The Legacy of Military Training in the Canadian Arctic

Today the likelihood of Canada being attacked by either land, sea or air seems remote. Our territory and sovereignty are not only protected by our own resources but those of our allies as well. Yet the increasing globalization of our world continues to create pressures that will eventually boil over. With this in mind Clio’s Current has previously discussed the Canadian Arctic. We have focused on assertions of territorial sovereignty (or lack thereof) made by past and present Canadian governments, but we have yet to examine in any depth the possibility of Canada’s north coming under attack. Although such an idea may seem farfetched, it’s important to reflect on a time when the Canadian Arctic was vulnerable and concerns for many were high in our country.

Following the Second World War the Canadian Arctic was used as a training ground for Western forces. Together with American and British counterparts, Canadian troops took part in a series of military exercises that were designed to prepare both men and equipment for cold weather warfare. Each exercise aimed specifically to determine infantry requirements as well as the tactical techniques and coordination methods required for military operations in extremely cold winter conditions. The most well known exercise remains the three-month northern excursion named Operation Musk Ox, which combined Canada-United States military support and reinforced notions that the Canadian Arctic represented the first line of defence against a potential attack on North America. Less well known but no less important to the Canadian military and defence establishment was Sun Dog One, a one-month exercise carried out in an effort to deduce and overcome environmental challenges unique to Arctic military operations.

Canadian Rangers in Nunavut, Canada - The Rangers have long been Canada's force in the North.

Canadian Rangers in Nunavut, Canada - The Rangers have long been Canada's force in the North.

During Sun Dog One, trials of Canadian, American and British cold weather clothing and equipment were conducted and recorded by scientists of Canada’s Defence Research Board (DRB). Scientists from the DRB also conducted experimental trials on participating troops as part of an acclimatization and indoctrination programme that aimed to determine the physical and psychological requirements of cold weather soldiery. Symptomatic of broader Cold War desires to understand and overcome the natural environment, indoctrination training in the Canadian Arctic served to regulate anxieties of inadequacy and perpetuate seemingly false notions of control and power amongst planners, observers and participants. Although training proved effective and educational, what was learned came at a cost. Some troops were deemed physically or temperamentally weak for cold weather operations and were cast aside in favour of those whose physical and mental attributes posed no apparent or potential detriment to the morale and effectives of the other participating troops.

Historians have only recently begun to uncover the depths of Canada’s Cold War scientific activity, but what research has been conducted shows the complex integration between the Canadian national defence establishment and military. Whitney Lackenbauer and Matthew Farish have argued that postwar Western military interest in the Canadian Arctic signalled not only “the systematic consolidation of nature as military entity, but also an extension of the scope and terms of militarization to reflect the cautious longevity of the Cold War.”  Situating the postwar northern military exercise in a broader environmental discourse, Lackenbauer and Farish explore the pervasive legacy of Cold War militarism in Canada in a manner that moves beyond the more traditional diplomatic or social analyses of the period. 

The pervasive legacy of Cold War militarism was not restricted to the environment, however. Military research in northern Canada also had a human impact. Although Canada’s northern climate and geography significantly shaped defence policy in the early postwar years, military preparedness was a direct corollary of defence science. Cold weather human testing was particularly integral, and the connection between military indoctrination and scientific cold weather acclimatization research seems to have been particularly important.

The physical and mental qualities of the cold weather soldier were stipulated in Canada by an Arctic acclimatization research and indoctrination training programme whose mandate was to provide the physical assets required to support a national Cold War security apparatus. Operation Sun Dog One was an extension of infantry training that had taken place at Fort Churchill, Manitoba during the winter of 1948-1949. Located on the west bank of Hudson Bay in Manitoba’s northeast corner, Fort Churchill’s location, terrain and harsh winter weather made it an ideal environmental locale for northern military training and scientific defence research in the early postwar years. Totaling in all 251 men, Sun Dog One was smaller than other military operations but no less important. The tactical goal of the exercise was to facilitate the appreciation of the probable role of armour, field artillery and engineers in support of one infantry company operating in a severe cold weather environment. 

Finnish ski patrol, ca. 1940s. Northern military training was by no means unique to Canada. This photo (   HU 55566)  from the collections of the  Imperial War Museums    is an accurate representation.

Finnish ski patrol, ca. 1940s. Northern military training was by no means unique to Canada. This photo (HU 55566) from the collections of the Imperial War Museums is an accurate representation.

Considering the vast range of the potential cold weather battlefield, acclimatization of personnel to the Arctic environment was a chief scientific concern of Canada’s defence establishment early in the Cold War. While making his remarks to the House on 17 March 1950, Minister of Defence Brooke Claxton stated: “Fighting in the north we know requires specially trained personnel of high morale and top physical condition with first-class equipment and air supremacy. These have been our targets and we are making good progress.” At the time the logistical difficulties of cold weather military preparedness of both men and equipment had extended beyond the institutional capabilities of the army, or so was the belief of Canada’s top military advisers. By order of Lieutenant-General Charles Foulkes, Chief of the General Staff, operation Sun Dog One was carried out by the Canadian army in part to assist the DRB in the execution of its Acclimatization Research Programme. Sun Dog One began on 16 February 1950 and ended nearly one month later on 15 March. The operational concept of the exercise envisaged the pursuit and destruction of an enemy party approximately fifty strong which had been dropped near the Hudson Bay railway at Chesnaye. The lowest temperature recorded during the exercise was -42 C and the mean approximately -29 C. The maximum recorded wind chill was 2300 or approximately -50 C and the mean was 1700 or approximately -30 C. It was in such conditions that DRB scientists conducted cold acclimatization research on participating troops.  

Lead scientist Norman Mackworth and his team conducted experiments to test the rate of heat loss in troops operating in severe cold. In one of the tests, the sensitivity of a group of Aboriginal troops considered “well acclimatized” was compared to that of “unacclimatized” white troops. In another test, troops were placed in an outdoor wind tunnel and stood with one index finger exposed to wind for a period of up to three minutes. This test resulted in frostbite injury to two soldiers, both of who received zero compensation for their injuries and the incident went without further investigation. Despite what seems to have been only nominal concerns for participant safety, a variety of cold weather acclimatization tests continued for the next two years. There was no intent to injure participating troops, but nonetheless the requirements of cold weather soldiery in Canada’s early Cold War did leave a legacy that should not be forgotten.   

It’s important to reflect back on military activity in the Arctic simply because our present northern military efforts might well increase drastically in the years to come. As the polar ice caps melt and access to the resource rich Arctic opens, Canada’s territorial sovereignty will continue to be tested. Perhaps one day soon our technological and personal military strength in the north will return to the top of our national agenda. If and when that occurs, will we have learned from a Cold War legacy that has seemingly faded from our collective memory?