Language selection


Canadian Military Journal [Vol. 21, No. 4, Autumn 2021]
Civil-Military Relations

DND photo by Corporal David Veldman

Northern Lights shimmer above HMCS Glace Bay during Operation NANOOK, 18 August 2020.

Dr. Peter Kikkert is the Irving Shipbuilding Chair in Arctic Policy in the Brian Mulroney Institute of Government at St. Francis Xavier University.

Dr. P. Whitney Lackenbauer is the Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in the Study of the Canadian North at Trent University and Honorary Lieutenant-Colonel of 1st Canadian Ranger Patrol Group.

Strong, Secure, Engaged (2017) and the Government of Canada’s Arctic and Northern Policy Framework (ANPF; September 2019) highlight the importance of relationship building and engagement between the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) and northern Indigenous Peoples as the military leverages its new capabilities to “support broader Government of Canada priorities.”Footnote 1 Over the last decade, the CAF has strengthened community engagement during routine operations, exercises, and annual deployments to and in the North, and its ongoing relationships with communities through the Canadian Rangers and the Junior Canadian Ranger program that provide vital connections with local stakeholders and rightsholders.Footnote 2 In committing the Defence team to enhance its Arctic capabilities, Strong, Secure, Engaged explains that the CAF will continue to “work to expand and deepen our extensive relationships with these communities.” This also invites new ways to “work with territorial governments and Indigenous communities to ensure [that] the North achieves its full potential both in terms of resource development and community capacity building.”Footnote 3

The CAF’s public description of Operation NANOOK places particular emphasis on its relationships with the “Indigenous communities” that form “the heart of Canada’s North,” which it works to strengthen “through collaborative and continuous discourse throughout the year.”Footnote 4 Since its first iteration in 2007, this operation has allowed the CAF to strengthen its northern capabilities while addressing security and safety challenges that accompany climate change and increased human activity in the region. Bolstering cooperation between the CAF, other federal agencies and departments, territorial, municipal, and Indigenous governments, Inuit associations and regional corporations, and northern communities more generally has solidified relationships and mutual understanding, enhanced interoperability and readiness, and reaffirmed why a CAF presence brings positive benefits in and for Northern communities. Rebranded in 2018 as a year-round initiative, NANOOK now encompasses various deployments including NUNALIVUT, NANUKPUT, TATIGIIT, and TUUGALIK.Footnote 5

DND photo by Corporal Pierre Létourneau/CX2013-A002-01

Ranger, Corporal Paul Ikuqllaq packs his komatik before leaving on a two-week patrol from Resolute Bay during Operation NUNALIVUT, 10 April 2013. A komatik is a traditional sled for carrying cargo in the North.

To strengthen its “continuous and collaborative discourse” with Northerners and support the federal government’s ANPF objectives, the CAF might look for new models and approaches in the remote northern regions of two close allies: the United States and Australia. The Innovative Readiness Training (IRT) exercises carried out by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) in Alaska and the long-standing Australian Army Aboriginal Community Assistance Program (AACAP) offer examples of how the CAF might consider broadening its engagement with remote northern Indigenous communities. These relatively small but mutually beneficial deployments directly contribute to community health, well-being, and resilience, while providing training experiences to a wide cross-section of military personnel.

“This Absolutely Prepares Them for a Deployment”: Innovative Readiness Training Missions in Alaska

DoD’s IRT initiatives aim to “produce mission-ready forces through military training opportunities that provide key services to underserved communities throughout the U.S.”Footnote 6 Specific objectives include the provision of “hands-on, real-world training to improve readiness and survivability in contingency environments,” the cultivation of civil-military partnerships with a “culturally complex population,” and the development of innovative resource management by leveraging “military contributions and community resources to multiply value and cost savings for participants.”Footnote 7 Projects begin with applications from federal, state, local, or tribal governments, non-profit entities, or community organizations asking for military assistance for projects and laying out what local support, funding, resources, and partners they can contribute. Applications must also certify that the military’s assistance is not “reasonably available” from a commercial entity or that the private sector “has agreed to the provision of such services by the Armed Forces.”Footnote 8 Under the guidance of the Director, Civil-Military Training Policy, in the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Reserve Integration, military services then choose projects based on current training needs and value.Footnote 9 The military assistance provided under the IRT program generally includes healthcare delivery, infrastructure support (including runways, roads, bridges, buildings, and marine installations), cybersecurity, youth training programs, and veterinary services.

IRT missions in Alaska provide soldiers with key training opportunities and experience in civil-military relations, joint service interoperability, engineering and construction skill building, healthcare delivery, logistics, and transport. Personnel receive extensive, “real-world” training on the equipment they will use and practices that they will employ when deployed on operations abroad.Footnote 10 Reports about Alaskan IRT missions often highlight their role in boosting morale and encouraging personnel retention. These projects also provide the chance to work with international partners, including CAF members and other Canadian health professionals.Footnote 11 In short, these experiences improve deployment readiness: the ultimate objective of the IRT program.

DND photo by Corporal Valérie Villeneuve

Platoon 1 of the Arctic Response Company Group (ARCG) and the Canadian Rangers travel to pick up Platoons 2 and 3 to move to the next position during Exercise GUERRIER NORDIQUE in Iqaluit, Nunavut, 4 March 2014.

In executing IRT projects for communities that lack the resources to carry them out on their own, military units are given the chance to practice essential skills, including the organization and execution of complex engineering and construction tasks, the establishment of effective health services in new and challenging environments, and the provision of logistical, transportation, and communications support.Footnote 12 The majority of these projects also involve a high degree of joint service cooperation, allowing units to practice their interoperability in a wide variety of settings, often for extended periods.Footnote 13 IRT initiatives usually demand a high degree of interagency, intergovernmental, and community coordination, and occasionally include multi-national partners, providing service members with experience “integrat[ing] as a joint and whole-of-society team to serve American citizens.”Footnote 14 DoD highlights that these projects are designed to increase deployment readiness and foster civil-military relations, while “enhancing morale and contributing to military recruitment and retention.”Footnote 15 During times when budget constraints cut into military training opportunities, IRT is a “win-win” practice that provides the military with skill-building experience and communities with essential services.Footnote 16

US Air National Guard photo by Master Sgt. Carl Clegg

Chief Master Sergeant Tori Hill, 108 Medical Group, Arctic Case NCOIC, left, Major Jean Chevalier, 41 CF Health Services Centre, Canadian Armed Forces, center, and Major Lisa Haik, 919th Special Operations Medical Squadron, Arctic Care AOIC coordinate the movement of both troops and supplies for the Exercise ARCTIC CARE at the Army Reserve 99th Regional Support Command’s Equipment Concentration Site 99 warehouse on Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, NJ, 25 February 2016.

Conducted on an annual basis since 1995, Operation ARCTIC CARE is the longest running IRT initiative in Alaska and has become one of the largest recurring joint military medical and logistics training exercises in the United States.Footnote 17 The operation is designed to provide service members with experience deploying a range of medical capabilities to remote and underserviced communities in an austere northern environment, while providing required care to Alaskans who might not receive it otherwise or would have to travel long distances to acquire it.Footnote 18 ARCTIC CARE generally involves the two-week deployment of between 100 and 300 service personnel from the Reserve, National Guard, and active components of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard, to multiple Alaskan villages. Each year, the initiative rotates to a different region, including the Northwest Arctic Borough, Kodiak Island Borough, Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, and Little Diomede Island. Service personnel offer a “blitz of services” in these communities, including medical, dental, and optometry care, on-site production of eyeglass prescriptions, pharmacy access, physical therapy, educational courses in CPR, first aid, nutrition, and other health related topics, and veterinarian check-ups, spaying, and neutering.Footnote 19 In ARCTIC CARE 2018, for instance, 140 practitioners deployed to 12 villages in the Maniilaq Service Area of the Northwest Arctic Borough between 13 and 27 April, where they treated more than 2,000 patients and, notably, offered cancer screenings and a surgery clinic to perform colonoscopies.Footnote 20 These deployments are dependent on relationship-building and are rooted in partnerships with an array of Native corporations and associations, the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, the Alaska Area Native Health Services, state and local governments, and the communities.

Other IRT projects have focused on community-level infrastructure development. Since 2009, several initiatives have supported the relocation of the Yupik village of Newtok nine miles upriver to escape coastal erosion and flooding. The military’s involvement began with the establishment of a footprint at the relocation site at Mertarvik, including a 13,272-square foot billeting pad using Dura-base matting. In 2010, the project involved the construction of a forward operating base and a 1,500-foot access road, providing a link to the barge landing site, from which the bulk of construction supplies would flow. The next three years saw the construction of underground utilities for the community evacuation centre, storage buildings, the establishment of a rock quarry, and other preparatory work that paved the way for the arrival of civilian contractors.Footnote 21 In summer 2019, the IRT program re-engaged with the relocation effort, with military personnel deploying to Mertarvik to build roads, a landfill site, heavy equipment shop, and 13 homes, which allowed for the first wave of residents to move into the new village.Footnote 22 Since 2012, another multi-year IRT mission has been focused on the small community of Old Harbor on Kodiak. The remote village is highly dependent on the fishing industry and desired expansion of its operation by constructing a new cannery and hydroelectric plant.Footnote 23 Between 2012 and 2018, the program also successfully completed a 2,000-foot runway extension requested by the community and has initiated work on the construction of a one-mile access road to the site for the proposed Old Harbor Hydroelectric Powerhouse and new fish hatchery facility.Footnote 24

Operation ALASKAN ROAD is indicative of the challenges and benefits associated with these joint task force projects. From 1997–2007, this operation involved the construction of a 14-mile road to connect the fly-in community of Metlakatla to a planned ferry terminal on Alaska’s Inside Passage, which would provide access to Ketchikan (the state’s fifth most populous city). The federal government had first promised to build such a road six decades earlier, and community members insisted it would improve the medical, educational, and commercial opportunities available to the community.Footnote 25 Construction had to manage challenging geographical conditions, including dense muskeg (sometimes 25 feet deep), mountainous terrain (the project demanded blasting and moving 1.5 million cubic yards of rock), and heavy annual rainfall.Footnote 26 While these factors complicated the project, they also enhanced its training value  – particularly the rock, given that military engineers usually work primarily with dirt.Footnote 27 To support the project, the military established Base Camp Wy Wuh, including administrative offices, barracks, warehouses, tool rooms, a water treatment plant, and wastewater treatment plant.Footnote 28 Every construction season approximately 12,000 personnel from units across the US, serving on two- to three-week rotations, slowly extended the road, overcoming environmental challenges, equipment malfunctions, and exhausting work days. The inclement weather, short construction season, design modifications, and the training needs of deployed personnel stretched the project over a decade,Footnote 29 but a completed road was handed over to the community in August 2007.

Alaskan IRT initiatives offer up challenges and opportunities different than those encountered in the lower 48 states, providing service personnel with experience operating in austere and often harsh northern environments. One reporter who interviewed personnel working on Operation ALASKAN ROAD noted:

A visitor looks at this rocky, chilly, mountainous, densely forested terrain and thinks: Alaska, America’s last frontier. The Marine Corps looks at the same rugged landscape and thinks: the Korean Peninsula, a potential international hot spot. For the Marine Corps, Operation ALASKAN ROAD is a priceless opportunity to get realistic training in building a combat-ready road through one of the most hostile, forbidding natural environments on Earth, such as the one they might face in Korea.Footnote 30

The rugged environmental conditions, weather-related challenges, lack of infrastructure, and remoteness demand greater attention to planning and organization, require heightened operational adaptability, and test leadership.Footnote 31 In particular, operating in remote Alaskan villages provides an array of unique logistical and transportation challenges. If something goes wrong or equipment breaks, service personnel have to problem solve and self-generate on the spot because assistance and resupply is usually hundreds of miles away.Footnote 32 The IRT team at Mertarvik, for instance, was 600 miles from the closest supplies, challenging them to use or re-purpose all of their materials wherever possible.Footnote 33 These deployments also offer significant opportunities for cross-cultural engagement, with personnel living full time in Indigenous communities and participating in community life.Footnote 34

US Air Force Photo by 1st Lt. Rashard Coaxum

US service members load an Alaska Army National Guard UH-60 Black Hawk with cargo at the Ralph Wien Memorial Airport, in Kotzebue, Alaska, in support of Exercise ARCTIC CARE, 14 April 2018. Military personnel accomplished critical mission training to maintain currency needed to support future contingency and humanitarian operations.

Consequently, participants highlighted the value of these missions to them for deployments into challenging operating environments around the world. Those on Operation ARCTIC CARE stress its value for simulating military-civilian humanitarian operations and healthcare delivery in times of crisis, conflict, or disaster.Footnote 35 Alaska Army National Guard brigade engineer operations sergeant Seth Gordon, who deployed on the Old Harbor IRT mission spanning three seasons, echoed this: “It’s a win-win situation; we get to travel to a remote location, operate out of a small camp much like a forward operating base and get training on equipment that is needed to complete this project.”Footnote 36 Electrician Chief Sgt. Philip Ankney with two deployments to Afghanistan, noted its similarity to “living on a FOB, being in the field and just working. My Marines that haven’t deployed were exposed to a different culture and a different way of living. This absolutely prepares them for a deployment when they get the opportunity.”Footnote 37

Through these activities, Alaskan communities benefit from access to healthcare, new infrastructure, and enhanced relationships with the US military. Cynthia Berns, the vice president of community and external affairs with Old Harbor Native Corporation, explained how her community “built a wonderful friendship with so many service members that have come to help in our community. We will forever be thankful to the Marine Corps for coming to our village. They have truly made a lasting impact.”Footnote 38 Such accolades might serve to inspire Canadian officials, given the desire for CAF operations and training to have positive, “enduring effects” on socio-economic life in northern communities.Footnote 39

“A Great Vehicle for Us to Support the Nation”: Australia’s Army Aboriginal Community Assistance Program

The Australian Army combines multiple IRT type initiatives into a more comprehensive approach through its Army Aboriginal Community Assistance Program (also called Exercise SAUNDERS in recognition of Reg Saunders, the first Indigenous Australian to be commissioned as an officer in the Australian Army).Footnote 40 In 1996, Prime Minister John Howard and the ministers for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Affairs, Defence, and Health and Family Services launched the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission Army Community Assistance Program to address concerns about Indigenous health and well-being raised by the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation.Footnote 41 The government provided the Army with $11.7 million in program funding between 1997–2000 to provide housing and other infrastructure improvements in eight communities across the Northern Territory, Western Australia, Queensland, and South Australia.Footnote 42

This successful program was subsequently extended (although re-scaled owing to over-stretched Army engineering assets). Lt. Colonel Noel Beutel, who was responsible for the AACAP missions in 2006–2007, explained that the program tapped into “Army’s ability to holistically deliver a range of services not normally available in any single project, and thereby maximise the benefits provided to a community.”Footnote 43 While AACAP had started with up to four deployments to multiple communities each year, after 2008 it focused on one (or two if they were geographically close) with an annual budget of $6 million.Footnote 44 Currently the program provides $7 million each fiscal year through the Indigenous Advancement Strategy (IAS) of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C) Indigenous Affairs Group, with the Army providing similar value of in-kind support to the program.Footnote 45

© Commonwealth of Australia/S20171589

Chief of Army, Lieutenant General Angus Campbell (centre), AO, DSC, and Warrant Officer Don Spinks (left), OAM, Regimental Sergeant Major of the Australian Army, receive a brief during a visit to meet soldiers of the Army Aboriginal Community Assistance Programme in Toomelah, New South Wales.

AACAP allows the Australian Army to fulfill several key objectives. A 2017 evaluation highlighted the immense training value it brings to Army. “The delivery of an AACAP project requires the generation, preparation, deployment and sustainment of a military contingent to remote locations in Australia for extended durations,” it noted, “and exercises the full range of the Defence supporting capabilities required. Through AACAP, Army aims to train and test selected capabilities against the themes of ‘population support’ and ‘Indigenous capacity building.’”Footnote 46 By focusing on community engagement and capacity building, AACAP also supports the Army’s Indigenous Strategy, which commits to a whole of government approach to building relationships and “contribut[ing] to the development of Indigenous communities.”Footnote 47 Likewise, the program has become a key pillar of the Australian Defence Force’s Defence Reconciliation Action Plan, which calls for “building respectful relations with Indigenous people, communities and organisations” and “the development of a consistent Defence approach to building relationships” with these communities.Footnote 48 AACAP also represents a military contribution to the Australian government’s Closing the Gap initiative aimed at improving Indigenous life expectancy and overall health, education, and employment outcomes.Footnote 49 Contingent commander Major Henry Stimson highlighted this latter role when he explained that “from Army’s perspective AACAP is a mechanism for our own training benefit, but also it’s a great vehicle for us to support the nation by assisting in the ongoing development in these remote communities.”Footnote 50

While the first AACAP initiatives were primarily directed towards infrastructure support, each mission now involves three key components: construction, health, and training.Footnote 51 The construction component focuses on “critical infrastructure to improve the wellbeing of marginalized communities” including airfields, improved roads and causeways, health clinics and administration buildings, water and waste treatment plants, housing and subdivisions, education facilities, childcare facilities, telecommunications, and projects that directly support economic growth.Footnote 52 Under the health component, personnel deploy to the communities to provide medical, dental, and veterinary services, accredited and non-accredited health training (e.g., first aid, nutrition), and physical training and education programs.Footnote 53 Finally, the training component provides structured programming for “community members in a range of areas (e.g., construction, welding, small engine maintenance, hospitality, business skills) to enhance job readiness and employment opportunities.” A training development officer assigned to each mission works with the community to determine what kind of training and educational experiences to provide. When possible, service members also take on “tasks of opportunity” that deliver additional benefits beyond the planned project components, including minor construction and repair work using “residual capacity” that does “not incur an ongoing maintenance liability” (such as improving football fields and other recreational facilities). Finally, each AACAP mission involves an array of community engagement activities including sports and recreation, youth engagement, entertainment, and cultural events.Footnote 54

© Commonwealth of Australia/S20191836

The AACAP Construction Troop from the 21st Construction Squadron work with civilian equipment to mix high volumes of concrete necessary for culvert bases.

A typical AACAP mission runs for three years. The process to choose a community site begins roughly 24 months before deployment to ensure sufficient time to secure resources and undertake extensive community engagement and relationship building through the project feasibility, planning, and design stages. Missions begin with a list of potential communities provided by the PM&C in consultation with state and territorial governments, followed by Feasibility Reconnaissance Visits to examine community suitability and needs. For communities to make it onto the short list, they must meet the following basic criteria:

  • be remote;
  • require works that align with [the Council of Australian Governments’] Closing the Gap initiative;
  • provide a sufficient training opportunity for Army;
  • be supportive of AACAP;
  • have suitable land-tenure arrangements for identified capital works;
  • have limited policies and programs that overlap with AACAP;
  • have not received AACAP previously.Footnote 55

Sites are chosen based on community need and the training value of the proposed mission. The Minister of Indigenous Affairs makes the final decision after extensive consultation with key government stakeholders and with the community itself.Footnote 56 Once a community is selected, the Army undertakes scoping reconnaissance to verify initial observations and ideas and then develops a preliminary program of work with the community. Objectives are set only after extensive “culturally sensitive consultation” and community approval. During the development stage, the Army, PM&C staff, community members, and other stakeholders devise a detailed “scope of works package” that incorporates all three main program components. Finally, in the delivery stage of the program, between 150–200 personnel deploy for three to six months, with a further 150–300 cycling through on shorter rotations. Following completion of an AACAP mission, engagement continues with at least two more community visits in a 12-month period to ensure that all built elements are still functioning properly.Footnote 57

Over the last two decades, AACAP has improved at integrating missions with other governmental programs, ensuring that Army’s efforts support the priorities of state, territorial, and local governments. “When we deploy we try to coordinate with any existing programmes that are going on in a particular community, it’s not a set template so we have to treat each community on a case by case basis,” Army Force Engineer Colonel Steve Gliddon explained in December 2014. “One of the things that we do look at when we plan is what else is going on, who else is operating there and what other programmes are being rolled out, so we capitalise on existing efficiencies and synergies.” The Army also looks for long term program partners that will take over ownership and maintenance responsibilities for whatever they build.Footnote 58 Lt. Colonel Beutel captured the complexity of each deployment, explaining that:

© Commonwealth of Australia/S20151897

Australian Army soldiers (left to right) Major Chris Sampson, Contingent Commander, Colonel Steve Gliddon, Force Engineer 6th Brigade Headquarters, and Sergeant Gavin Williams, site foreman, take Senator the Hon. Nigel Scullion, Minister for Indigenous Affairs, on an inspection of the construction of the waste treatment system at Titjikala, Northern Territory, as part of the Army Aboriginal Community Assistance Programme 2015.

They involve a nexus of stakeholders, enablers, relationships, methods of interaction and at times, all with very different values, norms and practices. In order to understand and then align this complex environment towards the achievement of project goals, a ‘project delivery model’ has been developed that maps the various stakeholders and enablers and then, through a combination of Memorandums of Understanding, shared responsibility agreements, operation orders, and commercial agreements and contracts, establishes the subsequent roles and responsibilities, lines of communication and methods of interaction required for project delivery. This is not a simple task, particularly given the gap (or some may say chasm) that must be overcome in bringing the various elements of Army, the three levels of government, civilian consultants and contractors, and the community itself to a mutual understanding, agreement and collaboration in what can be achieved and how best to achieve it.Footnote 59

While building relationships and working with a complex group of stakeholders can be difficult and time-consuming, frequent interactions both improve project outcomes and increases the training value for the Army.

“With engineers, training team, logistics support and various health elements,” one report highlighted, “the Army is able to deliver a unique range of services not normally delivered by a single organisation.”Footnote 60 On a typical AACAP deployment, 70 percent of the force is made up of engineers, while 30 percent consists of support (e.g., signals, logistics, and training) and medical personnel. Construction components are spearheaded by the 19th Chief Engineer Works, which includes engineering officers, engineering supervisors, draftsmen, and surveyors experienced in design and project management. Most of the personnel who deploy to the communities for construction are from the 6th Engineer Support Regiment, often supplemented by other Royal Australian Engineers and tradespeople from the Air Force and Navy. Medical personnel are drawn from the Royal Australian Army Medical Corps (which includes veterinary services) and the Royal Australian Army Dental Corps. Reservists, including construction engineers and medical personnel, also deploy on AACAP missions in two- to three-week stints. Whenever possible, AACAP missions also include local Indigenous personnel from the Army’s Regional Force Surveillance Units (RFSUs), North-West Mobile Force (NORFORCE), and Pilbara Regiment, 51st Battalion, Far North Queensland Regiment. These personnel assist with community engagement and communications, and serve as mentors to community members who participate in the training. On occasion, multinational personnel are brought in from East Timor, Tonga, and Papua New Guinea to interoperate with ADF personnel, as are civilian contractors when required.Footnote 61

© Commonwealth of Australia/S20191961

Lance Corporal Nathan Freylinger of the 10th Force Support Battalion at Amberley Qld was the lead hospitality trainer for AACAP 2019.

Since 1997, 45 AACAP projects have been delivered in 43 communities across Australia, for example:

  • AACAP 2007 deployed to the Doomadgee in Queensland and provided four 3-bedroom houses, a community amenities block, a 10-block fully serviced subdivision; and a 12-week employability training program in welding for 20 community members.Footnote 62
  • AACAP 2008 deployed to Kalumburu, Western Australia, and demolished an existing health clinic and built a new one, constructed a new barge landing, and upgraded an access road and the community’s airfield.
  • AACAP 2013 deployed to WHERE and constructed a Children and Family Centre, four new homes, upgraded the community water supply, constructed service providers’ accommodations, refurbished the community church, and a training program sought to improve the self-reliance of community members with courses in small engine repair, basic construction, and home repairs.Footnote 63
  • AACAP 2014 deployed to Canteen Creek and Wutunugurra in the Northern Territory, where service members built a new sealed road to reduce dust and increase accessibility in the wet season, a new workshop and community centre, and a large playground. The training program offered community members a Certificate in Basic Fabrication and Welding and taught them how to manufacture bed frames and furniture for the new houses. Army also brought in multi-media specialists to assist the Barkley Women’s Art Group in developing a business website, complete with catalogue production.Footnote 64
  • AACAP 2015 focused on the small town of Titjkala (pop. 200) in the Northern Territory for a four-month deployment that had them building a complex, large-scale waste management system, two duplex houses, and a change room for the football field. The program also offered training in welding and cooking. According to training mentor and army reservist Gary Keegan, “Mines use [our training] as a probation period. They take some of the lads who’ve finished into a trainee program. If you can get one person qualified, you’ve done your job. We learn from them, they learn from us. It’s win-win.”Footnote 65
  • AACAP 2018 deployed to the community of Yalata on South Australia’s West Coast, where service members focused on rebuilding the area’s tourism opportunities. The project involved an upgrade to the community’s trailer park, improvements to the airfield, the construction of an art gallery and café, and maintenance and hospitality training for community members who wished to work in the new facilities.Footnote 66 This program highlights a staple of AACAP training components – providing training that is directly linked to local employability and that the community deems suitable and relevant. As an example of the kind entertainment and outreach events that AACAP missions often employ, this iteration brought in the Indigenous Hip Hop Project (IHHP), a team of performers in hip hop, media, entertainment and the performing arts who work in Indigenous communities throughout Australia.Footnote 67

AACAP is a recognized name in Indigenous communities across Australia for the positive socio-economic and infrastructure contributions made under its auspices.Footnote 68 Indigenous respondents to the 2017 AACAP review highlighted new infrastructure and housing, improved living conditions, clean water, effective sanitation systems, educational opportunities, and the short-term access to round-the-clock healthcare provided by the program. “AACAP in its current form is widely regarded by communities as a successful programme that is very effective in meeting its intended objectives,” the review concluded. “The Programme positively contributes to practical reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians; with communities reporting an improved understanding of, and enhanced respect for Army; and Army reporting increased understanding and appreciation of Indigenous culture.”Footnote 69

Cultural awareness, relationship building, and stakeholder engagement in each AACAP mission bring broader operational benefits for the Australian Defence Force – and boost the morale of service members. Lt. Colonel Renée Kidson, currently the CO of 5th Engineer Regiment, argues that:

© Commonwealth of Australia/S20200800

Commanding Officer 5th Engineer Regiment Lieutenant Colonel Renée Kidson (centre) updates Emergency ADF National Support Coordinator, Major General Justin “Jake” Ellwood, DSC (left) and Tentara Nasional Indonesia (Indonesian National Armed Forces) Lieutenant Colonel Teddi on the work being conducted by troops at the Zig Zag Railway, Lithgow.

AACAP is about more than infrastructure. The real value in these projects are the relationships we have forged with Indigenous communities along the way. Through mentoring and coaching, part-time Sappers build more than leave-behind infrastructure: they contribute to Indigenous Engagement and Development through trade skills transfer, empowering communities to build brighter futures for themselves. And there is more. AACAP speaks to the heart of one of Army’s values: Respect. Sappers return from AACAP culturally enriched, benefiting from deep immersion in Indigenous communities who are generous in sharing knowledge, custom and tradition. These experiences build mutual respect and renewed appreciation of Indigenous communities.Footnote 70

AACAP experiences have helped the Army prepare for population support activities during past deployments, such as Timor-Leste in 1999 and 2006, and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations in Australia and the surrounding region.Footnote 71

AACAP also benefits service members by providing opportunities to deploy to isolated areas for extended periods, testing their ability to generate, prepare, and sustain operations and maintain complex lines of communication. Effective planning and organization are vital. The distances involved and the type of work involved also demand an increased maintenance schedule to prevent equipment breakdowns.Footnote 72 The adaptability and flexibility demanded in these missions make them an appropriate training ground for junior leaders before they deploy overseas.Footnote 73 Colonel Steve Gliddon, for example, highlighted the value to Army Engineers in Afghanistan:

The sorts of things we’re doing in AACAP, building things in remote locations, having to engage with different cultures, is perfect training for operations. If I reflect in particular on Operation SLIPPER where we were in Afghanistan for a number of years building infrastructure in remote locations, engaging with different cultures, dealing with people who are non-English speakers, training Afghans to build their capacity through a trade training school, there are many parallels with AACAP. To go out to a remote Indigenous community and have your junior non-commissioned officers put in charge of a particular task, and then have to complete that task, is perfect training. What we’re doing in AACAP directly mirrored what we were doing on operations. One of the reasons that we were able to adapt quickly and perform well in Afghanistan, was the grounding we had given many of our soldiers in things like AACAP.Footnote 74

© Commonwealth of Australia/2007-S1808

(From R-L): Officer in Command of 17 Construction Squadron Major Niall Pigott, Doomadgee Mayor Thomas Orcher, Deputy Mayor Elaine Cairns, Housing Officer Shandel Toby and CEO Mal Hansen pose for a photo outside one of the houses constructed through AACAP at the Queensland community.

Accordingly, units embrace AACAP missions as a useful “training run before we go and do it in real time overseas somewhere,”Footnote 75 with “personnel who have performed well on AACAP [having] a good chance of being able to deploy next year.”Footnote 76

Models of Inspiration for the CAF?

While the geographical and cultural characteristics of the Canadian North give it a “unique nature” as a theatre of operations,Footnote 77 we embrace the benefits that might come from learning from our allies’ experiences in their remote northern regions. The Alaskan IRT initiatives and Australian AACAP projects represent models or approaches that might yield insights for the CAF as it discerns ways to deliver on pledges to enhance its ability to project and sustain forces in the Arctic, deepen partnerships, and improve readiness through activities that leave enduring, positive legacies for Indigenous communities. These operations conducted by our allies fit with priorities articulated in the federal Arctic and Northern Policy Framework, particularly on closing infrastructure gaps and creating conditions so that “Canadian Arctic and northern Indigenous peoples are resilient and healthy.”Footnote 78 At the same time, we acknowledge that these models do raise several challenging considerations in the Canadian context, given budgetary and personnel constraints in the CAF, increasing demands of domestic operations, existing healthcare services (which may leave little space for an ARCTIC CARE type exercise or the AACAP’s health component), and potential encroachments on private industry and civilian employment (although AACAP missions have shown that military construction can actually create new opportunities for civilian contractors, while their training component contributes to Indigenous capacity building and skill development).Footnote 79

The CAF currently performs exercises similar to IRT and AACAP missions in southern Canada – most notably, Exercise NIHILO (Latin for the creation of something out of nothing) SAPPER, an annual training event led by 4 Engineer Support Regiment from 5 Canadian Division Support Base Gagetown that has completed civilian construction projects in New Brunswick, Cape Breton, and Prince Edward Island in recent years.Footnote 80 The CAF is also developing transportation capacity required to make this kind of civil-military operation easier to accomplish in Northern coastal communities, particularly with the Harry DeWolf-class Arctic and Offshore Patrol Vessel.Footnote 81 This form of community engagement would also help to operationalize the affiliations that these vessels will be given to various parts of Inuit Nunangat.

DND photo by Corporal David Veldman

The Northern lights can be seen beyond HMCS Harry DeWolf during Cold Weather Trials near Frobisher Bay on 21 February 2021.

Would northern communities welcome an exercise like NIHILO SAPPER – or a broader AACAP-type initiative? While the response would differ from community to community, there are indications that a warm welcome would be received – particularly if the CAF were to adopt the multi-year partnership building approach embraced by AACAP missions. In 2010, Charlie Evalik, the President of the Kitikmeot Inuit Association, described the military as a “cornerstone for Inuit development.” For Inuit, Evalik explained, “an active military presence in the High Arctic is very desirable provided that the strong partnerships that have been forged over specific projects and initiatives can continue into the future.”Footnote 82 Mary Simon’s 2016 Interim Report on the Shared Arctic Leadership Model emphasized the need to close the infrastructure gap in the North, mitigate the damage climate change is doing to existing infrastructure, and address the “public health emergency” caused by the lack of housing.Footnote 83 CAF support might be welcomed by Northern Indigenous leadership if it helped to alleviate these long-lasting issues as part of its operational training and readiness activities in the Canadian North. While there might be hesitation to a multi-month CAF deployment into a small northern community for fear of over-whelming or over-burdening it,Footnote 84 careful relationship building and an emphasis on practical benefits could alleviate such concerns. Ernest Warrior, a member of NORFORCE who served as a community liaison AACAP 2015, explained that community members were nervous of the large outside influx at first, even after months of preparation, but they quickly grew supportive of the mission when “things started happening.”Footnote 85

Report a problem on this page
Please select all that apply:

Thank you for your help!

You will not receive a reply. For enquiries, please contact us.

Date modified: