Canadian sovereignty operations

people with snowmobiles

Members of 2nd Battalion, Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry (2 PPCLI) start their snowmobiles for an expedition to the Mount Pelly during Operation NUNALIVUT in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut on March 4, 2018.

The Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) is key to ensuring surveillance and control of Canadian territory. It keeps watch around-the-clock over Canada’s land mass, as well as its air and maritime approaches. The CAF also monitors for threats from inside and outside the country’s borders. This is achieved through regular operations and patrols. The CAF is also a key partner in the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD).

Canada is an Arctic nation and the North is central to its history and national identity. More than 40% of its land mass is in the Northern territories. These territories take up 25% of the global Arctic land. Canada also has 162,000 kilometres of Arctic coastline.

CAF Operations in the North

The CAF has been an integral part of the North for more than a hundred years. It has a permanent presence—a headquarters, with detachments—in all northern territories. The CAF provides support in the region in a number of ways. The CAF:

  • runs routine operations to show a presence in the North
  • supports other government departments
  • conducts patrols (land, sea and air)
  • monitors and controls Northern airspace using the NORAD network
  • conducts and coordinates air and sea search and rescue (SAR)
  • maintains the signals intelligence receiver at Canadian Forces Station (CFS) Alert, the most Northern place in the world that people live in year around

Supporting Northern Operations

The CAF runs operations each year to maintain and supply critical defence systems and signals units in the North.

Operation NEVUS ensures the High Arctic Data Communications System is kept in good working order. The Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) takes people, equipment and tools to inspect and service a chain of sites across the Arctic. These sites feed important data to the federal government in Ottawa.

The RCAF also flies supplies in to re-stock Canadian Forces Station (CFS) Alert twice a year. This mission is called Operation BOXTOP. The CFS Alert facilities also support Environment Canada. Alert is the most northerly, permanently inhabited location in the world. It is located only 817 kilometres from the geographic North Pole.

Working with partners

Three levels of government (federal, provincial and territorial) have come together to best care for people in the North, and manage its resources. Northern leaders and peoples of the North all have roles in this alliance. The links with Indigenous communities provide a strong bond with the rest of the country.

The CAF works closely with several government groups to carry out its mandate in the North. It also joins with partners to ensure safety and security in the region. Other departments and agencies involved with sovereignty, disaster response, counter-narcotics, smuggling and anti-terrorism operations include:

  • Canadian Coast Guard (CCG)
  • Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP)
  • Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO)
  • Environment and Climate Change Canada
  • Public Safety
  • Parks Canada
  • territorial governments of Yukon, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut

Canadian Army (CA)

The Canadian Army has many assets that are stationed throughout the Arctic. It also has others that can be sent to the North at a moment’s notice.

Four Arctic Response Company Groups (ARCGs) have been formed for sovereignty operations across Canada’s North. They are made up mainly of Canadian Army Reserve Force members and supported by the Regular Force. Four ARCGs are kept at high readiness. Two are for summer deployments and two for the winter.

DND and Natural Resources Canada created the CAF Arctic Training Centre (ATC) together. The ATC is located in Resolute Bay, Nunavut. It is a permanent and strategic place from which the CAF shows a presence across the high Arctic. It serves as a spot to pre-position military equipment and vehicles. It is also a command post for emergency operations and disaster response in support of civilian authorities.

The Loyal Edmonton Regiment, C Company, is based in Yellowknife. It is under the command of the 41 Canadian Brigade Group based in Edmonton, Alberta. It is the first Reserve Force Army company to be positioned as far north as Yellowknife. The company trains to operate in the harsh Arctic environment. It is there to support other CAF formations, units, and federal departments.

The Canadian Rangers are a sub-component of the CAF Reserve Force. They serve as the military’s eyes and ears in sparsely-settled areas. They demonstrate a year-round visible CAF presence in Canada’s Arctic. They conduct sovereignty and surveillance patrols. They collect local data of military significance. They provide local knowledge and expertise to annual operations. They participate in SAR operations and provide assistance to federal, provincial/territorial and municipal authorities. The Canadian Rangers live in more than 200 communities. They speak 26 dialects and languages, many of which are Indigenous. There are approximately 5000 Canadian Rangers. They serve in 179 patrols, each consisting of a minimum of eight Canadian Rangers.

Royal Canadian Navy (RCN)

The RCN plays a key role in exercising Canada’s sovereignty. It does so through regular operations and patrols in Canada’s northern waters. The RCN also assists other government departments in enforcing national and international law.

The RCN sends Halifax-class frigates or Kingston-class maritime coastal defence vessels on fisheries patrols. These are known as FISHPATS. They are run under an agreement between DND and DFO. The ships operate in support of DFO to monitor fishing vessels. DFO officials enforce fishing regulations in Canada’s waters.

Two Marine Security Operations Centres (MSOCs) are located in Halifax, N.S., and Esquimalt, B.C. They maintain a watch over Arctic waters. The MSOCs are staffed by people from five core partners that are involved in maritime security:

  • Canada Border Services Agency
  • Fisheries and Oceans Canada
  • Canadian Coast Guard (CCG)
  • the RCMP
  • Transport Canada

Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF)

The RCAF conducts air patrols to keep watch and defend Canadian and United States airspace. This includes the North. The RCAF also supports SAR and other operations in the North.

440 (Transport) Squadron is the only RCAF flying unit based in the North. It is based in Yellowknife and reports to 8 Wing Trenton in Ontario. The squadron operates four CC-138 Twin Otter aircraft. They fly people and equipment throughout the North. The aircraft perform “off-airport” operations on skis in the winter and on tundra tires in the summer. The RCAF also sends CP-140 Aurora long-range patrol aircraft on regular air patrols to monitor activity in the North.

CFS Alert also reports to the RCAF through 8 Wing in Trenton, Ontario. CFS Alert has a geolocation tool that allows it to find where a person or object is located on the globe. This is used as a tool to support SAR operations. It also supports Environment Canada, Arctic researchers and other operations.

The RCAF maintains Forward Operating Locations (FOLs) for fighter aircraft, in conjunction with NORAD. The FOLs are in place to send NORAD aircraft to remote locations across the Arctic. They have airstrips and buildings for maintenance and storing supplies.


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