Interview article

Interview: BGen Mike Nixon

Listening to The North
JANE KOKAN  |  Apr 9, 2018

It’s a sunny August afternoon in Rankin Inlet – the last official day of Operation Nanook (an annual military exercise conducted by the Canadian Armed Forces in the Arctic). The aroma of freshly lit barbeque permeates the air, accentuated by laughter and animated chatter. A uniformed Canadian soldier wearing a black beret is surrounded by a large group of local youngsters, one of whom is tugging on his uniform. It looks like he has a fan club. As I move closer, I can hear his gleeful audience peppering him with questions. The soldier is clearly enjoying answering these excited youngsters while community elders, and young parents with babies in strollers, watch on in amusement. 

A group of Canadian Rangers, wearing their bright red ball caps and hoodies, stroll down the dusty street in front of the local community centre and wave to the group. The soldier calls out: “Did you get a hotdog? Are you sure? How about you, did you get a hotdog too?” The name tag on the uniform is Nixon. 

I had flown up to observe Op Nanook, and was trying to ambush Brigadier-General Mike Nixon, Commander of Joint Task Force North (JTFN), with questions about Arctic sovereignty, Northern strategy, and operations. Together with his immediate entourage, he is handing out Canadian flags, frisbees and other memorabilia. However, it’s also clear that he has a personal mission – to make sure that each individual attending Community Day at the end of Op Nanook 2017 receives at least one hotdog and juice carton. 

When asked how this particular mission and previous Northern sovereignty exercises compare to the time he served in Afghanistan, Somalia, Croatia and Bosnia, he smiles. “It’s more of a family feeling here,” says the Commander while eating a hot dog with gusto (he has a plane to catch later today and tells me there will be no food on board). “I have been to Rankin a few times, so it’s like coming home when I come here.”

He recounts an encounter on one of his first deployments up North. A young boy named Tom had been asking questions and suddenly declared: “Mike, you have big ears.” Nixon chuckles recalling the frankness of the moment. “Yes, kids are great, [they are] the future of the North.”

Nixon’s unique brand of community spirit rubs off. Other members of the Canadian Armed Forces are circulating; greeting and meeting the locals. Warrant Officer Daniel Darte – very much in “rock star” mode – is busy signing the backs of souvenir Canadian flags for a group of young men. “You all plan on graduating [from high school] right? Knowledge is power. You don’t want any road kill on the information super highway right?” Darte, a member of the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals (1 Squadron Detachment, 36 Signal Regiment, based in Charlottetown, PEI), received a commander’s commendation for his contributions to Op Nanook 2017. 

Brigadier-General Mike Nixon confides to an inquisitive young girl that the best way to obtain the military name tag she desires, is to join the Cadets or Junior Rangers program. She is pleased with the advice.

Master Corporal Rachel Bass-Meldrum, a WFE TECH from 1 CER (a regular force regiment of the Canadian Military Engineers in Edmonton) who also received a commander’s commendation for contributions to Op Nanook 2017 (and who has contributed significantly to the local economy through her various purchases including Inuit outerwear and hand-made wall hangings) is conversing with Sandra Nichols, a curator at the Matchbox Gallery in Rankin Inlet. Meanwhile, Capt George Romick, with the Lake Superior Scottish Regiment, Thunder Bay, is comparing notes with Ms. Nichols. He is also the director of the Thunder Bay Military Museum. He confides that his wife would kill him if he didn’t return home with some original Inuit art. The town is known for its community artists who work in a variety of media including ceramics, prints, bronze castings, carvings, watercolours and drawings. 

Master Corporal Rachel Bass-Meldrum (right), a WFE TECH from 1 CER Edmonton, received a commander’s commendation for her contributions to Op Nanook 2017.

Sovereignty starts at home
Community Day is a ritual that takes place after most of these operations. Literally, everybody from the community shows up. In the case of Op Nanook in Rankin Inlet, that also includes Mayor Robert Janes, members of the RCMP detachment, and Inuit artists. It gives the Canadian Armed Forces a chance to interact and have open conversations with the locals. It gives members of the armed forces an opportunity to showcase military tools including communication systems and weapons that work north of 60. Speeches typically highlight progress made to date and community challenges that lie ahead.

BGen Nixon enthusiastically points out that keeping tabs on what the local Arctic communities need is of paramount importance. While a military presence is vital to Canada’s sovereign claim in the Arctic, so is environmental stewardship and social welfare. He says that the people of Rankin Inlet are definitely on the right track.

With a population of around 2,800, Rankin Inlet is the second largest community in Nunavut (after Iqaluit the capital). Roughly 80% of the inhabitants are Inuit. Professional ice hockey player Jordan Tootoo spent part of his youth here.

The town was founded by the owners of the Rankin Inlet Mine. Beginning in 1957, the mine produced nickel and copper ores from an underground operation. The first Inuit miners in Canada worked here until the mine closed in 1962. And now there is a new mine, some 25 kilometres from town. It’s the Agnico Eagle Meliadine gold mine, which is expected to begin operation in 2019 and is forecast to produce approximately 5.7 million ounces of gold over a 15-year mine life. BGen Nixon visited the mine site last year and quips that he was “disappointed” they weren’t giving out free samples.

Rankin Inlet is a Canadian NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) Forward Operating Location. There are two FOLs in the Northwest Territories (Inuvik and Yellowknife), and two in Nunavut (Iqaluit and Rankin Inlet). They provide the infrastructure and supplies to support the deployment of CF-18 aircraft to remote locations. 

In addition to economic development, there is other news. In January 2018, Rankin Inlet was selected as the location for Canada's first Arctic inshore rescue boat station. It is set to open this summer, possibly in mid-June, depending on the weather and ice conditions. The inshore rescue boat station will result in faster search and rescue responses for marine emergencies. Good timing in light of increased maritime traffic in the region.

Arctic Sovereignty: Adapting and Responding
BGen Nixon admits that protecting Canada’s Arctic Sovereignty is a very complex topic with many layers, but sums it up this way: “It’s about safety and security of Canadians, and visitors to Canada and in Canada’s north, that is my area of responsibility, the Joint Task Force North area of responsibility.” This includes almost anything that falls within that bracket of safety and security – whether man-made or natural. The Canadian Armed Forces is prepared to respond to a direct threat (however unlikely that may be), or in support of another federal department in the exercise of their mandate, with all the skill sets and capabilities available within the Canadian Armed Forces.

He adds that the Canadian military has an invaluable asset: the Canadian Rangers, a group of 5,000-strong reservists who provide a military presence in Canada's sparsely-settled Northern, coastal, and isolated areas, where it would not be economically or practically viable to have conventional Army units. Nixon has tremendous respect and praise for the Canadian Rangers, who are also known as the “eyes and ears of the North.”

Stewards of the North - Canadian Ranger Team - Ranger Sergeant Barnie Aggark and his wife Ranger Kelly Kadjuk were very involved with Nanook 2017 and appreciate BGen Nixon's insights and commitment to communities up North. Aggark has been with the Canadian Rangers since 1999 and has been a Ranger Sergeant since 2007. He was the Mayor of Chesterfield Inlet from January 2014 to December 2016 and has been a long time environmental activist. One sign of the changing times, he also works, full time, for Agnico Eagle Mines Limited as a wildlife and environment consultant (now officially referred to as a community relations officer).

Realistically, the most imminent “threat” in Canada’s North could be transportation related, or an environmental disaster, and the Canadian Armed Forces has been adapting its “scenarios” to fit with the changing geopolitical, economic and environmental times.  Some of the communities north of the tree line have seen a surge in economic development. Mine development has led to steady increases in shipping and sealift traffic, especially the Kivalliq region where Rankin Inlet lies. This creates greater potential for disasters such as a commercial airplane crash or an environmental disaster on land or sea.

“There’s a wide range of things that could happen,” agrees the Commander, “and we have contingency plans for many of those.” 

During Op Nanook 2017, part of the exercise scenario was a rapid response to a disaster in a small hamlet (which happened to be Rankin Inlet). The focus on a resupply disaster was chosen since shipping and sealift has been increasing in Nunavut and the waterways are definitely not open all year around. 

This exercise scenario is testing response to a disaster in a small Northern hamlet.

Of the challenges of operating in the vast Canadian Arctic operating theatre, BGen Nixon says “it’s logistics, logistics, logistics.” The only options for getting supplies into the Arctic are sealift or aircraft, and therein lies the challenge (and expense), and this includes the influx of commercial operations.

A lot of forethought went into executing the mock sealift disaster in Rankin Inlet, where casualties would foreseeably overload the community resources, said Lt (N) Jamie Stewart, who was part of the planning team. The scenario saw the annual resupply for a mine come ashore then catch fire. “With the myriad of hazardous material aboard, it explodes,” he said. Representatives from Agnico Eagle were on hand to support Op Nanook 2017 and the scenario. The Canadian gold mining company has produced precious metals since 1957. Its eight mines are located in Canada, Finland and Mexico, with exploration and development activities in each of these countries as well as in the U.S. and Sweden. Agnico Eagle’s community liaison officers (including Ranger Barnie Aggark) keep the locals informed as to what is going on with the new mine, such as potential environmental impacts and community outreach programs.

The Rankin Inlet disaster preparedness scenario had one major goal, and that was to practice “crisis response and consequence management activities resulting from an overwhelming emergency in an isolated community,” said JTFN spokesperson Major Josée Bilodeau.

Approximately two-thirds of the world’s polar bears live in Canada, and about 600 are legally hunted here every year, and most of the hunting occurs in Nunavut.

Survival Skills
BGen Nixon was in charge of Operation Nunalivut 2018, which ended on March 23, marking his last official Arctic exercise. Around 350 Canadian soldiers as well as the PPCLI, the Arctic Response Company Group from 38 Canadian Brigade Group and the 1st Canadian Ranger Patrol Group were all part of the one month operation – which included conducting sovereignty patrols, Arctic survival skills, science research and members of the navy got to dive under the ice. Temperatures, including wind chill hit, –55°C during the operation. “Business as usual,” shrugs the Commander.

Military Threat
Much has been made of Russian and Chinese strategies of economic development of polar regions and expansion of military presence, however, BGen Nixon’s view is one of peace and co-operation. He is more interested in dealing with the constantly evolving challenges posed by the Arctic’s geography, economic development, climate, infrastructure and distance, military-aboriginal issues, and proper community relations than conversing about a potential Arctic military show-down.

Former Chief of the Defence Staff, General Walt Natynczyk, famously joked that if anyone was planning to attack in the North, he’d need to know how many were coming – so he could organize the search and rescue effort! 

While the US military's attention returns to great-power competition – with a focus on the "potential for conflict in the extreme conditions found at northern latitudes and higher elevations,” as one writer warned, or the looming "big-ass fight" that Marine Corps Commandant General Robert Neller recently noted to Marines stationed in Norway – Canada prefers the cooperative route.

Arctic Security Working Group
“Let me tell you about the Arctic Security Working Group,” says Nixon, “this is really important. Networking and information sharing through the Arctic Security Working Group has been invaluable to our success in the North,” he explains. Safety and security is the name of the game.

Canada co-chairs the Arctic security working group on a rotational basis with the territories. Despite the CAF involvement, it is not a military organization, it’s about working with the territories and indigenous communities to determine “what issues, from a security and safety perspective, they are focused on, and what they need.”

The biannual meeting gathers together organizations and groups that have an interest in northern issues. Various government departments and agencies, indigenous communities, non-government organizations, academics, the private sector, and international partners are all involved.

In 1999, federal and territorial departments and agencies established the working group so that departments and agencies operating in the northern region could work together to achieve greater results, including the safety and security of Canadians.

Themes for the discussions have included concerns related to energy, food and health security. “The next theme for the next Arctic security working group, which is being co-chaired with the territory of Nunavut is on environmental stewardship and security,” advises BGen Nixon. Discussions will no doubt look at how the population will evolve as the change in temperatures starts to reduce the permanence of permafrost. “It is a great way to keep everybody connected,” he says. “It’s all about people; it’s about talking; it’s about knowing who to talk to; and about building a level of trust among different levels of government so that when you do need to work together, it’s seamless and quick.”

Rangers seize a survival skills teaching moment while patrolling on the Arctic Tundra. 

Arctic promises, challenges & future
The reality is that practically all “negative” statistics – including the murder rate, domestic violence, crime, per-capital prison population, drug addiction and suicide rates – are much higher in the North than anywhere else in Canada. Many of Canada’s young Inuit citizens struggle with questions of identity and culture.

Although Nunavut boasts a youthful population, it has a high unemployment rate. The main industries are resource-related (mining and fishery), or government employment. Also contributing to the local economy are exports, tourism and Inuit art.

The mineral wealth of the Arctic is immense. Canada is among the top five diamond producing countries by volume of production after Russia, Botswana, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Australia (and yes, many Canadian diamonds have a polar bear etched on the back). Mining companies can be seen prospecting and extracting a wide variety of minerals including: diamonds, gold, iron ore, lead, nickel, uranium and zinc to mention just a few. The Arctic also has large reserves of fossil fuels.

And then there's gold. According to the Canadian Mining JournalCanada could soon be the world’s second largest gold producer. As Agnico Eagle’s consultant Ranger Barnie Aggark sees it, the mine is a definite positive. Some of the elders and other community members may oppose it, he says, “but we need jobs up North.”

In addition to jobs, the locals need to put food on the table. Ranger Aggark, an accomplished hunter, tells me that his employer, Agnico Eagle, "takes caribou migration very seriously." This is essential to the well-being of communities in the North. He adds that caribou meat, which is an excellent source of iron, is a staple in most Inuit communities. He points out that “the cost of living in Nunavut is probably the highest in Canada.” It is a bitter fact that many families in Nunavut experience food insecurity. A 2017 Canada Food Report Card, gave the lowest grade possible (a D) to Nunavut, where many residents go hungry – daily.

When a caribou is harvested by the Inuit, not a scrap of the animal is wasted. Aggark points out that the community's sharing and distribution of caribou meat "pretty much, helps with a lot of the poverty reduction in the region.”
Agnico Eagle keeps the Kivalliq Inuit Association informed on caribou movement. “Every time the caribou herds come within five kilometres of the mine site, [Agnico] shuts down all operations until the caribou have passed for more than five kilometres. Even the road from Rankin to Meliadine is shut down until the caribou have well passed the roads.”

The government of Nunavut tracks caribou migration. Some of the animals are collared for satellite tracking. "There is a lot of technology today that helps on where the caribou herds are."

Aggark, says that teaching the youth how to hunt and live off the land is of significant importance. More than a third of the population in the North is under the age of 15 – almost twice as high as the rest of Canada. But, sadly, the dreams of many Arctic inhabitants do not materialize due to isolation, the lack of job opportunities, and complex social problems.

The suicide rate in Nunavut is 10 times higher than the national average. This statistic is alarming in itself, however, in the case of Inuit boys aged 15 to 19, the suicide rate is 40 times higher than those of their peers in the rest of Canada.

BGen Nixon has been a steady fixture in Yellowknife since he took command at JTFN in July 2015. He officially leaves his post at the end of April 2018, and tells me he still has an avalanche of paperwork to contend with, then there is daunting task of packing up one’s worldly possessions, so he won’t be leaving Yellowknife until the summer. Whoever takes over, will have big boots and “big ears” to fill. Nixon spent the last three years of his career connecting with and really listening to the people of the North. The youth are the future of the Arctic, and the North will live on forever in his heart. 

“I would say that if you ever, ever have the opportunity to visit Canada’s Arctic, in any capacity, don’t pass it up because it is one of the most beautiful parts of our country. Don’t pass up a chance to visit the great areas of the North and the great people who live up here because they are pretty spectacular.”  

Jane Kokan is an independent writer, filmmaker and educator. She has worked in conflict zones including: Afghanistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, South Sudan and Chechnya. She is currently working on a multimedia project on Arctic sovereignty through the lens of the Canadian Armed Forces and Rangers. 

(All photos by Jane Kokan)