Rangers on Patrol

15 July 2009

Edmonton Centre MP and Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of National Defence Laurie Hawn became a Canadian ranger for a short time as he joined one leg of Exercise Western Spirit. The exercise took a team of Rangers from Victoria to Kitimat by ­warship and then to Churchill, Manitoba by snowmobile. Never having driven a snowmobile before, Laurie came away with an appreciation of the resourcefulness and dedication of this group of unsung Canadian heroes.

Laurie Hawn can be seen (centre) in this photo at the Alberta/Saskatchewan border.

Hey, get this [darn] thing off me!” It’s February 16th, cold enough to concern a brass monkey, and I’m lying underneath several ­hundred pounds of Arctic Cat in Fort Chipewyan, Alberta. “I’m Air Force – I shouldn’t be doing this!” As I get put back on my skids by a couple of ­members of the 4th Canadian Ranger Patrol Group (4 CRPG) who politely reassure me that everyone does this, I wonder how the next 179 kilometres will go after embarrassing myself less than a kilometer from the start.

Back in November, in Winnipeg, I sat in on a briefing by 4 CRPG Commanding Officer, Major Tim Byers, about Exercise Western Spirit. This ambitious venture would be a combined Naval and snow­mobile exercise from January 26th until March 3rd and take 30 snowmobiles from the coast of British Columbia all the way to the Hudson’s Bay. Seemed like a good thing to join for a day (when will I learn?).

After getting kitted out at the Edmonton Garrison with enough gear to make the Michelin Man look like Twiggy, my MP-sitter Major Mark Godefroy showed up from Land Force Western Area HQ. He flew with me to Fort Chipewyan on Mikisew Air to join the trek. The travel folks in Ottawa suggested I should fly to Fort Simpson and rent a car for the drive to Fort Chip. I told them that I could do that – just as soon as they built the road.

At Fort Chip, we joined 30-plus CRPG members at their “hotel,” which was the gymnasium of the local high school.
We met a very diverse group of Canadians – Mayors and Reeves, Aboriginal Chiefs, police officers, park wardens, hunters and even a poet.

The group included a couple of Junior Rangers (aged 12-18). After a hearty supper served up by the friendly Fort Chippers, we bedded down on the most comfy tumbling mats we could find.

Waking at oh-dark-thirty (at Fort Chip in February, that’s most of the time) we got checked out on our machines – by now, somewhat used Arctic Cats.

It didn’t seem too tough until I came to the first snowbank turn I had to make (hence, the opening line). After that inauspicious start, the next 179 kilometres were a blast as we covered the distance across Lake Athabasca to Uranium City in about five hours at speeds up to 65 kmph, including some brief moments of air time.

I learned where my kidneys were and every muscle in my shoulders, neck and arms. The stops for hot tea and snacks were very welcome.

Along the way, I learned a lot about the Canadian Rangers, including that they can make snowmobile A-arms out of cut-up bed frames. They are a resourceful and adaptive bunch.

There are approximately 4,200 Rangers in 163 patrols across Canada. Contrary to popular conception, about two-thirds of ranger patrols are south-of-60 and less than half are Aboriginal. Ranger patrols are in all provinces and territories except for Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and PEI.

The Junior Ranger programme is also growing in communities without more ­traditional Cadet organizations.

The motto of the Canadian Rangers is “Vigilans” (the Watchers), and that is what they do. They are a branch of the CF Reserves and are Canada’s eyes and ears in the north.

The Rangers provide a very valuable service to their communities in times of disaster such as providing relief after the avalanche in northern Quebec (Kangiqsualujjuaq), responding to aircraft crashes in the far north, local ground search and rescue and participating as observers/ guides on Canada’s west coast countering illegal immigration.

Ranger efforts account for approximately 65 Canadian lives saved every year. Not bad, for a bunch of men and women “armed” with 303 Enfields, survival skills, local knowledge and western spirit.

The Canadian Rangers will be expanded to approximately 5,000 members and be re-equipped. They will continue to play an important role in their communities and Canada’s plans to protect our sovereignty and security in the north.

After a night in a real bed in Uranium City, Major Godefroy and I boarded our four-place charter from Mikisew Air for the flight back to Edmonton. We also came back with a profound respect for what a small group of unsung Canadians can do with minimal support from the taxpayer.

Exercise Western Spirit started on HMCS Calgary, travelling 700 km from ­Victoria up the coast to Kitimat. From there, the Rangers covered 3,196.3 km over some of the toughest terrain and harshest weather the world has to offer. After 34 gruelling days, the Rangers arrived in Churchill, Manitoba at the appointed hour on the appointed day.

Despite short-term damage to ­kidneys and skeletal structure, I’d join them again in a heartbeat – for a day or two.

Laurie Hawn, MP Edmonton Centre & Parliamentary Secretary to Defence Minister MacKay
© FrontLine Defence Magazine 2009