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Defence minister looks at Northern border
Harjit Sajjan comes to Yellowknife for fact finding mission; discussions range from Canadian Rangers to search and rescue, Northern sovereignty

John McFadden
Northern News Services
Friday, May 27, 2016

Canada's minister of Defence says soldiers stationed in the North and Northerers in general will play an important role in shaping the country's defence policies moving forward.

NNSL photo/graphic

Canada's Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan visited Joint Task Force North in Yellowknife on Wednesday. The minister met with Northern researchers, bureaucrats and former politicians as part of a cross-country tour to review and seek input on Canada's defence policy. - John McFadden/NNSL photo

Harjit Sajjan was at Joint Task Force North headquarters in Yellowknife on Tuesday for a round table discussion with researchers, former politicians and bureaucrats as they reviewed and gave input on defence policy.

He has been holding similar discussions across Canada. It was Sajjan's first visit to the city although he said he had been in Inuvik previously when his wife, who is a doctor, was working there.

Sajjan, a retired lieutenant-colonel in the Canadian Armed Forces, said he wanted to come to the North to speak with experts here to gain first hand knowledge and information about how the military, including the Canadian Rangers, operates in the North.

"One thing I learned is that when we talk about the expansion of the's not just in terms of numbers," Sajjan said. "It's making sure we have the quality mechanisms in place to be able to support the 5,000 we have right now. One takeaway I got consistently is that it's the Ranger instructors we need to expand on - that we make sure we have the right number of instructors to be able to support all of the different patrols in all the communities that we have. That's critical."

The Rangers, comprised mostly of aboriginal people, are a component of the military that was founded in 1947. Their primary role is to conduct surveillance patrols and guide soldiers in the remote North.

Sajjan said it is crucial that Canada exert its sovereignty in the North particularly from a security perspective. That is why exercises like Operation Nunalivut in April, which involved soldiers from JTFN and the Canadian Rangers in the high Arctic, are critical, he said.

"It's pretty challenging to operate up here. We have to make sure that we have the right surveillance out there and be able to demonstrate that we, as a nation, have the ability to monitor what's up here," Sajjan said. "As more ships come through the North through the summer months, cruise ships potentially, we need to make sure we have the right search and rescue capabilities and how do we integrate that with the Coast Guard - how do we utilize the Rangers and what type of equipment is needed as well."

Sajjan said he is aware that a luxury cruise liner with about 1,000 passengers is slated to travel from Alaska through the Northwest Passage next month.

Sajjan said isolation and the high cost of living are ongoing issues for soldiers posted to Joint Task Force North not just in Yellowknife but across the Northern territories. He added that despite those issues the soldiers he has talked to seem to really enjoy their posting to the North.

"I talked to one person who asked for an extension. She's in her fourth year now," he said.

Sajjan said his experience has been that soldiers are willing to put up with some of the hardships in order to see a part of the country they otherwise might not get to see.

Among the people meeting with the minister was former Yellowknife mayor Gord van Tighem who is also an honorary colonel with Royal Canadian Air Force's 440 Transport Squadron, based in Yellowknife.

Van Tighem said he was able to contribute to the dialogue as a longtime Northern mayor who sat on several committees and councils dealing specifically with Northern issues.

He added that he and the minister are on the same page when it comes to sovereignty.

"If I go back to the mid 1990s - one of the things that we've always discussed is Northern sovereignty - what claim does Canada have on its North?" Van Tighem asked rhetorically. "The reality in most of our eyes is that the North is the future of Canada. But there are others in the world who say you don't use it so its not yours. You have to maintain a presence in the North."

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