Breaking the ice

Canada’s first army reserve unit north of 60 gets its boots wet

Anthony Davis

An enemy soldier was on the ground dying. A Canadian army reserve medic knelt beside him. “He’s critical,” he told his commander. “He’s got about 10 minutes left.” Capt. John Grebenc of the Loyal Edmonton Regiment ordered him to do what he could for the soldier, part of a rebel band that this company of 70 army reservists had been ordered to kill or capture. The medic went through the motions of administering morphine. “There,” he assured his patient, “your last minutes on Earth are going to be nice and pleasant.”

The supposedly unconscious “Stromian” soldier—the word was concocted by Canadian Forces intelligence officers—couldn’t help but grin. He would not win an Oscar for this bit of acting. The scene, one of many staged over the course of a week in May during a training program near Yellowknife, was more about manoeuvres than method acting.

Some 160 reserve soldiers, most from Alberta’s 41 Canadian Brigade Group, had travelled here to train in the sub-Arctic. With a cost of $600,000, Exercise Sovereign Grizzly had a twofold mission: to practise getting boots on the ground of the Northwest Territories and to win, in a sense, the hearts and minds of northerners in the military’s new quest to help Ottawa assert Canadian sovereignty north of the 60th parallel.

With Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan set to end in 2011, the government has ordered the military to start focusing on taiga and ice instead of desert and mountain when it comes to training. Its 20-year, $30-billion Canada First Defence Strategy, unveiled in 2008, calls for a greater emphasis on domestic defence and especially a military presence in the Arctic. Last year, a new reserve unit, the first one north of 60, was created in Yellowknife. Company C has just 15 members, though plans are to grow it to 100 by 2019. Sovereign Grizzly was a chance for Company C to observe experienced southern reservists in action in the Northwest Territories’ challenging rock-and-bog terrain.

Training was partly held in an abandoned village outside Yellowknife’s Giant Mine gold mine. It looked as if a real war had raged here—and that’s close to the case. In 1992 nine miners who crossed a picket line were killed when a union miner planted an improvised explosive device underground. In 2005, after the mine shut down, residents forsook their homes. Weather, neglect and vandals turned the area into an eerie, glass-strewn ghost town perfect for staging military manoeuvres, and learning unique skills—like how to build defensive barriers from Sno-crete, a mix of snow, gravel and ice that stops heavy machine-gun rounds and even rocket-propelled grenades.

During exercises, the soldiers wore weapons-effect simulators. Receptors on their helmets and upper chest picked up laser pulses fired along with blank rounds from special devices on their weapons. A readout unit beeped to tell a soldier if he’d been shot. It also told him where he was hit and how serious the injury. A long sustained beep was fatal.

For some reservists in Sovereign Grizzly, getting to Yellowknife was half the battle. In -35 C ° weather, a convoy of 24 vehicles drove 1,900 km over sometimes treacherous ice roads carting up supplies, including fragile digital communications equipment. Included in the cargo were 3,587 individual meal packs, 150 kosher meals, 7,500 rounds of ammunition, and numerous vehicles, tents, cots and rifles. “It was a whole new challenge to understand the nuances of working up here,” said Capt. Richard Babich, responsible for setting up 41 digital command posts. “Some of our radio equipment had never operated before in this area.” There were worries the high mineral and metal content of the rocky ground could affect the equipment.

There’s another problem to troubleshoot: how to put a stronger Arctic stamp on Canadian sovereignty without stepping on northerners’ toes. Already there’s unease about a heightened military presence in the North. There is talk the Forces are having trouble attracting reservists because many northerners are suspicious of anything that smacks of government and authority, although Yellowknife’s Mayor Gordon Van Tighem says they’ll have no trouble reaching 100 recruits.

To better attract fresh blood, the Forces’ most important manoeuvre during Sovereign Grizzly was ComRel—or “community relations,” in civilian parlance. Hence Executrek, a day-long military show-and-tell used as a kind of icebreaker for the new C Company. As a platoon of Northlanders—the good guys, in Canadian uniforms—followed a gravel road into a forested area to hunt an enemy leader, traipsing along behind them was a band of 15 Yellowknife politicians and business leaders. They were given the full-barrel treatment: shown the army’s new transport trucks, its command-and-control set-up, even getting a shooting lesson. Another company of soldiers refurbished a boardwalk in a Yellowknife park. The new boardwalk, saving city coffers $100,000, will serve locals for 30 years, says Van Tighem.

Still, there are concerns. “There is a sense that it seems funny to be having a conversation about this vast territory and its vital importance to Canada, without really having any conversation about how its communities are doing, what their future is, and how they can be anchors in assisting Canadian presence in the North,” says a staffer with the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM). The Northern Forum, a subcommittee of municipal leaders from across Canada working under the FCM, plans to deliver a white paper outlining its concerns to Stephen Harper next month. The North, the FCM says, has often felt like Canada’s ATM machine, with the South withdrawing resource wealth while neglecting its social ills, which include the scarcity of clean drinking water. Van Tighem, who initiated the white paper, says the military made all the right moves during Sovereign Grizzly. But if the government really wants to strengthen northern sovereignty it should focus more on the people who actually live, work and play there. “If [the military] needs a place to land airplanes,” he says, “improve the runway next to a community. If you are going to be treating water in a camp and you’ve got this extra equipment, leave it to the community you are near. Take your short-term investment and put it in a place where it can become a long-term investment.” That, he says, is the best sovereign statement Canada can make.

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