Top soldier drops in on Whitehorse

Russia has announced plans to drop paratroopers at the North Pole; Stephen Harper is suiting up for his third-annual Arctic sovereignty tour, and Operation Nanook, the Canadian Forces annual air, land and sea sovereignty ex

Russia has announced plans to drop paratroopers at the North Pole; Stephen Harper is suiting up for his third-annual Arctic sovereignty tour, and Operation Nanook, the Canadian Forces annual air, land and sea sovereignty exercise is well underway.

But General Walt Natynczyk’s Whitehorse visit had nothing to do with northern politics.

“I’m here to see cadets,” said the Canadian chief of defense staff.

A former Air Cadet himself, Natynczyk is embarking on a summer tour of nine cadet camps across Canada.

“This is my sixth cadet camp in three days,” he said.

That morning, just outside Trenton, Ontario, Natynczyk had taken a ride in an Air Cadet glider before zooming up to Whitehorse on a Challenger jet.

Every summer, more than 20,000 cadets pack their kit and travel to cadet camps across Canada.

“From sea to sea to sea,” said Natynczyk.

Formerly a juvenile corrections centre, the Whitehorse Cadet Summer Training Centre brings in approximately 350 cadets every summer.

Approximately 60 per cent of those come from northern communities.

Natynczyk sat down for dinner at the Whitehorse mess hall before inspecting a practise parade of cadets.

It being a practise parade (the real parade would happen Thursday), cadets were dressed down in their everyday camp uniforms.

Natynczyk sported standard-issue Canadian Forces fatigues, his rank visible only through a quartet of maple leaves located on his epaulets.

An intense smile never left Natynczyk’s face.

Here and there, British brown, black and green camouflage stood out against the friendlier green tones of Canadian cadet uniforms.

As part of an exchange program, 12 UK staff cadets were at the Whitehorse camp, primarily as instructors in the Cadet Leader Instructor (Adventure) Course.

Their growly, British command-barking voices stood out strongly against the more polite, Canadian command-barking voices.

After a slew of awards presentations ranging from “Top Shot” to “Sportsmanship Award,” Natynczyk swore in three new reserve members of the Canadian Forces.

In 2007-08, just as Natynczyk assumed his position, Canadian Forces was still falling short of expected targets.

Hoping to boost numbers to 65,537, the forces could only get its numbers as high as 64,403, said an annual report to Parliament.

But with job losses across Canada, military numbers are starting to swell.

“We set a very ambitious target, and this year we actually overachieved on the target,” said Natynczyk.

Natynczyk first enrolled in the army in 1975.

He has served stints in Germany, Bosnia and Croatia. In 2004, he spent a year leading 35,000 US troops in Iraq.

All three of Natynczyk’s children are enrolled in the Canadian Forces – one each in the army, navy and air force.

But it’s not just about getting recruits – it’s also about getting them to stay.

“What we develop is incredible leaders, and industry knows that, so industry comes in and tries to recruit our leadership,” said Natynczyk.

Natynczyk’s predecessor Rick Hillier now works for TD Bank.

“I’ve got to keep them, and their military families happy, so they want to stay in the Canadian Forces for a full career,” said Natynczyk.

“It’s a recruiting challenge; it’s a retention challenge,” he said.

In a week, Whitehorse will host Prime Minister Stephen Harper on his most extensive Arctic sovereignty tour to date.

At the moment, Harper’s sovereignty efforts are largely a public relations campaign.

But increasingly, Natynczyk’s forces are being called upon to bring military presence to the Arctic.

US, Russia, Sweden, Finland and Norway have all expanded their military presence in the North.

Increasingly, Russian submarines, paratroopers and bombers are showing up on the fringes of Canadian borders.

“Any country that is approaching Canadian airspace, Canadian territory, will be met by Canadians,” said Defence Minister Peter MacKay in late July.

Much of the military’s northern presence rests with the Canadian Rangers: part-time reservists clad in red shirts and baseball caps and armed with First World War-era rifles.

There are currently about 4,000 rangers spread across 165 northern communities.

“We have all the more capability to do the missions up here than when I was up here in the ‘80s,” said Natynczyk.

And it’s still five years until northern Canadian shipping passages will be manned by armed Canadian Forces icebreakers.

The key is airlifts.

“You have operations in the North – you need a lot of airlift,” said Natynczyk.

Just before Natynczyk assumed his post, the Canadian military bought four new C-17 Globemaster transport planes.

“I was just telling the mayor and the commissioner that the runway up here in Whitehorse is excellent for bringing in the C-17,” said Natynczyk.

“We can put brand-new Chinook helicopters in the back of that C-17 and do all sorts of operations,” he said.

Contact Tristin Hopper at