An up-close look at protecting our North
A political science researcher joins a Canadian Forces training exercise for some first-hand experience with defending Canada's Arctic sovereignty.
Ryan Dean will never forget what it means to move “Arctic slow.” It was a matter of basic survival last month when he spent four frigid days with the Canadian Armed Forces at a high Arctic training base in Resolute Bay, Nunavut, and you’d better believe it was a lesson the political science PhD candidate took dead seriously.
“We were warned on our first night: ‘The weather here will kill you.’ And it will,” says Dean. “Minus 62 degrees hits you hard. It knocks the wind right out of you.”
To take things arctic slow meant being “very deliberate,” he explains. “You want to work just hard enough to stay warm, but not hard enough to break a sweat, because if your sweat freezes, you’re in big trouble. With everything you do up there, you need to have a plan.”
Dean was taking part in NOREX 18, an annual northern training exercise designed to help Canadian soldiers experience the Arctic and develop their survival and winter warfare skills. The operation, which included Regular Force, Reservists and Canadian Rangers, saw the soldiers testing their rescue response to a simulated military plane crash in the extreme Arctic environment. Dean was invited as an embedded observer on the training mission, selected because of his research focus at the University of Calgary on Canadian Arctic policy.
Above: Ryan Dean, a PhD candidate at the University of Calgary's Department of Political Science, was invited by the Canadian Armed Forces as an embedded observer on the NOREX 18 training mission in Resolute Bay, Nunavut. (Photo by Sub-Lt. Andrew McLaughlin, Public Affairs Officer, 4th Canadian Division)
The exercise took place at the Canadian Armed Forces Arctic Training Centre, which was established in 2013. Inviting an academic to take part in the proceedings was an extremely rare move on the part of the Canadian Armed Forces, says Dean’s supervisor, political science associate professor Robert Huebert.
“This base is critical for Canadian security, but because it’s so far away and isolated from the population, the Canadian public doesn’t fully understand the work being done up there,” explains Huebert. “Embedding somebody like Ryan, who share his observations, provides a means of informing the Canadian public about the work on this very important base.”
The Canadian Armed Forces also seeks collaboration with academics in order to foster evidence-based policy-making and develop future thought leaders, says Andrew McLaughlin, public affairs officer for NOREX. “Ryan’s expertise on Canadian Arctic sovereignty and security, and his experience investigating Arctic issues through his public policy work as a researcher are a great fit for an embedded observer on such an important exercise,” says McLaughlin.
“In essence, he was offered a ground-up view of military operations and planning. He was afforded an opportunity to gain unique and intimate insights into the experiences of soldiers on the ground, in a scenario that tested their response to a simulated military air crash in an extreme environment.”
For Dean, the NOREX invite was a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” that has brought him a deeper understanding of Canada’s Arctic security duties.
“It’s one thing to read about how things operate up there,” he says. “I even did the winter warfare course in Ontario, which was intense. But to go from that to an actual Arctic exercise in Resolute, there’s no comparison.”
To be sure, at the start of the exercise some of the soldiers suffered from frostbite and there was at least one case of hypothermia. “But we had the Canadian Rangers as our guides,” says Dean, “and very quickly they took us from survival mode to being quite comfortable in the Arctic, teaching us tips about how to set up our tents and our stoves, how to start a frozen snowmobile.”
“By the second day we were all joking that we were going to have to be evacuated due to heat exhaustion. It was damn near 40 C inside the tent despite the fact that it was nearly -60 C that night. Those are the extremes and the trick is to stay in the middle of those extremes. That’s where being deliberate becomes so crucial.”
That was seldom easy though, Dean recalls, especially when zooming across the icy landscape on a snowmobile. “Your feet freeze because your body is not moving. But at the same time, you’re travelling fast through that freezing cold air — so fast that the windchill increases dramatically. You’re wearing that big white Stormtrooper helmet and your breath frosts up your goggles so you feel half blind. It gets very claustrophobic!”
Even so, Dean will forever be grateful and in awe of his time in the Canadian Arctic.
“You’re standing out there on the Northwest Passage when it’s minus 60-some degrees and you’re thinking, ‘This could potentially become one of the most strategic waterways in the world someday. It’s an incredible feeling.”