Rangers roll out in Watson Lake

On the eve of its 65th anniversary, the First Canadian Ranger Patrol Group, which began in Dawson City in 1947, is expanding its forces with a detachment in Watson Lake.

The chief of the Liard First Nation can now add Ranger Sergeant to his list of credentials.

On the eve of its 65th anniversary, the First Canadian Ranger Patrol Group, which began in Dawson City in 1947, is expanding its forces with a detachment in Watson Lake.

In September, Sgt. and Chief Liard McMillan, along with Liard First Nation Councillor and now Master Cpl. Jim Wolftail, went for training in Fort Simpson, N.W.T. to become the first rangers ready for service for the new detachment.

“It was excellent, a really rewarding experience,” said McMillan about the training. “There were a lot of nice people that have a lot of knowledge and skill for surviving out in the woods and I really enjoyed the opportunity to get some formal, military training and learn some new skills that I think will be useful to our community.”

The rangers, easily recognized by their iconic red hoodies, are local residents in remote communities that report to the Canadian military. They have long been coined the “eyes and ears” of the Canadian Forces, especially in the Far North.

Marksmanship, firearm techniques and search and rescue skills are matched by discipline and leadership skills in the rangers’ training, said McMillan.

The plan is to have the new detachment set up in the south-Yukon town by the end of the year. Early next month, recruitment and land-based training will take place in and around Watson Lake, said McMillan.

Meetings in the community in August showed that interest in the

organization is high, he added.

About 40 people have already signed up, said Maj. Jeff Allen, commanding officer for the First Canadian Ranger Patrol Group, which stretches across the three territories and northern B.C.

The Watson Lake detachment will bring the group up to 60 patrols and nearly 2,000 rangers. Each patrol usually consists of about 30 rangers and there are already 11 patrols in Yukon, said Allen.

The idea behind the rangers really started during the Second World War, said Whitney Lackenberger, a professor at the University of Waterloo and author of The Canadian Rangers: A Living History, which is expected out in 2013.

There were growing concerns that the Pacific Coast may need to be protected, so the solution was to turn to locals, who hadn’t gone overseas, to defend their homes, said Lackenberger.

As the war continued on, the movement carried up the coast and a group of Pacific Coast Militia Rangers ended up in the Yukon, he said.

At the end of the war, these groups closed down, but in about two years, with the looming threat of the Soviets attacking from the North, the Yukon rangers re-established themselves in an efforts to defend Canada’s North.

“The Yukon has been, for much of the rangers’ history, front and centre,” said Lackenberger. “And this is an incredible, national organization that really is unique in the entire world in allowing residents of remote areas a chance to serve their country and serve their community simultaneously.”

After the first patrol group in Dawson got started in September 1947, the organization blossomed to more than 2,000 rangers across Canada, said Lackenberger. But by the 1970s, with the military’s focus on nuclear warfare, the rangers’ forces depleted exponentially.

Slowly, in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the focus on sovereignty returned, especially in the North, and the rangers boomed to the numbers they are today: 4,200 rangers in 169 patrols across Canada.

Watson Lake will make 170.

McMillan has high hopes for the new detachment.

“I feel that the positives that will come out of this, for the community, will be to boost the overall spirit and morale,” he said. “A lot of people, especially young people, would really enjoy and appreciate the opportunity to get out on the land and learn some different and unique skills, and I think it will create a better sense of teamwork and family amongst the participants. It provides good role models and an extra level of service for the community.”

For example, local rangers would have been a huge help during this summer’s flood that destroyed homes and left people stranded in the Watson Lake area.

Elsewhere in the territory, rangers have broken trail for the Yukon Quest and helped with search and rescue work.

“It’s a terrific responsibility and, normally, what we find is a lot of the rangers themselves are the leaders in the community, said Allen. “Whether or not it’s assisting with search and rescue, whether or not they’re volunteers at the fire department, typically they are those members that are extremely active in the community already.”

In the North, the rangers are predominantly aboriginal. This is not because the organization is exclusive but rather representative of the communities it serves.

The rangers are “deliberately involved in defending their homes,” said Lackenberger. “This is one of the rare organizations in the Yukon that everyone in the territory agrees is a positive thing, a common ground for the people of First Nations and Metis and those of white descent to work together. It’s everyone sharing a common love for the land. The rangers all share this common passion for the land.”

This also means that the rangers, with six decades of experience, ancestral roots in the land and traditional knowledge of the area, act as a bridge between their communities and the military so the North can be protected seamlessly, Lackenberger added.

“Without them, southerners coming up will be helplessly lost,” he said. “Northerners, very patriotic Canadians, recognize how important they are to serving. (They also) make sure the military’s footprint doesn’t crush communities. This is not tokenism, this is not symbolism, there’s real important substance to what they’re doing.”

After establishing its patrol, the Watson Lake detachment will decide what area it will be responsible for. Their reach could stretch as far as 300 kilometres from the community, said Allen, adding that he leaves that decision up to the patrol because they are the ones who know what trails and equipment they have to work with.

All recruits who pass the training will become official rangers and will be issued their red hoodie, rifle and pants. Rangers receive $110 each day they are on patrol and are compensated for use of equipment like ATVs, snowmobiles and boats.

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at