In the Inuit folk tradition, a hero named Kiviuq has always reigned supreme. A wily character that is equipped with supernatural powers, and who routinely comes into conflict with evil beings – human, animal, and supernatural. An Inuit fusion of Hercules, cosmic jester, and amorphous Cnidarian. Now however, Inuit heroes are no longer solely limited to legend and myth. After Superman turned his cape-draped back to us and fled south, the rest of the Canadian populace can finally rally around this guardian of all things Canuck. Our very own practical-minded, can-do attitude bearing heroes.
In the far North of Canada’s Arctic, in the midst of a political tug-of-wars and scabrous demarcation politics, a modern day hero has emerged. Nestled among the frozen junction where United States, Russia, and Canada butt heads, a legion of merry men set about daily instilling the wonder and virtue of legends past.
Canadian Arctic Rangers.
Operating from their ‘Secret Citadel’, the Canadian Department of National Defense has embedded a force of Rangers; adorned in red fatigues and bulky winter-gear – strikingly juxtaposed with the near white conditions of their surroundings (What superhero doesn’t rock brash couture?).
According to a recent Canadian Defense media release, the Rangers are “part-time reservists who provide a military presence in remote, isolated and coastal communities of Canada.” (This yeastless description is perhaps a bit of resentment over the superlatives that have been bestowed on the Rangers – versus the expletives dedicated to the Government).
Established in 1947, Canadian Rangers are responsible for protecting Canada’s sovereignty by reporting unusual activities or sightings, collecting local data of significance to the Canadian Forces, and conducting surveillance or sovereignty patrols as required.
In addition to stemming the impending arrival of foreign interests in Canadian territory, these Rangers are also aiding in the long term analysis and documentation of the effects of climate change. Their watchful gaze and ever-present status in the region affords them a perspective very few researchers and scientist are privy to.
The Canadian Arctic, an old hunk of Precambrian earth, ice carpeted and spotted with Inuit settlements dating back to their initial Eastward expanse 1,000 years ago.
The outright claim of the Arctic region as a dominion of Canada is ceasing to apply in International maritime law. As the ice recedes, so does Canada’s claim over the region. So rampant was the thought that it was ‘ours’ that in 1992, Joe Clark, then Minister of External Affairs stated:
“Canada’s sovereignty in the Arctic is indivisible. It embraces land, sea, and ice. It extends without interruption to the sea-ward facing coasts of the Arctic islands. These islands are joined and not divided by the waters between them. They are bridged for most of the year by ice. From time immemorial Canada’s Inuit people have used and occupied the ice as they have used and occupied the land.
So why the urgency to place military presence and human settlements where simple mapping would have sufficed in the past? Why a rush to ‘man’ the polar region? What happened?
Climate Change has proven a formidable foe for Canadian sovereignty over the Arctic. Thawing of ice-locked areas has made the Northwest Passage far more accessible than years previous. American interest in the region is fueled by the on-going affects of climate change. An increase in CO2 emissions are resulting in substantial temperature increases over the Arctic. Although the actual numerical value of what the increases actually are varies…it is a consensus that the greatest impact of climate change will be felt at higher latitudes.
The Inuit already attest to increased snowfall, longer ice-free seasons, new species of birds and fish, an overall warming trend, melting permafrost, retreating glaciers, and intensified sunlight. These environmental shifts spell drastic social and cultural changes to the Inuit whose lifestyle is firmly implanted in their surroundings.
In its wake, climate change is opening up the ice-locked Northwest Passage to US oil tankers. Suddenly, the prospect of the Passage turning into an international shipping route is very real one. The United States is not alone in its salacious gaze over the climactic shift happening in the North…many countries could challenge Canada’s claim over the region. Climate change is the trebuchet that is leading the charge of countries seeking their own routes and claims in the region.
According to Franklyn Griffiths, a peace and conflict studies professor at the University of Toronto, “[The issue of] sovereignty ain’t what it used to be. Climate change doesn’t care about sovereignty.”
However, it is the vulnerability through exposure that government officials seem to fear most. Canadian memories still recall a US supertanker in 1969 that sailed through the Northwest Passage without Ottawa’s permission. Sixteen years later, a US icebreaker made a similar trip…again, with no grants from the Canadian government. More recently, in 1987, pictures showed three US nuclear submarines surfacing in the North Pole.
A Marine Law specialist at the University of Calgary, Rob Huebert states: “If Bush is convinced of the economic benefits, we may not be enjoying the cooperation that existed under [previous administrations]. We’ve always been able to work this out but we have a new set of circumstances, and the current US administration has been disinclined to be cooperative on anything but its own terms.”
The Ranger beacon was finally carted out when this crisis reached its nadir.
A new frontier has emerged in Canada and the Ranger is there to ensure that things go down smoothly. “While hunting and carrying out their daily lives in the Arctic, [the Rangers are], in essence, the first line of defense in the Canadian high Arctic,” Sheila Watt-Cloutier, a Canadian Inuit activist says. In addition to their physical presence in the region, the Rangers, also instill the Inuit perspective in the debate over Canada’s sovereignty. Throughout all of the backroom bickering, political posturing, there stands the Arctic Ranger. The Arctic Rangers represent Inuit interest in addition to satiating Canadian jitters. What often goes unmentioned is that the majority of the elite Rangers are comprised of Inuit. They bring with them unique skills ingrained over thousands of years of living and flourishing in this tough land.
“As nomadic people, my ancestors traveled the length and breadth of the Arctic,” says Watt-Cloutier. “The Canadian government relocated many Inuit from traditional lands to strategic communities in the high Arctic, in an effort to establish permanent settlements and solidify the Canadian claim to sovereignty.” Long forgotten is the term used to refer to these transplanted Inuit – ‘Exiles.’
But what was once considered a tragic chapter in Canadian history has been resurrected as a hallmark for resolution, sustainability, and sovereignty…a movement spearheaded by Arctic Rangers. Of the 1,300 Rangers in the region, 80 per cent are Inuit. In addressing an Inuit Circumpolar Conference held in Ottawa in January 25, 2002, Watt-Cloutier, reminds attendees of the late Mark R. Gordon, an Inuk leader from northern Quebec, [who urged] the federal government to “use the well-documented use and occupancy of the Arctic by Inuit to confirm, assert, and express Canada’s sovereignty over the Northwest Passage.”
“Inuit will hold up the Canadian flag,” was the emphatic refrain echoed by Watt-Cloutier, when attention suddenly shifted to the oft-forgotten Polar region.
During her speech, Watt-Cloutier highlighted how Inuit do support Canada’s assertion of full and complete sovereignty over the Northwest Passage. Not only are the Rangers the first line of defense of our National territory, but they are in this inhospitable environment ensuring the very survival and preservation of the Inuit way of life. Rangers are the regions’ guides and teachers for Canadian Forces, they conduct voluntary sovereignty missions, show the Canadian flag, report unusual events, and as far as ‘A Day in the Life’ checklist for superheroes goes…they also do search and rescue missions.
Like classic heroes of past, these Canadian heroes are ensconced in the classic battle of a physical nature but one that is equally tempered with a foe no-other hero has before encounter…climate change. From this unique confluence of circumstances emerges the crimson-clad Ranger.
Perhaps what this new frontier of territorial wrangling and dispute will do is allow other Canadians an opportunity to understand this complex eco-region and the people who inhabit it. With leaders like Sheila Watt-Cloutier and the on-going work of the Arctic Rangers, Canadians can ensure their sovereignty in the North while beginning to address the cataclysmic threats of climate change, at home and abroad.
To this day, variations of the Kiviuq tale are told throughout the Arctic. A common thread that binds all the stories together, regardless of where they are told is that he has lived a very long life(or has had several lives), and has wandered and journeyed throughout the North. Canadian Arctic Rangers were smelt from this same legend. Therefore, unlike other superheroes forged in this nation, the Rangers will stick around to fight our fight for years to come.