Northern forces to beef up emergency response work

Iqaluit detachment expanding to five or six members


Canadian defence forces stationed in northern Canada now have a new name and a big new job: preparing better plans to help civilian authorities cope with natural disasters, pandemics and other emergencies.

Col. Norm Couturier, the commander of Canadian forces north of 60, told reporters last week that it’s all part of a plan to renew the job description of the Canadian Forces that operate within Canada.

Under that plan, the Canadian Forces northern area, headquartered in Yellowknife, now bears a new title: Joint Task Force North.

And with that comes an added mandate: to prepare for “contingencies,” such as disasters and pandemics.

The transformation work began last year under the former Liberal government’s defence minister, Bill Graham, and continues under the Tory government’s defence minister, Gordon O’Connor, under a policy dubbed “Canada First.”

For northern Canada, it means that Couturier and the people under his command will work more closely with civilian authorities to plan rapid responses to emergencies.

“Collectively we can be much stronger and we can be in a better position to respond to any emergency or contingency that could occur in the Arctic,” Couturier said, referring to the work of the Arctic Security Interdepartmental Working Group, which met last week in Iqaluit.

In an interview with Nunatsiaq News Couturier said defence forces will develop plans to ensure that authorities are able to respond to a civil emergency within 24 hours.

Alluding to the botched U.S. response to Hurricane Katrina last year, he said it’s obvious that “the morale of the public” deteriorates rapidly when help does not arrive on time.

Couturier’s command will get more money and more people to do planning work, especially planning that’s done with civilian officials who work in public health and emergency measures.

In Nunavut, Iqaluit’s tiny one-person military detachment will take on five or six more people, all of whom will work with territorial and federal officials to develop better emergency response plans.

Defence forces will then test those plans in exercises conducted with various agencies, to make sure they work.

“This way, we can ensure that whenever there is an emergency, we will be ready to deal with it and be sure that we will effect success,” Couturier said.

And whenever troops are deployed on the land in those exercises, Arctic Ranger patrols will always be there with them.

Couturier also said northern Canada’s Ranger patrols will get more equipment — such as tents, GPS devices and radios — and more search and rescue training.

The Canadian Rangers are indispensable to defence forces operating in northern Canada, Couturier said, adding that it’s likely that the Ranger program will be expanded in the future.

This summer, Joint Task Force North will do a “table-top” exercise in Yellowknife that will not involve the deployment of troops. In 2007, they will conduct a major land-based exercise near Norman Wells, using a scenario that involves pipeline security.

Also this summer, defence forces will conduct an exercise in Lancaster Sound, the eastern entrance to the Northwest Passage.

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