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'Rangers reset' ignores, direspects what actually they do

In his CBC opinion piece advising a "Canadian Rangers reset," Robert Smol repeats many of the criticisms that he has levelled at the organization over the last decade. While these have been systematically debunked by the leading academic expert on the Canadian Rangers, Dr. P. Whitney Lackenbauer, Smol continues to make the same inaccurate arguments, willfully minimizing and disrespecting the service provided by 5,000 Canadian Rangers across the country.

Smol previously dismissed the Rangers as "political props" (2013) and a "token military force" (2016) and he now labels them a "public affairs charade" because they are neither designed nor trained for combat.

His solution is to train the Rangers for war.

The Kugluktuk Ranger Patrol conducting a Type 1 patrol in February 2019. photo courtesy of MCpl. Baba Pedersen, Kugluktuk Ranger Patrol

Public affairs charade? Tell that to the Ranger patrols that deploy along the Northwest Passage every summer to watch for suspicious activity and report on foreign shipping as part of Operation NANOOK-NUNAKPUT. Tell that to the Rangers who instruct Regular and Reserve members of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) on how to survive in the austere environment of Canada's High Arctic. Tell it to the hundreds of Rangers who were activated this spring and summer to serve in their communities as part of the military's broader response to COVID-19, performing community wellness checks, preparing triage points for COVID testing, raising awareness about social distancing, establishing community response centres, clearing snow, cutting and delivering firewood and providing food (including fresh game and fish) and supplies to Elders and vulnerable community members.

Tell it to the 25 members of the Fort Vermillion Ranger Patrol who responded to the once-in-a-generation flooding that struck their community this April and May by monitoring water levels, sandbagging critical infrastructure and helping more than 450 residents evacuate their homes.

Has Mr. Smol ever spoken with a Ranger? Has he ever been on a Ranger patrol? Visited a community with a Ranger patrol? I've spent the last two years working with Dr. Lackenbauer on a project exploring how to measure the success of the 1st Canadian Ranger Patrol Group, which covers Nunavut, the Northwest Territories and Yukon – the patrol group upon which Smol focuses his attention.

I've spoken with hundreds of Rangers from across the North and not one has asked for a combat role. Instead, they discuss the myriad critical roles they already play.

The Kugluktuk Ranger Patrol and other members of the Canadian Armed Forces establish a base of operations to monitor the Northwest Passage during Operation NANOOK-NUNAKPUT in August 2019.  photo courtesy of MCpl. Baba Pedersen, Kugluktuk Ranger Patrol

Contribution minimized

Smol's assertion that the skills and knowledge possessed by Rangers make them "useful to the Forces on a casual, ad hoc basis" minimizes their integral service as trainers, facilitators and enablers for other components of the CAF. As the "eyes, ears and voice" of the CAF in Northern, coastal and isolated areas, military units rely on and learn from the experience and knowledge of the Rangers to survive and operate effectively in these environments.

Post-exercise reports regularly highlight the benefits of this partnership and the need to leverage the Rangers' Indigenous and local knowledge and capabilities to facilitate operations and further develop Regular and Primary Reserve Force units' operating skills in remote areas.

These exercises affirm the value of accessing subject-matter experts with extensive experience operating in austere conditions who are willing to share their local and traditional knowledge and provide practical support for activities in what southerners consider to be extreme environments.

By virtue of their capabilities and presence, the Rangers regularly support other government agencies in preventing, preparing for, responding to and recovering from the broad spectrum of emergency and disaster scenarios facing isolated communities.

Rangers' training and skill development also allow them to perform a wide array of functions within their communities: from conducting search and rescue operations, to adopting leadership positions, to running community events, to serving as a conduit between their fellow community members, the military and other government agencies.

Finally, Indigenous Rangers point out that by celebrating traditional knowledge and skills, as well as encouraging and enabling community members to go out on the land and share their knowledge and expertise, the Rangers play an important role in supporting the intergenerational transmission of knowledge, the expansion of core cultural competencies and even the revitalization of Indigenous languages. Rangers also emphasize the pride that comes from sharing their traditional skills and knowledge with other members of the CAF – and from the mutual understanding that their unique knowledge can make an important contribution to effective military operations.

Smol's recommendation for a "Ranger reset" stems from his belief that a large Canadian Army presence is required to meet a conventional land-based ground assault across the North. However, threat assessments produced by the DND/CAF over the past decade state there is no immediate conventional military threat to Canada's Arctic. As Lackenbauer pointed out in his rebuttal to Smol's critiques: "Although his desired defence posture is modelled on the Swedes, Norwegians and Danes, he fails to consider how geographical realities make their Arctic very different than Canada's (both physically and demographically) and, as close land neighbours to Russia (and, in the case of the Norway, with a unique relationship related to Svalbard), why they might face a different threat environment."

Further, Smol fails to mention that the Danes/Greenlanders are actually in the process of setting up a unit modelled after the Canadian Rangers – complete with zero combat training.

Far from being a charade, Canadian Rangers' contributions are far more real than the phantom threat of an Arctic ground invasion Smol has envisioned. The Rangers are strong examples of how people come together to serve the greater good of their peoples, their communities and their country.

Last spring, a Ranger from Nunavut's Kitikmeot region summed it best when he explained to me, "We are the eyes and ears of the military, but we are also the eyes and ears of our community. We protect our communities."

Dr. Peter Kikkert is an Assistant Professor in the Public Policy and Governance program at St. Francis Xavier University and Irving Shipbuilding Chair in Arctic Policy at the Brian Mulroney Institute of Government.