'Significant number' of Canadian Ranger deaths flagged by military chaplain

A significant number of Canadian Rangers and Junior Rangers have died in recent years, putting a strain in those tasked with being Canada's "eyes and ears" in the Arctic, according to documents obtained by CBC News.

Documents raise concern about stresses on Rangers and soldiers in the North

Members of the Canadian Rangers pose with the prime minister at a camp near the Arctic community of Gjoa Haven, Nunavut, during Stephen Harper's 2014 northern tour. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

A "significant number" of Canadian Rangers in the Arctic have died in recent years, a trend that is causing concern about the strains on those tasked with being Canada's "eyes and ears" in the North, according to documents obtained by CBC News.

The concern about the Canadian Rangers and Junior Rangers was raised by the military chaplain responsible for the North and is found in a report prepared for the chief of defence staff and chief of military personnel by the chaplain general's office.

The March 2014 report obtained through the Access to Information Act contains an overview of issues deemed significant by military chaplains across the Canadian Forces.

A Ranger scout looks for an easier route through rough sea ice between Canadian Forces Station Alert and the Eureka Weather Station. (Bob Weber/Canadian Press)

In the report, the chaplain for Joint Task Force North notes there has been "a significant number of deaths of Rangers and Junior Rangers over the past three years. These deaths have affected both the Ranger community and 1 CRPG (Canadian Ranger Patrol Group)."

The report does not indicate how many Rangers and Junior Rangers have died, or the circumstances of their deaths.

The chaplain also identified problems with military personnel at 1 Canadian Ranger Patrol Group.

"Due to accumulation of stress and other health issues, nine of 19 instructors of 1 CRPG are unable to go on patrol," the chaplain writes, noting this means that other instructors are left to pick up the slack, which could lead to "potential burnout and frustration."

The report goes on to note that it has been identified that the "pyscho-screening process for isolated posting[s] like JTF-N, needs to be enhanced to meet the needs of this posting."

Eyes and ears of Canada's North

The Rangers are part of the Canadian Armed Forces Reserve, but are not considered reservists. Generally they are part-time volunteers from the remote community where they serve. Often called the "eyes and ears of Canada's North" they are responsible for reporting unusual activities, collecting data to support military operations and conducting surveillance when required.

There are approximately 5,000 current Rangers. The 1 Canadian Ranger Patrol Group is the largest Ranger group. It covers Nunavut, Yukon, Northwest Territories and the community of Atlin, B.C., which together accounts for about 40 per cent of Canada's land mass.

During his annual trips to the North, Prime Minister Stephen Harper generally observes and sometimes even participates in exercises with the Rangers. During a trip to the North in 2013, Harper said in a statement the Rangers "serve a critical role in safeguarding Canadian sovereignty."

Prime Minister Stephen Harper shoots a rifle while taking part in a demonstration by the Canadian Rangers at a camp near the Arctic community of Gjoa Haven, Nunavut, in August 2013. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Many of Canada's Rangers are aboriginal. They do not have the same access to services, including medical services, as regular forces members and reservists — unless they are injured on active duty, in which case they would have access to benefits provided by the Canadian Forces.

The Rangers are critical to Arctic security and are an "invaluable source of information for being able to allow southern military forces to actually be deployed northward," according to Rob Huebert, senior research fellow at the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary.

"When the Canadian Forces, southern forces, resumed activities in the Canadian North in 2002, without the type of knowledge that they [the Rangers] are able to provide us with, there would have been fatalities," Huebert said.

Military silent on deaths

CBC News requested an interview with the commanding officer of the 1 Canadian Ranger Patrol Group, but after weeks of deliberation that request was denied.

A Canadian Ranger navigates rough ice in Nunavut on April 7, 2014. An alarm has been raised about the number of Rangers who have died in recent years. (Master Seaman Peter Reed/CFB Shearwater, N.S.)

The military also blocked CBC from speaking to historian Whitney Lackenbauer, who has written a book on the Rangers. Lackenbauer is also the honorary lieutenant colonel of 1 Canadian Ranger Patrol Group. In an email, the military said Lackenbauer was "not familiar with the whole story."

CBC also requested information from the military regarding deaths of Canadian Rangers, but after more than a week the military still had not sent a response.

In a statement, Associate Minister of National Defence Julian Fantino said "our government is extremely proud of the Canadian Rangers, and understands how critically important they are to our Arctic sovereignty."

He said the government has increased the number of Rangers, adding that as interest and activity in the North has increased "we have come to rely on them even more to provide key insight as we monitor the region and respond to any threats."