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Canadian Military and Inuit Rangers Work to Defend Arctic Territory

A moon dog hung low over the horizon. It showed up on the first day of the Canadian soldiers’ patrol, and the Inuit rangers guiding them in the country’s far north spotted it right away: Ice crystals in the clouds were bending the light, making two illusory moons appear in the sky.

It meant a storm was coming, despite the forecast of fair weather. The Inuit rangers told the platoon to pitch their tents and hunker down.

“If it gets worse, we’re going to be stranded,” said John Ussak, one of the Inuit rangers, recalling how the soldiers wanted to keep going, but backed down. They awoke to a blizzard.

Canada is now on a mission to assert its hold on its Arctic territory, an enormous stretch that was once little more than an afterthought.

As Russia and China focus greater attention on the region’s military and commercial potential, Canada’s armed forces are under pressure to understand the Arctic’s changing climate, how to survive there and how to defend it.

The contest is a global one, with the American secretary of state, Antony J. Blinken, having paid a five-day visit to Northern Europe last week to rally allies against Russian and Chinese ambitions in the Arctic.

Canada’s mission to secure the Arctic means relying more heavily on the Inuit, the only people who have lived in this austere part of the world for thousands of years, keeping watch over the country’s vast, isolated stretches in the far north.

It also means dredging into the country’s colonial past, changing hard-wired ways of thinking and undoing generations of mistrust. The Canadian government has a long and ugly history of abusing the Inuit, including misleading families into moving to the High Arctic to cement its hold on the territory during the Cold War and refusing to let them leave.

But in recent years, Canada has embarked on a wide-ranging attempt to come to terms with and atone for its colonial history. Efforts to secure Indigenous Canadians’ rightful place in the country have filtered through different levels of governments, schools, the arts and business.

Canada is also focusing on the most intractable element of post-colonial relationships — people’s way of thinking — by emphasizing learning from the Indigenous. On Arctic patrols, that brings practical benefits.

“Leaders need to show humility and understand it’s more important to acknowledge what you don’t know than what you do know,” said Maj. Brynn Bennett, the army commander who led the patrol in March with the Inuit rangers, part of a military exercise called Operation Nanook-Nunalivut.

Before the soldiers ever landed in Rankin Inlet, the hurdles were clear. Like nearly all other Canadians, most had never been this far north.

Military exercises between the Inuit rangers and the army have been held for decades, but the stakes have gotten higher as the world’s superpowers vie for pre-eminence in an Arctic made more accessible by climate change.

Russia is rapidly building up its military and partnering on commercial ventures with China, as thawing ice provides access to vast natural resources below the Arctic sea floor and unlocks new shipping lanes. Even Canada’s closest ally, the United States, disputes Canadian claims of sovereignty over the Northwest Passage.

While the exercise took place on uncontested Canadian territory, it is also part of a broader effort to build up Canada’s military capacity in the Arctic and to fend off any potential rival claims on the increasingly navigable waterways.

The Inuit rangers’ advice to delay the patrol — and, more than anything else, Major Bennet’s deference to them — not only shielded the seven Inuit rangers and nearly 40 soldiers from a blizzard, but cemented the authority of the Inuit in a region that continues to confound outsiders.

It was not always the case.

Around Rankin Inlet, a small subarctic town on the west coast of Hudson Bay, stories passed down for generations speak of Inuit advice and help offered, and refused, by explorers and whalers marooned on Marble Island, about 30 miles off the coast.

“My mom talked about it, even though I told her I didn’t want to hear about the past, because it really hurts me,” said Marianne Hapanak, 51, who has been a ranger for 24 years. “Our elders tried to help the white people,” she added. “Why didn’t they accept our help?”

“Maybe just to act tough?” she said.

With about 3,000 people, Rankin Inlet is the second most populated town in Nunavut, a Canadian territory nearly three times the size of Texas with a population of only 40,000 people, most of them Inuit.

For centuries, European colonial powers led expeditions in search of a Northwest Passage — a shorter and faster sea route between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans through the labyrinth of islands and waterways in Canada’s Arctic.

In 1905, a Norwegian man, Roald Amundsen — who went to live among the Inuit to learn how to survive in the Arctic — became the first European explorer to cross the Northwest Passage. But some of the doomed efforts, most famously the Franklin Expedition, have become parables of colonial cluelessness: European explorers who died of scurvy by rejecting the Inuit’s vitamin-rich diet of raw meat or after ignoring the Inuit and getting lost.

Harry Ittinuar, 59, a former Inuit ranger who used to run boat tours to Marble Island, grew up listening to stories of outsiders stranded on the island, including James Knight, an 18th-century English explorer who was shipwrecked with his crew after failing to find the Northwest Passage.

“One of the stories I heard, they knew one crew was struggling, so they went over in winter by dog team,” said Mr. Ittinuar of the Inuit.

“When they were able to cross the ice, they offered them help and food, but the sailors refused to eat seal, walrus, whale or caribou, or whatever was offered to them,” Mr. Ittinuar added. “That was their demise.”

Some Inuit rangers say they have noticed a change in mind-set among the soldiers coming from “down south.”

“They’re more respectful now,” said Mr. Ussak, 47, who has been a ranger for two decades. “Our culture is a big part of being a ranger because we teach our knowledge in exercises like this. We teach them what we learned from our ancestors.”

The Inuit rangers who participated in the recent patrol are among 5,000 Canadian Rangers, part-time reservists in the Canadian Armed Forces. Above the tree line where it gets too cold for trees to survive, most of the rangers are Inuit.

With Canada’s military refashioning its relations with the Inuit by tapping into local knowledge, Canadian soldiers are heading north better prepared for the patrols, according to Inuit rangers.

Jack Kabvitok, 83, an Inuit who served as a ranger in the 1990s, recalled how soldiers occasionally arrived without the proper gear for temperatures that drop to minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit in winter.

“They didn’t want to shoot their rifles because they didn’t want to touch the steel,” Mr. Kabvitok said. “They didn’t have coats or boots for up here. When they were few, we could deal with them. We would give them our clothes because we carry extra clothes all the time when we go hunting.”

Before their patrol, the soldiers trained at Petawawa, a base in Ontario. They practiced driving snowmobiles and built traditional Inuit sleds called qamutik. Despite an unusually brutal cold snap at the Ontario base, landing in Rankin Inlet was a shock to some.

“There’s winter all over Canada, and you think you know it until you come to a place where you don’t see any trees, just tundra,” said Corp. Simon Cartier, 30, from Montreal. “And if it wasn’t for the buildings, you’d probably feel like you’re on another planet.”

At their base in Rankin Inlet, the soldiers spent a day fixing their qamutiks, which the Inuit rangers immediately noted were inadequate for the subarctic. As the soldiers and Inuit rangers headed out on their five-day patrol, the weather, at least, looked favorable.

“We thought we were going to have good weather for the week based on the forecast,” Major Bennett said.

But on the first day, a soldier had to be evacuated after slipping and twisting an ankle. Continuing problems with the qamutiks forced the soldiers and Inuit rangers to set up camp about midway to their destination, in Chesterfield Inlet, a hamlet 60 miles northeast.

Then later that evening, the moon dog, a rare optical illusion, emerged low over the horizon.

When the Inuit rangers woke up the next morning — to the blizzard that made it impossible to see beyond 600 feet — they also saw a sun dog, a similar optical phenomenon that often precedes bad weather.

The oldest and most experienced Inuit ranger, Gerard Maktar, 65, and Mr. Ussak went to a morning briefing with the army leaders. Mr. Ussak said he met some pushback when he advised the soldiers to stay put until the weather cleared.

Lt. Erica Rogers, 29, a soldier from Toronto, acknowledged that there was initial skepticism of the warning from the Inuit rangers.

“We were going, well, it’s not that cold, we can still go out — if we were back in Petawawa, we would go out,” she said.

The delay prevented the soldiers from reaching their destination, but Major Bennet considered the patrol a success. His soldiers learned much from the Inuit, including building igloos, deciphering the meaning of snowdrifts, ice fishing, hunting and butchering caribou — and observing the moon dog and sun dog.

He added that his advice to the commander of the patrol after his was “Listen to Gerard” — referring to the elder Inuit ranger.

At the height of the Cold War in the 1950s, the Canadian government asserted its presence in the Arctic, not by listening to the Inuit, but by using them as human pawns. Officials misled 92 Inuit into relocating far away from families and long-established communities to uninhabited areas in the High Arctic where they found little food, 24-hour darkness in winter and an unfamiliar life that contributed to depression and alcoholism.

The Inuit rangers in the patrol said they believed that the joint mission would help Canada’s defense of its great north, though they said they did not want to be embroiled in a larger conflict.

“I wouldn’t want to go to war,” Ms. Hapanak said.

Even as Canada tries to up its game in the Arctic, Ms. Hapanak observed that the soldiers had a lot to learn — a point made clear with the start of the second patrol, a new group of 36 Canadian reservists and 10 British rangers.

As novices, they drove their snowmobiles slowly, taking more than three hours to reach a shooting range only six miles north of the base. One soldier had flipped on the side.

The soldiers started pitching their tents as it became clear they would have to set up camp just on the outskirts of Rankin Inlet.

“Boring!” said Ms. Hapanak, who had hoped to make more headway.

The Inuit rangers killed time. Mr. Maktar sculpted a miniature igloo out of the hard snow. Two bulky, middle-aged men played tag.

Ms. Hapanak singled out one British ranger who was wearing a light coat and kept making big, rapid circles with his arms to stay warm.

“I tried asking him, ‘Where’s your big coat?’” Ms. Hapanak said. “‘I’ll be good,’ he said.”

“Trying to act tough, I guess.”

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Mohammad SHiblu

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