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From the archives

Paper Rout

Postmedia in the gutter

Past Trauma

Richard Wagamese and an Indigenous literary resurgence

Family Pride

Profiles in gay life

They Stand on Guard

Canada’s mostly Indigenous icons of Arctic sovereignty

John Baglow

The Canadian Rangers: A Living History

P. Whitney Lackenbauer

University of British Columbia Press

657 pages, hardcover

ISBN: 9780774824521

The Canadian Rangers were in the news not so long ago, during Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s annual summer pilgrimage to the Arctic to reassert Canada’s territorial claims as global warming widens the Northwest Passage. “It was an honour to patrol with the Rangers,” he said, “as they work to defend our territory from potential threats and emergencies and keep our North strong, secure and free.”

That one statement summarizes the enigma that is the Canadian Rangers. Precisely how do they do that? And what are the threats and emergencies they face? Military historian P. Whitney Lackenbauer, tracing the history of the Rangers, indicates that this has been a source of debate almost since their inception.

Many of us think of the Far North as the Rangers’ bailiwick. But Lackenbauer rightly reminds us that the Rangers also operate in the northern reaches of most of the provinces, south as well as north of 60, and along all three of Canada’s coastlines. They were modelled on the Pacific Coast Militia Rangers, mobilized in British Columbia in 1942 to defend against possible Japanese invasion. The PCMR were a public-calming presence, watching the coast and sounding the alarm if needed—hence their motto “Vigilans,” now that of their successors. In case of attack, they were also to defend their own communities. But to perform the latter task legally, they were required to be part of the military.

These were not regular reservists, but one step removed, both in terms of their physical location (remote communities) and of their relation to the regular forces. Their first organizer, Lieutenant-Colonel “Tommy” Taylor, noted, “Only experienced men accustomed to rugged, timbered country could adequately undertake much of the work required if the [Japanese] gained a foothold.” Taylor valued their individualism, which did not fit them for the “life of an ordinary soldier where unified action is imperative.” Indeed, after successfully resisting conscription, B.C. First Nations men joined the Rangers in droves. The force gradually extended into the Yukon, up to Dawson City.

The war ended, and the PCMR were stood down. But then came the Gouzenko revelations, and also a northern incursion of U.S. military engaged on various work projects, both of which raised serious Canadian sovereignty concerns. Prime Minister W.L.M. King observed that the Americans saw Canadians as “a lot of Eskimos.” The time was ripe to show the flag.

On May 23, 1947, the Canadian Rangers were born, with a recruiting limit of 5,000 men (women were permitted to join much later). Like their predecessors, the Rangers would be community based, reporting signs of possible enemy activity; in the North they patrolled mines, oil fields and landing strips. Members were issued armbands, surplus Lee-Enfield rifles, a yearly allotment of ammunition and minimal training. Hudson’s Bay Company factors and Department of Transport managers in remote areas were appointed platoon commanders.

The project got off to a shaky start. By September 1948, there were just 19 companies—composed of 44 officers and 57 men of other ranks. The collapse of the fur trade, however, which imposed enormous privations upon the Inuit, made the free rifles and ammunition attractive for hunting. Recruiting picked up and, by the end of 1952, 1,513 Rangers had enrolled.

As Lackenbauer wittily observes, “Canadian officials anticipated and planned for the kind of war that fit their budget.” In part, this was to let the Americans know that Canada was doing its bit—to keep them from doing it for us. The Rangers filled the bill, and indeed their low cost was probably responsible for their continued existence through years of austerity and military reorganization.

They won over many of the skeptics, including Major-General Chris Vokes of central command. In 1955, Rangers in Yellowknife took part in an exercise against the fabled Van Doos—and triumphed over the “enemy” with landskills and sheer inventiveness, in –52°F temperatures. An admiring Vokes called this the “greatest upset the Cdn Army has ever had in war or peace.”

But the army was modernizing, and the Rangers’ usefulness was once again questioned. From the late 1950s into the ’60s, the organization declined. While its paper strength had risen to 2,690, it was a different story on the ground. Many Ranger companies had withered away, or lost all contact with military command. Even the much-vaunted landskills of the northern Rangers were disappearing as sedentarization and “welfare colonialism” demoralized the Inuit. In 1970, it was recommended that the Rangers be disbanded.

Fortuitously, however, the U.S. tanker Manhattan had barged through the Northwest Passage the previous year, once again setting off sovereignty alarms. The Rangers were spared. By 1982 they were receiving basic military training. When the U.S. icebreaker Polar Sea traversed the Northwest Passage in 1985, their future was assured.

By 1986, the northern Rangers were 87 percent Inuit and 12 percent First Nations, well respected and many of them prominent actors in their communities.

Indigenous people had replaced the nearest available whites as Ranger leaders. Ranger training offered an opportunity for older Rangers to pass on traditional skills and knowledge to the new generation.

Indeed, Rangers across Canada were taking on a social role, initiating community-building projects, including the highly successful Junior Canadian Rangers program. In Quebec, the Rangers’ loyalty to Canada was seen as a counter to Quebec separatism. The political incentives for maintaining the Rangers were clear. By 1995 a Rangers Enhancement Program was begun, with a five-year budget of $5.1 million. Rangers received better equipment— GPS and radios—and were issued “uniforms”: the now-familiar red hoodies, toques and t-shirts.

By 1999, the Rangers were 3,446 strong, in 140 patrols. Search-and-rescue work, which they had carried out almost from the beginning, was formally added to their “task list” in 2002. The present Conservative government expanded and modernized them still further—for the Rangers had become, in Lackenbauer’s words, “icons of Canadian sovereignty.”

Described by Sergeant Simeonie Nalukturuk in Inukjuak as “the eyeglasses, hearing aids, and walking sticks for the [Canadian Forces] in the North,” the Rangers now draw down a budget of $38 million annually. And this year, the 5,000th member of the Rangers was signed up, reaching at long last the maximum complement set in 1947.

This was perhaps the most successful experiment in our military history: letting the Rangers be Rangers, doing what they do best, finding their own ways of carrying out their mission, yet maintaining a relationship with the Canadian state bearing no hallmarks of co-optation or assimilation. If this was largely due to the historical constraints of a budget too small to permit rigid command-andcontrol— which would have quickly failed had it been attempted—no matter: it worked.

Lackenbauer’s account is not an easy read. A prodigious amount of detail swamps the narrative, and his writing is far from graceful. And somehow I suspect there is much more to be said—by members of the communities in which the Rangers serve, or by the Rangers themselves. Yet one of the book’s strengths is that it is informed throughout by a respectful, non-patronizing deference to the people he writes about.

Whether the Rangers offer, as Lackenbauer suggests, as much symbolism as substance, they have become a permanent feature of the Canadian imaginary, while they themselves continue to support and build capacity in their communities, on their own terms. It has been a voluntary, productive engagement in a country where relations between the state and indigenous populations remain bitterly contested. Let us hope that the present government’s investment, driven to some degree at least by wider ideological considerations, does not upset this delicate and hard-won arrangement.

John Baglow reads and writes in Ottawa.