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Review

The Canadian Rangers: A Living History

By P. Whitney Lackenbauer

March 6, 2014

Review By James Wood

Today the Canadian Rangers are noted as a unique unit within the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF), created to establish a military presence in remote coastal and northern regions by utilizing mainly Aboriginal volunteers. Lackenbauer’s extensive research shows how and why the Canadian Rangers developed into a national program with an intensely regional emphasis. Of particular interest to BC readers is his coverage of the Pacific Coast Militia Rangers, a predecessor of the current Ranger program. The original BC Ranger organization was created in 1942 to meet the possible threat of a Japanese coastal invasion following the attack on Pearl Harbor. The concept of a home defence force manned by “hardy frontiersmen” was a popular one, drawing 15,000 volunteers by August 1943. The idea was to draw in men who knew the rugged coastline and thickly forested interior, and who “fit the pervasive myth that Canadians fighting in defence of their homes made the best soldiers” (35). Disbanded in 1945 after the Japanese surrender, Cold War tensions led to the force being resurrected and expanded two years later into the Canadian Ranger program.

With a strong focus on both Western and Northern Commands, Lackenbauer outlines the growth of the Canadian Rangers as a cost-effective means of maintaining Canadian sovereignty in isolated areas.  Rather than having to station regular troops throughout the Canadian north, the military looked to the Rangers as its “eyes and ears.” Their duties consist of reporting unusual activities, supporting CAF operations, including survival training, surveillance and sovereignty patrols, search and rescue, and disaster relief. Since its inception, many recruits have been drawn from indigenous and non-indigenous communities of loggers, fishermen, or trappers who are familiar with the local terrain. These Rangers are provided with a .303 Lee-Enfield rifle, an annual allotment of 200 rounds of ammunition, crested ball-cap, armband, t-shirt, and sweatshirt. Lackenbauer provides detailed historical context explaining the Rangers’ expansion throughout the 1950s followed by a sharp decline in the 1960s, largely due to a lack of clear governmental focus. The 1990s saw a revival of the organization across Canada, including establishment of a significant “Junior Rangers” program. By the early 2000s, the Rangers continued to flourish in remote and coastal areas across Canada with considerable media attention towards Arctic sovereignty patrols.

As an informative discussion of military and socio-political benefits alongside the changing context of the organization, The Canadian Rangers is the most recent addition to the Studies in Canadian Military History Series published by UBC Press in association with the Canadian War Museum. This book forms an important part of a quickly expanding literature on northern sovereignty, climate change, and the Northwest Passage. In The Canadian Rangers, Lackenbauer’s emphatic enthusiasm for the program complements his earlier work with Ken Coates, William Morrison and Greg Poelzer in Arctic Front: Defending Canada in the Far North (Thomas Allen, 2008). Together they won the 2009 Donner prize for their strong critique of Canada’s failure to develop effective northern policies, warning that Canadian sovereignty was at risk in the Arctic. In the final section of The Canadian Rangers, Lackenbauer paints an especially optimistic view of the current program with a chapter entitled “Very Special Forces” and referring to the 4,000 Rangers of today as “citizen-soldiers plus” (23, 385, 476).

In addition to his impressive list of archival and research sources, interviews, national and regional newspapers, Lackenbauer includes a significant “Participant Observer” section based on his experiences during several Ranger exercises. Equally impressive is the list of fellowship and CAF funding he has pulled together to finance his expeditions. Highlights of the book include vivid descriptions of operational exercises carried out in bitter Arctic conditions as well as profiles of the often flamboyant characters who have shaped the force, including BC’s Tommy Taylor. The Canadian Rangers is largely about success, both for the Canadian military and for northern communities. Although the mandate of the Rangers has remained basically unchanged since 1947, today they are comprised of about sixty percent indigenous peoples, particularly the Inuit, with proportions varying in different regions of Canada. Lackenbauer shows how the government of Canada, in conjunction with indigenous peoples, has created a program with strategic, social, political, and economic advantages to be gained by the military, northern communities, the government, and citizens of Canada alike.

Lackenbauer emphasizes that cultural awareness and accommodation have replaced former assimilationist policies both in government and the Canadian Armed Forces. Rangers are expected to draw upon their indigenous knowledge while out on patrol, often consulting with their elders in forming decisions. Regular Force or Reservist Ranger instructors are careful to build solid relationships by following cultural norms of the local community rather than traditional military procedures and discipline (214). Diversity is seen as a way to increase the operational effectiveness of the Ranger program, which he describes as “the most cost-efficient program in the Canadian Forces” (284).  It has survived many challenges over the years, including questions over the advisability of a military program that lacks traditional structure, hierarchies, or combat duties. Lackenbauer asserts that by supporting sovereignty, military operations, and nation building, the Rangers represent an effective bridge between Canada’s civilian and military realms in remote regions of the country.

The Canadian Rangers: A Living History
P. Whitney Lackenbauer
Vancouver: UBC Press, 2013. 658 pp. $34.95 paper