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Operation Nanook: Flexing Canadian Muscle in the Arctic

The Inuit are key to Arctic strategy, especially as melting ice highlights sovereignty issues at the top of the world.
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Climate change is causing consternation in aboriginal and environmental circles alike. But for some it represents opportunity, and the Arctic is becoming a proving ground for these issues as the five nations that claim boundaries within the Arctic Circle—Canada, the U.S., Russia, Denmark (Greenland) and Norway—jockey for position economically and politically.

To this end Canada is more dependent than ever before on partnership with the Inuit, and they play a major role in the annual military exercises, Operation Nanook, that Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been conducting since first taking office in 2006.

Since winning a majority in the May 2 election, Harper has begun stepping up Arctic involvement, something he had to leave on the back burner while he presided over a minority government, The Wall Street Journal said. Ice-breaker naval patrols, a deepwater Arctic naval port and increased warfare training were just some of the investments he plans in the region, the Journal reported.

Operation Nanook 2011 was Canada’s largest military exercise ever, Defense Minister Peter MacKay told reporters when he revealed the scale of the operation—1,100 military personnel deployed—to reporters while on a tour of Afghanistan in July.

"All of this is very much about enlarging the footprint and the permanent and seasonal presence we have in the North," MacKay said, according to The Wall Street Journal. "It is something that we as a government intend to keep investing in."

Operation Nanook 2011 began on August 5. Highlights included Governor General David Johnston’s first-ever visit to the north. The $18 million exercise brought pride to Resolute Bay and to Nunavut, the Nunatsiaq News reported.

It also got the word out to the rest of Canada about what life is like in the north—much different in culture, diet and everything else than the south.

“We look at this wonderful learning experience which is the North as you take your traditions and your culture from the past and apply it to a new and changing world, choosing the best from both, and thereby giving important lessons in sustainable development, in family, in culture and history and art that all of Canada and all of the world can learn from,” Johnston said.

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Although Johnston did not down any seal heart, he did sample other Inuit dishes at a feast in his honor. He also received a lesson of sorts in what foods sustain northern folks when Iqaluit mayor Madeleine Redfern told him that seal, polar bear and whale are all Inuit staples, a fact that is all but overlooked by those who would condemn such hunts out of concerns about climate change or animal rights.

“We do have a very different hundred-mile diet than in the south,” she said.

“Nunavummiut have much to teach us about these and many other important aspects of our lives and communities. Your devotion to family life, your civic-mindedness and your innovative responses to living in the North are an inspiration, and I look forward to speaking with you about your experiences in the days, months and years to come,” Johnston said in a speech at the feast in his honor.

The Governor General’s schedule, packed with community events as it was, paved the way for Harper’s visit, which was supposed to start on August 22 but was postponed for a day after the crash of First Air Flight 6560 on the 20th.

Harper’s visit started in Resolute Bay, but it was a subdued celebration, as his first act was to address rescuers and townspeople dealing with the crash, which killed 12 people and left three surviving passengers. He paid tribute to the victims, bringing a condolence wreath to a community meeting and speaking to the grief-stricken residents, many of whom knew at least one person on the ill-fated flight. Harper also visited Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, as well as Whitehorse and Haines Junction in the Yukon.

Operation Nanook was suspended early due to the tragedy. The exercises were to have included a simulated plane crash a day later. Both Harper and Johnston were to have received tours of Canada’s Polar Continental Shelf Program, but its lead scientist, Martin Bergmann, was killed in the crash.

In a way the sad events brought Operation Nanook to the attention of non-Arctic nations, as some of the 1,100 personnel on hand were instrumental in rescuing the three crash survivors. Their ability to respond quickly and save lives prompted calls for better response teams in the north.

However, Harper said unequivocally that ensuring such quick response routinely was not feasible in such remote communities.