The protection of Canada’s north and the assertion of its sovereignty are becoming major issues on the political and military agenda.
The Canadian Forces is creating quick-response units to deal with any emergency that may arise, and to defend remote communities and resources.
Reservists with the Grey and Simcoe Foresters have been given this mission in Ontario, and the nascent Arctic Response Company recently returned from its first weeklong training exercise 650 kilometres north of Thunder Bay.
The company commander is Capt. Perry Rittershofer of Penetanguishene. A mechanical engineering technician in civilian life, he said working with the Rangers was an outstanding experience for his troops.
“It was excellent for me to lead soldiers in such a harsh environment, and to see them develop over the course of the week. When I watched them, with all their kit on and pulling those laden toboggans, I was really impressed on how well they learned and adapted.”
Corp. Grant Kempster said there are tremendous challenges presented by living and working in such an environment.
“It’s not just the weather, but also the scarcity of material and resources,” he explained. “Everything has to be flown in and, although we can bring what we need, for the local people, this means that bread costs $5.50 a loaf.”
Kempster, a Barrie resident and part-time soldier, said he found himself humbled by the skills and strengths of native people in the North.
“We have to be aware not only of their impact on us, but of our impact on them. The village elders stressed to us their young people need to know there is more to Canada than just the North. And we certainly need to know that there is more to Canada than just our own region.”
Angus resident Capt. Craig Bawden is the regiment’s operations officer, responsible for ensuring the smooth running of the training, which included such skills as rescuing someone from icy water, cooking traditional foods, and re-supplying the camps by snowmobile.
“Everyone had to build survival shelters using natural materials, and they had to spend a night in them,” he said. “It gave them a real sense of accomplishment.”
The Kitchenumaykoob-Inninuwug First Nation is a community of about 1,200 people on the shore of Big Trout Lake. Many inhabitants of the region, and throughout Canada’s remote areas, are members of the Canadian Rangers. These largely aboriginal reservists acted as instructors and mentors for the Foresters and other troops on the exercise, teaching them the intricacies and subtleties of living off the land in a hostile, yet fragile, environment.
“The exercise tested our ability to survive, move and communicate under extreme conditions,” Bawden added. “Some days, it was as cold as -36 (C).”
The Foresters’ commanding officer, Lt.-Col. Wayne Bruce, was also on the exercise.
“I was most impressed by the welcome the community gave us,” he said. “The last day, they prepared a feast for us, including caribou, beaver, moose, trout and whitefish.”
Foresters form one platoon of the company, as well as the company headquarters. The other platoons are made up of soldiers from throughout 32 Canadian Brigade Group, including such historic regiments as the 48th Highlanders, Toronto Scottish, and Queen’s Own Rifles.