“We have to demonstrate 'sovereignty;.”

Military invades Iqaluit for Operation Nanook


Hundreds of military personnel landed in Iqaluit this past weekend for the start of Operation Nanook, Canada's annual Arctic muscle-flexing exercise.

Brig. Gen. Dave Millar, the commander of Operation Nanook, said this year's exercise, with 120 army troops, two navy ships, Canadian Rangers and a compliment of Aurora search and rescue aircraft, is larger than previous editions.

"The primary objective is to increase our familiarity with operating in the North and to refine our training, our tactics and our procedures," Millar said in an interview Aug. 15.

After a year of planning and nearly 10 days of set-up time at the forward operating location past the airport, the operation kicked off this past Tuesday with a community day and barbecue in front of Nakasuk school.

Integration is the watchword: Millar said the military's goal is to practice helping other government agencies respond to potential disasters in the Arctic.

Civilian agencies, such as Health Canada, the Canada Border Services Agency and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service are also on board in record numbers. Nunavut's emergency measures organization and the Department of Health and Social Services are also involved.

All these groups will respond to three scenarios: an oil spill from a cargo ship, a disease outbreak on a cruise ship that's complicated by a hostage-taking, and a fire on board another ship.

Soldiers will fan out to Kimmirut and Pangnirtung and learn how to survive on the land with the Canadian Rangers, while ships and planes patrol the region and shuttle participants to and from the exercises.

"We're actually going to exercise some scenarios that would be typical examples of things that could happen as the North expands with greater shipping, greater tourism… and greater industry exploration," Millar said.

That makes this year's Operation Nanook a little different from last year's, where the main exercise focused on a suspicious Turkish freighter hauling a cargo of drugs through the Hudson Strait. In that exercise, a heavily-armed navy boarding party used a Coast Guard boat to intercept the freighter, played by the HMCS Summerside.

Nanook comes at a time of unprecedented interest in the North, as polar nations scramble for control of offshore territories and climate change raises the prospect of a boom in shipping through the Northwest Passage. Meanwhile, northern and Inuit leaders are pressing Ottawa for more infrastructure and services for Northern residents.

The Conservative government has announced billions in spending for new military bases and hardware in the North, but much less for what critics have dubbed the "human dimension of sovereignty."

But Peter MacKay, the defence minister, was to be in Arctic Bay this past Wednesday to announce plans for three Arctic community centres.

Millar said this year's operation is less about national security than about demonstrating Canada's ability to deploy soldiers, police or other personnel in the vast Arctic.

"The types of threats that we as the Canadian Forces are going to face in the North aren't defensive in nature. We're not going to be attacked," he said. "Nevertheless we have to demonstrate sovereignty."

"There is a tremendous role, however, that the Canadian Forces still plays in support of other government departments."

Last year's exercise was also hampered by fog, which cancelled a planned oil-spill cleanup exercise near Kimmirut.

But Millar said events like that are part of the military's learning process, adding that Operation Nanook allows the forces to practice changing destinations or objectives in stride.

"We come out with excellent plans, but those plans allow us to turn on a dime."

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