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Analysis: Questioning the Relevance of Canada’s Operation Nanook

HIGH NORTH NEWS – With Prime Minister Trudeau heading south, instead of north, and a cruise ship crossing the Northwest Passage, is Operation Nanook more or less relevant than before?

Written by Mieke Coppes Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Operation nanook
Members of Royal 22e Régiment make their way to the staging area to conduct field operations near Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, during Operation Nanook on August 26, 2016. Canadian Forces/Petty Officer Second Class Belinda Groves

Every year in the summer, hundreds of soldiers descend upon Canada’s northern towns and participate in Operation Nanook. For those unfamiliar with Nanook, it has been happening since 2007 and is one the largest sovereignty operations in Canada’s North.

This year’s operation is happening in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, as well as Haines Junction, Yukon, and Whitehorse, Yukon. It started August 21 and came to a close on September 2, and included three international military observers: France, the United States and the United Kingdom.

According to the Canadian Government, Operation Nanook has several objectives, including “[to] assert Canada’s sovereignty over its northernmost regions” and “to enhance the Canadian Armed Forces’ ability to operate in Arctic conditions.” This yearly operation is an opportunity to test and train Canada’s military in a northern capacity.

But there are two reasons why one should take notice of this year’s operations. First of all, as the prime minister’s office has confirmed, Prime Minister Trudeau was not present. This is an important shift from the previous administration, which made it a priority to be in the North during this time of year; what does that mean for Canadian politics? And, secondly, a cruise ship was floating through Canada’s northern waters at the same time. Both Canada and the United States have worked extremely hard to ensure that this passage is as safe as possible, but the route has intrinsic dangers. Any unanticipated accident would need to draw on the capabilities that Operation Nanook has already trained Canada’s soldiers to respond to. Is Nanook therefore more relevant than ever?

Aircraft are parked at Iqaluit Airport on Baffin Island, Nunavut, during Operation Nanook 2014. CREDIT: CND-MDN Canada/Master Corporal Johanie Maheu

Aircraft are parked at Iqaluit Airport on Baffin Island, Nunavut, during Operation Nanook 2014. (CND-MDN Canada/Master Corporal Johanie Maheu)

Where is Trudeau and Why Does It Matter?

When Stephen Harper was prime minister, he made it a priority to be seen in the North during Operation Nanook – which, as John Higginbotham, Arctic lead at the Centre for International Governance Innovation and a senior fellow at the center, said in a recent interview, “supported his somewhat more nationalist line in underlining the security mention of [Canada’s] Arctic policy.”

But Prime Minister Trudeau has not yet set his Arctic policy. What the focus of Canadian policy in the North is remains to be seen. “Canadian Arctic policy still remains to be written for this government,” said Higginbotham. “[Trudeau] did not say much about it during the campaign, or the budget, or the speech from the throne, or the appointment of minister, and so forth. It has not been a high priority so far.”

Sovereignty, at least in the way that Harper focused on it, does not seem to be the focus of this Canadian government. Instead the focus seems to have shifted, as is true with much of Prime Minister Trudeau’s foreign policy, to multilateralism and cooperation. Higginbotham said, “it used to be that we were mostly concerned about American activities in the Arctic, but that joint statement that Obama and Trudeau issued a couple months ago talked about a heightened level of Canada-U.S. cooperation in the Arctic.” Furthermore, with the importance that Prime Minister Trudeau has placed on the relationship with Indigenous peoples, the focus also looks to shift from military and sovereignty towards social issues and climate change.

But does this signify that Operation Nanook is less important because the government focus is no longer on military sovereignty in the North? No. As Higginbotham said, “whether or not the prime minister is there, [Nanook] is invaluable in keeping the Canadian Forces focused on sea, air and land dimensions of operations in the Arctic.”

Operation Nanook is much more than just a photo op or occasion to focus on the political rhetoric of the day. On a deeper level this is a chance for Canada to prepare for potential disasters in the North and to train in a harsh and often unforgiving climate in which many soldiers and people may not have experience.

What Does the Crystal Serenity Have to Do With It?

Operation Nanook 2014 had two scenarios – and one of them feels more relevant than ever. That scenario, which took place in York Sound, Nunavut, was a simulation of a cruise ship being grounded due to mechanical difficulties. And although the scenario only involved a small ship of 50 people, with the Crystal Serenity (which has approximately 1,000 passengers onboard) sailing through the Northwest Passage, the Canadian military’s capacity to react to this type of crisis is crucial. The fact that Operation Nanook is preparing for real-life situations ensures that when some of these situations occur, and the likelihood of that seems to be increasing as fast as the ice is melting, Canadians will be able to respond properly.

A Canadian Forces field hospital and ambulance are seen after midnight during Operation Nanook 2012. (DND-MDN Canada/Sgt Frank Hudec)

“In order to ensure the highest level of safety and security in Canada’s North, it is critical that responses to all incidents, whether natural catastrophes or protection of Canada’s sovereignty, are properly coordinated and executed,” said Brigadier-General Mike Nixon, Commander, Joint Task Force (North). Canadians, through Operation Nanook, are being prepared for what could happen in one of the harshest environments of the world, an environment that is welcoming more and more people as the ice melts and the world warms. Therefore, ensuring the readiness of Canadian troops in this way is more important than ever.

More than political rhetoric about how Canada treats the North and the value that the government finds there, Nanook, according to Higginbotham, “draws attention to the military’s long-term interest in cooperating with civilian projects like roads, deep water ports, or better charted maritime corridors, or search and rescue up in the Arctic. The operation is in no way offensive from a military point of view.” Working together with civilians in the North remains key for any type of success in the region. The Inuit have long known the lessons of cooperation that are fundamental to surviving in the region, and these are lessons from which the military can learn.

Operation Nanook may not now be used as a piece of geopolitical rhetoric in this Canadian administration, but that does not take away from the significance that it has in preparing Canada for dealing with potential challenges in the North, where the temperature, the remoteness, the darkness and the weather can have dramatic impacts on how to react properly and efficiently.

A version of this story was originally published in High North News and is reproduced here with permission.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Arctic Deeply.

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