused, and that debates about the proposed demilitarization of the Arctic region have illuminated the legacies of military activities on northern peoples and ecology. Policy-makers can no longer ignore the human impacts of their decisions on communities and individuals, especially in an era of Aboriginal self-awareness and self-government.7 Given that postmodern military theory stresses changes to perceived threats, mission definitions, and conventional civil-military relations,8 the North seems an appropriate area of operations and responsibility to assess the Rangers’ “postmodern” attributes.


FOC photo P0002398 from www.mar.dfo-mpo.gc.ca

Majestic ice flow in the Beaufort Sea.

The Canadian Rangers: An Overview

The Canadian Rangers were first conceived amidst the modern realities of the Second World War and the Cold War. The force was originally modelled after the Pacific Coast Militia Rangers (PCMR), a home guard established along the West Coast in 1942 to meet potential Japanese incursions. The PCMR was predicated on the idea that unpaid volunteers, often too old or too young to serve overseas, could perform useful military functions while carrying out their everyday civilian lives on the land and sea. Given their intimate knowledge of local areas, they could provide intelligence, act as guides, and delay an enemy advance using guerrilla tactics. All told, more than 15,000 British Columbians served in the PCMR before it was stood down in late 1945.9

By 1947, chilly superpower relations and a new focus on northern security, coupled with renewed sovereignty concerns related to a US military presence in the North, led the government to establish the Canadian Rangers as a Corps of the Reserve Militia. This force would be unpaid, provided with armbands, a .303 rifle, and 200 rounds of ammunition a year. In war, they would serve as coast watchers and guides to regular troops, assist authorities in reporting and apprehending enemy agents and saboteurs, provide local defence against small enemy detachments, and undertake ground search and rescue (GSAR) operations. Their peacetime roles were similar, focusing on guiding troops on exercises, collecting detailed information about their local areas and reporting any unusual activities, and providing GSAR parties when tasked. They were recruited from local areas, commanded by civilian leaders from their communities, and carried on their daily lives.10

The Rangers survived the oscillating cycles of military concern about the North through the second half of the 20th Century.11 Military and political interest in the Rangers diminished by the late 1950s, when technological solutions like the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line were conceived to secure the continent. Although the Rangers were left to “wither on the vine,” they did survive – largely because of the extremely small price tag attached to them.12 During the 1970s the “Northern” Rangers enjoyed some growth as a sovereignty-bolstering measure but it was not until the mid-1980s, when the voyage of the U.S. Coast Guard vessel Polar Sea renewed sovereignty concerns related to the Northwest Passage, that the Rangers underwent dramatic growth.13 By 1992 the national strength of the force rose to 3200 (and doubled in the territorial north).

The Rangers grew “North of 60” after 1970 because the basic structure already existed and was very inexpensive, but also because a “new security discourse” emerged. Military activities in the arctic could not longer be divorced from domestic socio-economic, cultural, and environmental health issues. Aboriginal leaders repeatedly called for the demilitarization of the arctic on social and environmental grounds, and construed the military presence as a threat to their peoples’ security. These pressures encouraged program assessment using both state-centred security and broad social criteria. Military officers noted that the public and Native leaders took great interest in the Rangers, and that “while their motivation and enthusiasm may not be entirely military oriented, it is genuine and perhaps it is an excellent opportunity to seriously consider realistic and practical improvements in the Ranger force.”14 Beginning in the late 1980s, explicit government statements increasingly stressed the socio-political benefits of the Rangers in Aboriginal communities and the force underwent remarkable growth during a general era of fiscal and personnel downsizing in the Canadian Forces. The Rangers were politically and publicly marketable as a military success story.

There are currently 4000 Rangers in 165 patrols across Canada. Overall command is centralized at National Defence Headquarters, administered by the DCDS, while operational and administrative control of Canadian Rangers in the field is delegated to the Commander of Canadian Forces Northern Area (CFNA) and to the Commander of Land Force Command (LFC).15 In 1998, five Canadian Ranger Patrol Groups (CRPGs) were formed to co-ordinate the activities of Ranger patrols in their respective areas of responsibility. Until 1998, the Rangers existed as a subcomponent of the reserves. Reorganization into CRPGs made them a total force unit, with each Patrol Group commanded by a major (CO) and a captain (DCO).16


DND photo 8856

Military sovereignty patrols travel in very austere areas in extreme conditions to assert Canadian sovereignty.

The Rangers as a “Postmodern” Military Formation

Traditional military institutions are quintessentially hierarchical and bureaucratic. Charles Moskos, J.A. Williams, and David Segal theorize that postmodern forces would be predisposed towards decentralization, and ascribe five fundamental organizational characteristics to postmodern militaries. First, they feature structural and cultural interpenetration of the civilian and military spheres. Second, less emphasis or differentiation is placed on service, rank, and specialization. Third, missions will focus less on warfighting and more on low-intensity humanitarian and constabulary missions. Fourth, theorists suggest that postmodern forces will carry out missions with multilateral rather than unilateral authorization. This idea extends to the fifth characteristic: that there will be an internationalization of military forces themselves.17

The following discussion interprets the Canadian Rangers using these general categories as guidelines for critical analysis. The Ranger organization, managed on a local/community level, relies heavily on the indigenous knowledge of its members, rather than assisimationist “militarizing” and conditioning through the regularized training regimes akin to traditional, modern military formations. The recent focus on local humanitarian and surveillance needs clearly prioritizes sovereignty assertion over preparations to engage enemy insurgents. The force has also proven to be a sustainable way to accommodate First Nations, Inuit, and Métis people in the military, providing a positive, practical connection between the CF and Northern communities.


Cadets are very much a manifestation of northern citizenship.

1. Inter-penetration of Civilian and Military Spheres

The idea of the “citizen-soldier” lies at the heart of the Rangers. One officer wrote, during the discussions that led to the creation of the force in 1947:

We don’t want, and we don’t need, further organized military bodies supplementing Active and Reserve Forces but what we need is that small groups of specially adapted people take an interest in the defence of their country in order that we may derive the greatest benefits from their knowledge and particular facilities and it is necessary that they be organized to some extent; but I am afraid that if we try to make them too military we will certainly stand to lose by it... . If the ... interest [is] taken by the respective Commanders, ... and a great deal of benefit will accrue to the [Canadian] Forces and the country in general.18

The core concept is that citizens in isolated and coastal communities, far from the main southern belt of population, can serve as the military’s “eyes and ears” during the course of their everyday lives. Rather than asking these individuals to leave their communities to join the Regular Forces or Primary Reserves,19 they can make meaningful contributions to their country at home.

The perceived value of individual Rangers is directly linked to their civilian experiences and practices. First and foremost, a Ranger has usually lived in an area for a long time and is intimately familiar with the local people, terrain, and weather conditions. Second, he or she is, ideally, at least, working on or near the land or sea, and thus in a position to observe unusual incidents. Third, a Ranger possesses certain skills and expert local knowledge that supports the force’s role in the CF.20 Correspondingly, membership in the Canadian Rangers is distinct from the regular force and other reserve force units. The only formal entry criteria is that men and women who join are over eighteen years of age, are Canadian citizens or landed immigrants, in good health, and willing to be members of the Canadian Forces. There is no upper age limit. So long as an individual can still perform his or her duties, he or she can remain a Ranger. Some anecdotes are truly amazing – 74-year-old Ranger Peter Kuniliusie of Clyde River, Nunavut, retired in November 2004 after 52 years of continuous service with the force.21 Indeed, it is accommodation and acceptance of social diversity and experience that makes the Ranger concept unique and feasible.

Apart from annual Ranger training exercises conducted by Regular or Reserve Force instructors, ongoing Ranger activities are often indistinguishable from civilian practices. An excellent example is ground search and rescue (GSAR). Rangers often participate in ground searches for lost individuals or groups without the prior knowledge of their group headquarters. As the only organized group in many isolated communities, the Rangers are singularly equipped to assist SAR specialists, and their contributions generate significant media attention. In 1999-2000, for example, Rangers and personnel from 1 CRPG took part in 164 volunteer GSAR missions, one medevac, and one emergency rescue.22 Without official direction, however, the Rangers, even if they are wearing their uniforms, are not performing the task as Canadian Rangers per se; they are acting as private citizens and are not paid. Although this blurred line between their “civilian” and “military” identities remains vague, in emergencies individual Rangers act first and foremost as community members.23 The Rangers also represent an important means of sharing knowledge within Northern communities. The potential loss of traditional skills, which are inextricably linked to Aboriginal identities, is a persistent but growing worry amongst Northern peoples and policy-makers.24 The quasi-urbanization of the territorial north since the mid 1950s means that younger people have not had the same level of exposure to traditional activities on the land as their elders. In a constructive way, the Ranger program facilitates the transfer of indigenous knowledge amongst members of a patrol, and thus supports the retention of traditional knowledge within communities.

The creation and expansion of the Junior Canadian Rangers (JCR) over the last decade fulfills a similar function. The JCR is a structured youth program designed “to promote traditional cultures and lifestyles by offering a variety of structured activities to young people living in remote and isolated communities.” The Rangers’ responsibilities with the JCR program support national goals, and allow DND, in partnership with other government departments, to make a meaningful contributions to the quality of life for young Canadians in isolated areas. “The greatest asset of the [JCR] Programme is its flexibility,” official DND statements explain. “It is a community-based and supervised programme that receives little direction from external sources. In this way, [it] helps preserve the culture, traditions, and activities that are unique to each community.” An adult committee works in partnership with a local Ranger patrol to set curriculum: 60 percent is at the community’s discretion, and 40 percent (the Rangers Skills component) is directed by the Canadian Forces. In short, local Rangers instruct and supervise Junior Rangers in close cooperation with community leaders. The meteoric growth of the JCR across the North demonstrates the appeal and success of this approach.25


DND photo 9130

The Operation Kigliqaqvik team stands proudly on Ellef Rignes Island after spending over two weeks in some of the most extreme winter conditions.

2. Multilateralism and the Inter-nationalization of Military Forces

“The norm for Western military deployments is now to participate with the armed forces of other nations in coalitions wherever possible,” Booth, Kestnbaum and Segal explain, “in order to promote public support and display the unity of the international community.”26 If Canada is conceptualized as a multicultural society, than this logic can be applied to the Rangers, even though the force is not designed for deployment outside of their local areas of responsibility. After all, multiple “imagined communities” can occupy the same space simultaneously. In A Genealogy of Sovereignty, Jens Bartelson explained that sovereignty has both external and internal dimensions – it can signify something over a territory and within a given territory. As the “parergonal divide” between the international and the domestic spheres become “increasingly blurred,” phenomena are increasingly difficult to classify as either inside or outside of the state.27 In terms of “inter-nationalization,” M.J. Morgan explains, postmodernists do not view “difference or plurality ... as a state to be tolerated on the path to some unified ideal; on the contrary, postmodernism calls for a promotion of difference, an recognition that difference is an abiding (and desirable) existential quality.”28 As the conceptualization of Canada has shifted to a multicultural mosaic enriched by gender, sexual, and other social identities, the political salience of distinctiveness has influenced military personnel policies.

The emergence of Aboriginal self-government, visibly embodied in the new territory of Nunavut, blurs the lines between governmental and “national” jurisdictions within the country. The Canadian Rangers overarch this reality. Mary Simon, speaking as a representative of Inuit Tapirisat of Canada in 1994, emphasized that “the Inuit agenda for the exercise of our right to self-determination is not to secede or separate from Canada but rather that we wish to share a common citizenship with other Canadians while maintaining our identity as a people, which means maintaining our identity as Inuit.”29 When Inuit members of the Rangers in Nunavut set out on exercises, they are members of their local and regional communities as well as representatives of the Canadian Forces. Their self-administering, autonomous patrols, rich in traditional knowledge and culture, allow them to represent both their peoples and Canada simultaneously.

Given the rising profile of Aboriginal issues since the 1970s, the media tends to highlight the high proportion of Rangers of Aboriginal descent, often referring to it as an Aboriginal force (usually comprised of Inuit). This article paints a similar picture. This characterization, which excludes or downplays non-Aboriginal membership, is telling in itself.30 After all, there are salient political reasons to trumpet Aboriginal participation in the Rangers. First and foremost, Canada’s sovereignty claims in the North rely partially on the idea of Inuit historic and contemporary use of the land and sea. “Canada is an Arctic nation,” former Secretary of State for External Affairs Joe Clark explained in 1985, and “Canada’s sovereignty in the Arctic is indivisible. It embraces land, sea and ice.... From time immemorial Canada’s Inuit people have used and occupied the ice as they have used and occupied the land.... Full sovereignty is vital to Canada’s security. It is vital to the Inuit people. And it is vital to Canada’s national identity.”31 Accordingly, political scientist Franklyn Griffiths has pointed out that it is hypocritical to rely on the Inuit without giving them both a say and a meaningful role in exercising control and enforcement in their homeland. They reside there, have an immediate and superior knowledge of the environment, are on the front lines of changes that affect the North, and have practical daily attachments to the land and sea. As a result, they need to be treated as partners directly engaged in practical stewardship.32

Rangers - A group of Canadian Rangers from Arviat are welcomed aboard.

Media photo Welcome Aboard by Joanna Mackenzie

Welcome Aboard. Canadian Rangers from Arviat took part in Exercise Hudson Sentinel, August 2005.

Furthermore, political scientist Andy Cooper has identified Indigenous Peoples’ rights as an area of state-societal tension in terms of territory and the “politics of identity and loyalty.” He noted that the unofficial security discourse has shifted from the defence of the integrity of the nation state to the protection of the essential rights of individuals and groups.33 The federal government’s application of the phrase “human security” to the North in key foreign policy statements34 suggests that it has now become the official discourse, and supports his observations. So too does scholarship that stresses how “sovereignty and security policy decisions, in their immediate impact, have been and continue to be disproportionately costly to northern indigenous peoples.”35 Southern-directed “mega projects,” such as the DEW Line, disrupted socio-economic and cultural patterns and left toxic legacies. Furthermore, the military’s track record of activity was less than impressive, marked by reactive promises in the face of perceived national threats that were seldom matched by practical commitments. If this negative appraisal is correct, the Canadian Rangers appear to be an important exception in that cooperation and mutual goodwill continue to prevail.

Northern communities and peoples that strongly oppose other forms of military operations in the North readily accept land-based Ranger patrols. The federal government has elaborated reasons why it is not in the ‘national interest’ to push for demilitarization of the Arctic region:

Demilitarization of the Arctic would make it more difficult, and perhaps even impossible, for our military personnel to provide defence services available to Canadians in other parts of the country. The Canadian Forces, for example, would be unable to conduct operations to protect our sovereign territory ... or to provide humanitarian assistance.... Additionally, the cultural inter-play of service people serving in our North has an intangible benefit in promoting a sense of national awareness among the military and those northern residents who come in contact with the military. A military presence in the North also provides Canada’s Aboriginal peoples with an opportunity to serve their country and community through participation in the Canadian Rangers.36

Canadian Ranger patrols, by virtue of their locations and largely Aboriginal composition, are representative elements of the CF in this respect.37

All members of the Canadian Rangers are Canadian citizens. Nonetheless, their diversity embodies the country’s multicultural identity. Although there are no official statistics generated, the 1 CRPG patrols are representative of the diverse ethnic composition of the North. The majority of Rangers in the Yukon are “White” (as is the population itself). In the Northwest Territories the patrols reflect the geographic and linguistic dispersion of Northern peoples. Most of the Rangers patrols south of the tree line are comprised of members of Gwich’in, Dene, Métis, and “White” communities. North of the tree line, most of the patrols are Inuit. In Nunavut, the Rangers are almost entirely Inuit and most operations are conducted in Inuktitut.38

The Rangers embody a partnership between peoples and ensure that Northern residents are represented on the front lines of Northern military operations. In a 2002 speech, Sheila Watt-Cloutier, president of Inuit Circumpolar Conference (Canada), stressed, “Inuit are proud Canadian citizens and our commitment to the country is enduring; and Inuit will hold up the Canadian flag.” She used the Rangers as the prime example of how instrumental her people had been in exerting sovereignty in the arctic. The Inuit would not tolerate being seen or treated, and would certainly not act, “as powerless victims of external forces over which we have no control.” They were engaged, from the local to the international.39 The Rangers fittingly represent that the CF in the arctic also has an indigenous face, and that security and sovereignty are priorities for all Canadians.

3. Less emphasis on service, rank and specialization

Militaries tend to represent the quintessential models for rigid, bureaucratic organization. Systems of rank and promotion, uniforms, and standardized training and operating procedures all serve to reinforce collective identities and hierarchies. “While the postmodern celebrates the diverse and the ephemeral,” Booth, Kestnbaum and Segal observe, traditional military socialization “aims to eradicate individual difference, and to imbue a sense of tradition and the importance of commitment to the unit, to the nation, and to national symbols.”40 In recognition that externally-imposed norms are disruptive and generate resentment in the North, Ranger service is voluntary, flexible and predicated on what someone can bring to the force more than what he or she can be taught. The military has come to recognize that the “normal” army way of doing things is not necessarily appropriate in the North, particularly amongst Native peoples.

A Ranger patrol is rooted in its community, and operates on a group (rather than individual) basis. Each Ranger patrol is led by a sergeant, who is seconded by a master corporal, both of whom are elected by the other members of the patrol. So too are Ranger corporals, who command sections of a patrol at a 1:10 ratio. Elections are held in patrol communities on an annual basis and exemplify the self-administering characteristics of the Rangers. Patrol leaders are the only members of the CF who are elected to their positions, and therefore are directly accountable to their “subordinates” in a unique way. Furthermore, while “hierarchical” on paper, Ranger “command” can be less rigid in practice. Decision-making in arctic communities is based upon consensus, and this is reflected in the patrols themselves. For example, instructors explained that when they ask a Ranger sergeant a question in some Nunavut communities, he or she will turn to the elders in the patrol for guidance prior to responding. In this sense, while the sergeant is theoretically in charge of a patrol, the practical “power base” may lay elsewhere. As a result, instructors must be prepared to present their plans to the entire patrol: the best way to approach any challenge is to sit down and discuss it with a patrol, offering more explanation than would be typical in the south. Warrant Officer Kevin Mulhern suggested that the “mission-focus” mentality should be reversed when dealing with the Rangers: it was often better to explain what the military wanted to accomplish with the Rangers, and then figure out with them what should be done in terms of a mission. In practice, patrols are not tasked out of an expectation that each individual can do everything, or that a leader possesses the strongest skill set, but that someone in the patrol has the skill set to conduct the patrol while it completes a given activity. As a result, individual testing is limited as an indicator of a patrol’s competencies. These units tend to respond better to communal efforts.41

The military’s acceptance of such practices, which seem rooted in Aboriginal values and diverge with general depictions of a rigid, unbending military culture, shows a capacity for flexibility and accommodation within the CF that is seldom acknowledged by the media and by scholars. Regular and reserve force instructors who undertake annual training with Northern patrols understand the uniqueness of the force. A flexible, culturally sensitive approach based on mutual learning, credibility, and trust is crucial to effective relationships. When stationed with southern regular force units, army sergeants are trained to have their commands met without debate, when they demand it. There is an inherent rigidity in the philosophy of command and strict obedience. But this “hard army” approach does not work with the Rangers. Instructors cannot yell at patrols according to standard drill techniques, “dress down” and embarrass individuals who make mistakes, or demand unquestioning and immediate responses. There are cases where longstanding Rangers, and even Ranger sergeants, have quit on the spot when faced with an over-zealous and insistent instructor.42

Northern Lights

Photo by Jan Curtis, from www.geo.mtu.edu

In short, Ranger patrols cannot be compartmentalized into narrow categories of service, rank and specialization, given the diversity of the North and the special skill set that each individual brings to the force. Ranger sergeant Cory Bruneau explained that the Whitehorse patrol includes mushers, diving instructors, air search and rescue specialists, a master sniper, and a gunsmith – and nearly all of the Rangers worked more than one civilian job.43 Although a vertical hierarchy exists for administration and training, practical activities are pursued in a more horizontal approach, exploiting individual strengths rather than formal networks arrayed by rank. Indeed, a Ranger’s local status and competency cannot be defined narrowly by rank: respected elders, chiefs and mayors often serve in Rangers, but generally not as sergeant, yet their influence is unmistakable. All members share a collective identity borne on the crest on their red sweatshirts, but this does not encourage them to suppress their individuality. Their diversity is a force multiplier, given their non-traditional role, mission and tasks within the Canadian Forces.

4. Less focus on warfighting and more non-traditional missions

The 1995 report of the Special Commission of the Restructuring of the Reserves stressed that the fundamental role of the Reserves is to provide a mobilization base for war. This role does not apply to the Canadian Rangers, who are not expected to serve overseas: they are not even trained to be “deployable” outside of their communities or regions. Ranger roles are entirely oriented towards support for domestic operations. So how do they contribute to the Defence mission? The government’s recent statement of international policy stresses that the defence of Canada is the CF’s “first priority,” and that the arctic is a region of particular concern:

The demands of sovereignty and security for the Government could become even more pressing as activity in the North continues to rise. The mining of diamonds, for example, is expanding the region’s economy and spurring population growth. Air traffic over the high Arctic is increasing, and climate change could lead to more commercial vessel traffic in our northern waters. These developments will not result in the type of military threat to the North that we saw during the Cold War, but they could have long-term security implications. Although the primary responsibility for dealing with issues such as sovereignty and environmental protection, organized crime, and people and drug smuggling rests with other departments, the Canadian Forces will be affected in a number of ways. There will, for example, be a greater requirement for surveillance and control, as well as for search and rescue. Adversaries could be tempted to take advantage of new opportunities unless we are prepared to deal with asymmetric threats that are staged through the North.

The absence of perceived conventional military threats is striking. The CF’s “new approach” to domestic defence will include “familiar” but non-traditional military roles, such as Search and Rescue (SAR), disaster relief, and support to other government departments. It will also fit into the government’s strategy to protect against the terrorist threat. In this direction, the government committed to “increase their efforts to ensure the sovereignty and security of our territory, airspace and maritime approaches, including in the Arctic,” improve intelligence gathering and analysis, and “dedicate specific resources – people, training and equipment - to enhance their ability to carry out domestic roles.”44

The Rangers are seen as an integral component of the government’s strategic vision. Their official task list includes the following:45

  1. Conduct and Provide Support to Sovereignty Operations:

    1. Conduct surveillance and sovereignty patrols (SOVPATs) as tasked (see Table 1). In 2003-04, for example, the Rangers conducted over 162 patrols of various types in the arctic, which contributes to CFNA’s mandate to provide surface surveillance in its area of operation. SOVPATs also confirm that Ranger patrols can successfully plan and complete relatively complex tasks without direct supervision by a Ranger instructor. Therefore, they help to build confidence for patrols.46

    2. Participate in CF operations, exercises and training. Rangers help other CF elements prepare for arctic exercises or operations, provide local guidance, and teach traditional survival skills. Ranger participation in sovereignty operations contributes directly to re-establishing the diminishing Land Force operational capabilities in the North.47

    3. Report suspicious and unusual activities that are out of character with the routine of an area. For example, Rangers have reported several submarine sightings since 1997 that have drawn significant media interest.48

    4. Conduct North Warning Site patrols as tasked. Individual patrols inspect these radar sites periodically to ensure they have not been vandalized or damaged by wildlife. These patrols also expand CFNA’s sovereignty presence because Rangers conduct surveillance as they transit the ground to more remote sites.49

    5. Collect local data of military significance, allowing military commanders to have a grasp of local assets available to conduct operations in a given area.

Type 1

Ranger Training Patrol

Annual standard training for each patrol, consisting of classroom and field exercises.

Type 2

Ranger North Warning System (NWS) Patrol

Inspections of NWS installations by individual patrols.

Type 3

Ranger Mass Exercise

Collective training exercises conducted by two or more patrols (i.e. Operation Skookum Elan II, Quiet Lake, Yukon, March 2004).

Type 4

Ranger Sovereignty Patrol (SOVPAT)

Patrols tasked by CFNA HQ as part of the CFNA Surveillance Plan.

Type 5

Ranger Enhanced Sovereignty Patrol (ESOVPAT)

A long-range patrol tasked by CFNA HQ to a remote part of area of responsibility. One ESOVPAT is conducted each year, involving 1 CRPG HQ personnel and representatives from various Ranger patrols (i.e. Operation Kigliqaqvik Ranger III to Eureka, April 2005).

Table 1: Types of Ranger Patrols.50

  1. Conduct and Provide Assistance to CF Domestic Operations:
    1. Conduct territorial, coastal and inland water surveillance as required/tasked.

    2. Provide local knowledge and expertise. Rangers have recently acted as observers and guides during West Coast operations to counter illegal immigration, and served as advisers during Exercise Narwhal around Pangnirtung and Cumberland Peninsula in August 2004.

    3. Provide assistance to other government departments.

    4. Provide local assistance and advice to Ground Search and Rescue operations.

    5. Provide support in response to natural disasters and humanitarian operations. Although not intended as a “force of first resort,” such as police, fire and medical specialists, Rangers continue to support their communities in cases of domestic emergency. In 1999, members from eleven of the fourteen Canadian Ranger patrols in Nunavik (northern Quebec) arrived in Kangiqsualujjuaq in response to the massive avalanche. The extraordinary display of Ranger co-operation resulted in Chief of the Defence Staff awarding a Canadian Forces Unit Commendation to 2 CRPG. Potential emergencies that Rangers prepare to encounter include a major air disaster or a cruise liner running aground.51

Several omissions are worth noting. Although the original 1947 list of Ranger tasks included tactical actions to delay an enemy advance, this expectation has been officially dropped. The CF no longer expects the Rangers to engage with an enemy force: indeed, they are explicitly told not to assist “in immediate local defence by containing or observing small enemy detachments pending arrival of other forces” nor to assist police with the discovery or apprehension of enemy agents or saboteurs. Presumably, such tasks would put the Rangers at excessive risk given their limited training. Furthermore, the Rangers cannot be called out in an Aid to the Civil Power capacity, given training limitations and the civil-military identities embodied in the force.52 Given the positive working relationship that the Rangers embody between the CF and Aboriginal communities, for example, a situation resembling the Oka Crisis could place the Rangers in a confrontation with Native militants and would have a severe, deleterious impact on their credibility.

The final Ranger task is the most general and basic – to maintain a CF presence in the local community. This is fundamental, given the reductions in Northern military operations over the last several decades and the DND’s commitment to having a “footprint” in communities across the country. The Rangers represent more than 90 percent of CF representation north of the 55th parallel, and provide a special bond with their host populations. They are far more than the military’s “eyes and ears”; they are an organized group that communities can turn to for numerous activities. Unorthodox roles, such as breaking the Yukon Trail for dog mushers, ensuring that polar bears do not attack unsuspecting trick-or-treaters in Churchill, and welcoming dignitaries, bring favourable media attention. Their participation in Remembrance Day parades reinforces the intimate and continuing, positive military presence in Canadian life. They are simultaneously citizen soldiers and citizen servers, intimately integrated into local community activities, ensuring that the CF is not socially isolated or structurally separated from Northern societies.53


Criticisms about the lack of DND/CF presence and capabilities, foreign submarines prowling under the sea ice, and foreign claims to Canadian waters dominate recent media coverage of the Canadian arctic – and scholarly debate.54 Seldom do we hear about CF “success stories,” particularly in the North. This brief article suggests that the Canadian Rangers represent an example of how the military has successfully integrated the promotion of national security and sovereignty agendas with community-based activities and local management. It represents practical partnership rather than shallow “consultation,” rooted in community-based monitoring using traditional knowledge and skills. It also promotes cooperation, communal and individual empowerment, and improved cross-cultural understanding. To contribute to a safer and more secure world, the recent International Policy Statement noted, “military force is often required, but so too are negotiation, compromise, and an understanding of other peoples and cultures.” Indeed, the flexible and capable approach that the CF hopes to project abroad is also applicable at home.55

The Rangers’ “postmodern” characteristics seem particularly appropriate in light of the government’s recent International Policy Statement and concerns expressed by Northern indigenous groups about the potential impacts of climate change and concomitant sovereignty and security responses. The Canadian Rangers have garnered media accolades for more than a decade, and enjoy tremendous public and political support in Northern communities. If broader definitions of security can accommodate measures of military utility as well as community development and Aboriginal-military relationships, then the Rangers represent a success on several levels. By answering both military and societal security needs in a flexible, inexpensive, and culturally inclusive manner, the force represents a symbolic and constructive working relationship with Canadians who would not otherwise be drawn into CF service. While allowing the military to maintain an inexpensive presence in remote regions, and serving as highly visible expression of Canadian sovereignty in the arctic, the Rangers fulfill operational requirements vital to the Canadian Forces. These contributions, however, are only part of the greater picture. The organization also contributes to capacity building in the North by helping to create political self-determining, sustainable communities. As identities are recognized and created through political changes in the “postmodern” North, it is imperative that the Canadian military and Northern communities are constructively engaged and foster the spirit of mutual cultural awareness.

As the Rangers evolve with their communities, there will be pressures to move along a continuum from a relatively informal, voluntary organization towards more formal and standardized structures. Their community roots mean that any transformations must be carefully monitored to ensure that institutionalization does not corrode the local foundations upon which the Rangers have been built. Intensified administration, if coupled with escalating expectations and sporadic resource commitments, could undermine the indigenous strengths of the force. The danger of overstretch is always a critical consideration. Trust is integral to the entire Ranger organization, as it is to all relationships in the North, and the DND/CF must deliver on promises, now and in the future.

Sociologists Booth, Kesterbaum and Segal have cautioned that the transition to postmodern military forms should be as “modern” as possible: it should represent rational calculated adaptation. National military organizations should reflect continuity of the modern military with an openness to innovate and adapt to societal change.56 In this light, the Rangers should be viewed as a stable, integral part of a comprehensive means of detection and control over Canadian lands and waters. They are not “combat-capable” in a conventional sense, and therefore can only represent a piece in the larger puzzle of northern sovereignty assertion. Nonetheless, the Rangers support the CF’s domestic operational tasks in a symbolic, cost-effective, and practical way. The Ranger concept is rooted in a partnership between the military and northern communities – the CF’s “centre of gravity” in Northern Area – and the force’s “postmodern” characteristics highlight that military activities designed to assert sovereignty need not cause “insecurity” for Northern peoples. All of these variables are critical for sustainable, integrated management of Canada’s sovereignty and security in an era of much speculation and uncertainty.

Thanks to Jennifer Arthur, Rob Huebert, and the staff and instructors at 1 CRPG, particularly Captain Conrad Schubert and Sergeant Denis Lalonde, for their comments and insights.

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P. Whitney Lackenbauer, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of History at St. Jerome’s University, University of Waterloo.


  1. CFNA, Operations and Training Directive 2002/03, June 02, file NA 4500-1 (Comd).
  2. Defence Strategy 2020 quoted in DGRC, “CAN RAN 2000: A Review of the Canadian Rangers and of the Junior Canadian Rangers,” 27 Jan 00.
  3. Charles C. Moskos and James Burk, “The Postmodern Military,” in The Adaptive Military: Armed Forces in a Turbulent World, 2nd Edition, James Burk (ed.) (London: Transaction Publishers, 1998), pp.163-82.
  4. C.C. Moskos, J.A. Williams, and D.R. Segal, “Armed Forces after the Cold War,” in The Postmodern Military: Armed Forces After the Cold War, Moskos et al (eds.) (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), pp.6, 9.
  5. Bradford Booth, Meyer Kestnbaum, and David R. Segal, “Are Post-Cold War Militaries Postmodern” Armed Forces & Society 27/3 (2001), p. 333. See their discussion distinguishing between postmodernity and postmodernism, 323-24.
  6. See P.W. Lackenbauer, “The Canadian Rangers: A Survey of English-Canadian Media Coverage, 1995-2004” (2004). Copy available from the author. The exception is in The Maple Leaf, where professional journalist Sgt. Peter Moon has drawn significant attention to the Rangers in northern Ontario.
  7. See, for example, R. Huebert, “Canadian Arctic Security Issues: Transformation in the post-cold war era,” International Journal (1999), pp. 203-29; “Climate Change and Canadian Sovereignty in the Northwest Passage,” Isuma 2/4 (2001), pp. 86-94; Andrew Wylie, “Environmental Security and the Canadian Arctic” (M.A. thesis, University of Calgary, 2002). On indigenous peoples and security, see also J. Marshall Beier, International Relations in Uncommon Places (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).
  8. See Harry Bondy, “Postmodernism and the Source of Military Strength in the Anglo West,” Armed Forces & Society 31/1 (2004), pp. 31-61.
  9. See Kerry Steeves, “The Pacific Coast Militia Rangers, 1942-1945” (MA thesis, UBC, 1990); P.W. Lackenbauer, “Guerillas in our midst: The Pacific Coast Militia Rangers, 1942-45,” paper to the Canadian Historical Association, University of Western Ontario, 31 May 2005.
  10. For a basic overview of the early years, see J. Mackay Hitsman, “The Canadian Rangers,” DND, Army Headquarters, Historical Section, Report No. 92 (1 Dec 1960).
  11. See K. Eyre, “Forty Years of Defence Activity in the Canadian North, 1947-87,” Arctic 40/4 (1987), pp. 292-9
  12. On this period, see Robert Taylor, “Eyes and Ears of the North,” Star Weekly Magazine, 22 Dec 56, pp. 2-3.
  13. RJ Orange, House of Commons, Debates, 21 May 1971, p. 6065; Canadian Forces Northern Region (CFNA), Northern Region Information (n.d.), pp. 16-18, CFNA Headquarters (HQ), Yellowknife, File NA 1325-1 (PAffO); Northern Region Headquarters (NRHQ), Untitled Historical Booklet, entries 31 Jul 71, 18 Nov 71, 13 Jan 72, CFNA HQ, File NA 1325-1 (PAffO); NRHQ Historical Reports 1983, p. 5; 1984, p. 6; DGRC for CDS, “Canadian Rangers Enhancement Project,” 30 May 1995, p. 1, NDHQ f.1901/260/4 (DGRC).
  14. Major S.J. Joudry, NRHQ Study Report – Canadian Rangers, 27 May 1986, NR 5323-2 (SSO R&C), p. 12. Acquired through AIA.
  15. CDS to VCDS et al, “Role, Mission, Tasks of the Canadian Rangers,” 20 Apr 04; DND, “Canadian Rangers 2000,” Draft 1, 15 November 1999 (hereafter “CAN RAN 2000”), p. 17; SCRR Report. The LFC commander, in turn, has delegated this authority to Land Force Area commands.
  16. Personal interview, Captain Don Finnamore, Deputy Commanding Officer, 1 Canadian Ranger Patrol, FOL Yellowknife, 20 March 2000; Dwayne Lovegrove, Speech, Parade of 1 CRPG, Official Ceremony, 2 April 1998, transcript held at CFNA, no file listed.
  17. C.C. Moskos, J.A. Williams, and D.R. Segal, p. 3.
  18. Keale to Chesley, 9 July 1947, (H.S.) 112.3M2 (D49), quoted in Hitsman, “Canadian Rangers,” p. 4.
  19. On the problems of recruiting Inuit youth away from northern communties, see K. Eyre, “Custos Borealis: The Military in the Canadian North” (Ph.D. thesis, King’s College, 1981), pp. 288-89.
  20. Major DI Hay, “The Canadian Rangers,” 8 February 1991, MARP 1901-2 (RGRS).
  21. Capt J. Campbell, “Saying Goodbye to a Canadian Ranger,” Maple Leaf, 1 December 2004, p. 3.
  22. CAN RAN 2000, p. 11. See also Lackenbauer, “Media Coverage,” pp.102-53.
  23. CAN RAN 2000; CDS to VCDS et al, “Role, Mission, Tasks of the Canadian Rangers,” 20 April 2004, released under AIA.
  24. See, for example, CFNA FY 2004/2005 Level 1 Business Plan, 27 October 2003, pp. 1-2.
  25. Backgrounder, “The Junior Canadian Rangers Programme,” 17 March 1999. The JCR have grown from 1620 in 54 patrols in FY 99-00 to 2893 in 102 patrols in FY 03-04: an increase of 79 percent in four years. D Res, Annual Report #4, FY 03-04, CAN RAN 2000, August 2004, p. 11.
  26. Booth, Kestnbaum and Segal, “Postmodern?” p. 327.
  27. Jens Bartelson, A Genealogy of Sovereignty (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), pp. 30, 247.
  28. Morgan, “Reconstruction of Culture,” pp.381-82.
  29. Mary Simon, testimony before the Special Joint Committee of the Senate and the House of Commons on Reviewing Canadian Foreign Policy, Minutes of Proceedings and Evidence, 9 June 1994, p.36:30.
  30. For a census of national and local media attention on the Rangers, see Lackenbauer, “Survey of English-Canadian Media Coverage.” It reveals that media coverage of predominantly non-Aboriginal units in Newfoundland and British Columbia is sparse – they are obviously seen as less “special.”
  31. House of Commons, Debates, 10 September 1985, pp. 6462-4.
  32. Franklyn Griffiths, “The Shipping News: Canada’s Arctic sovereignty not on thinning ice,” International Journal 58/2 (2003), pp. 278-82.
  33. A. Cooper, Canadian Foreign Policy: Old Habits and New Directions (Scarborough: Prentice-Hall, 1997).
  34. See, for example, Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, The Northern Dimension of Canada’s Foreign Policy (June 2000); Remarks by Ambassador Shirley Wolff Serafini at the Human Security in the Arctic Seminar on 3 May 2004, Tromsø, Norway.
  35. F. Abele, “Confronting ‘harsh and inescapable facts,’” in Sovereignty and Security in the Arctic,. EJ Dosman (ed.) (London: Routledge, 1989), p. 189. This generalization rests on the idea that militarization inherently threatens Native livelihoods and homelands – a prime example would be the controversy over low-level flying in Labrador and northern Quebec. Furthermore, much-publicized confrontations between the military and Native Canadians at Oka, Ipperwash and Gustafsen Lake created the image of perpetual conflict during the 1990s.
  36. Government Response to Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade Report, “Canada and the Circumpolar World: Meeting the Challenges of Cooperation into the Twenty-First Century” (1999).
  37. Recent CF recruitment initiatives to increase the number of Aboriginal members attest to the importance of this representation.
  38. Interviews, Colonel Pierre Leblanc, Finnamore, and Sergeant David McLean, Ranger Instructor, 22 March 2000; Backgrounder, “Canadian Rangers in Nunavut.” See also linguistic profiles at Reserves & Cadets, VCDS, DND, “Canadian Rangers: Statistics,” [http://www.rangers.dnd.ca/ rangers/stats_e.asp].
  39. Sheila Watt-Cloutier, “Inuit, Climate Change, Sovereignty, and Security in the Canadian Arctic,” remarks to Canadian Arctic Resources Committee Conference, Ottawa, 25 January 2002, available online at [http://www.inuitcircumpolar.com].
  40. Bradford Booth, Meyer Kestnbaum, and David R. Segal, “Are Post-Cold War Militaries Postmodern?” Armed Forces & Society 27/3 (Spring 2001), pp. 330-31.
  41. Interviews, Warrant Officer Kevin Mulhern, 1 CRPG, 26 February 2004; Captain Don Finnamore, DCO 1 CRPG, 20 March 2000; Fax, “Rangers Enhancement Program,” 30 November 1995, p. 14.
  42. These conclusions are made based upon interviews with Rangers and instructors in the north and in British Columbia in 2000, 2002, 2004 and 2005.
  43. Interview, Ranger Sergeant Cory Bruneau, 1 March 2004.
  44. Canada’s International Policy Statement: A Role of Pride and Influence in the World – Defence (Ottawa, 2005), pp. 17, 20.
  45. This overview is based primarily on CDS, “Role, Mission, Tasks of the Canadian Rangers.”
  46. Arctic Capability Study 2000, 1 Dec 00, NA 3000-1 (Comd), serial seven, p. 5; Major A.D. MacIntosh, Briefing for MND: Canadian Forces Sovereignty Operations and Activities in the Canadian Arctic, 15 April 2005.
  47. CFNA Annual Report, 2002, NA 1630-2 (Comd), p. 4.
  48. D. Pugiliese, “The X-Files Come North,” Ottawa Citizen, 18 August 2002, p. A1. For declassified DND reports, see ATIP A-2004-00327.
  49. CFNA Annual Report to CDS, 27 June 2002, NA 1630-2 (Comd).
  50. Commander’s briefing, CFNA HQ, 27 February 2004.
  51. Annual Report #4 CAN RAN 2000, 12-13; DND Backgrounder, BG-00.005, “The Canadian Rangers,” 8 February 2000; K. Davis, “CFNA CO sees North transform,” Maple Leaf, 6 April 2005, p. 15.
  52. CDS to VCDS et al, “Role, Mission, Tasks of the Canadian Rangers,” 20 April 2004, released under AIA.
  53. See, for example, “Patrol protects trick-or-treaters from polar bears,” K-W Record, 26 October 2004; Dan Davidson, “Nourish respect for veterans, mayor advisers,” Whitehorse Star, 13 November 2001, p. 4; and Lackenbauer, “Survey of English-Canadian Media Coverage.”
  54. Huebert, “Canadian Arctic Security Issues” and “Climate Change and Canadian Sovereignty”; Griffiths, “Shipping News” and “Pathetic Fallacy: That Canada’s Arctic Sovereignty is on Thinning Ice,” Canadian Foreign Policy 11/3 (2004), pp. 1-16.
  55. International Policy Statement, Summary – Defence, p. 7.
  56. Booth, Kestnbaum and Segal, “Are Post-Cold War Militaries Postmodern?”


DND photo 9228

Canadian Ranger on the job.