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Toxic threat exercise wraps up operation
Emergency response involves multiple players as Nanook demonstrates Arctic sovereignty

Laura Busch
Northern News Services
Published Monday, Sept 03, 2012

More than 200 Canadian military personnel, Canadian Rangers and RCMP officers responded to a potential toxic chemical threat in Tsiigehtchic last week - although the threat was in reality a fictional scenario staged by the military for the Western Arctic portion of Operation Nanook 2012.

NNSL photo/graphic

Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Walter Natynczyk speaks during the opening ceremonies for Tsiigehtchic's Canoe Days, which were held at the conclusion of Operation Nanook on Aug. 25. - photo courtesy of Sgt. Frank Hudec, Canadian Forces Canada Command

However, the purpose of the operation has less to do with the actual incident chosen and more to do with demonstrating the Canadian military's ability to respond to remote Northern communities, said one of the military's top brass who was involved in the operation.

"Just by virtue of our presence there - and it was quite a large presence - we were demonstrating Canadian sovereignty and the Canadian Forces' ability to deploy anywhere in the North that the Canadian government asks us to on behalf of the people of Canada," said Lt.-Col. Glen MacNeil, deputy chief of staff, operations and plans with Joint Task Force North.

Prior to the forward-portion of the operation, which took place in Tsiigehtchic from Aug. 17 to 25, military personnel visited the hamlet monthly beginning in February to consult with the community, said Phillip Blake, chief of Tsiigehtchic.

"They've done their part very well, I believe," Blake told News/North. "Now the process is all laid out, so if they practice it, it's going to be easier and easier, so if something does go wrong, they will know all the areas where they may have problems to iron out."

Operation Nanook 2012 was more complex than previous years, and contained two different scenarios - one in the eastern Arctic and one in the west.

The western headquarters were placed in Inuvik because the town has the most accessible landing strip in the region, said MacNeil.

"That forward headquarters then enables us to receive Canadian Forces elements from the south of Canada to deal with any crisis that happens in the North," he said.

The Inuvik base camp was built to house 350 people, and the operational camp that was built in Tsiigehtchic housed between 200 and 220 military personnel at the peak of the operation, he said.

While everyone involved in Operation Nanook was aware there would be a scenario that required their response near the hamlet of Tsiigehtchic, the details of the emergency were kept secret so that the response would be as realistic as possible, said MacNeil.

The fictional Tsiigehtchic scenario involved an accident that occurred on Aug. 17.

A barge was said to have crashed into the ferry that makes a triangular route across the Mackenzie and Arctic Red rivers and connects the hamlet to the northern and southern portions of the Dempster Highway.

After impact, the fictional barge came apart, and a piece of it came aground on the bank closest to the hamlet.

On board were tankers of the toxic substance anhydrous ammonia, a chemical that turns into the extremely lethal substance ammonium hydroxide when it mixes with water. In the scenario, none of the tankers were punctured, but the threat was enough to prompt a full military response.

True to what would happen during a real emergency, hamlet officials and locally posted Canadian Rangers responded first, requesting help from RCMP who are stationed in the nearby hamlet of Fort McPherson. The Government of the Northwest Territories then put in a request with the federal government for assistance, and that help was provided in the form of the Canadian military, who also liaised with the Canadian Coast Guard stationed in Inuvik, said MacNeil.

"If an actual crisis were to occur, these are the same people who would deal with it, and it also gets us to refine our processes, like the request for federal assistance, and it helps us overall to be ready for an actual crisis," said MacNeil. "We're much more prepared now that we've practiced this."

Hamlet officials also agree that the exercise was helpful in practicing what to do in a real emergency situation.

"It helped us to be aware of what we have to do in case of emergency," said Eugene Parry, acting senior administrative officer in Tsiigehtchic. "It's good because we don't normally practice these things."

Parry also said that the operation was the first time he had personally seen more than one RCMP officer in the hamlet.

The immediate reaction unit out of Edmonton responded for the military. With the help of Twin Otter aircraft from the 440 Squadron based in Yellowknife, all personnel and equipment were on the ground in Tsiigehtchic within 24 hours of the fictional accident, said MacNeil.

"It really was a whole-of-government operation," said MacNeil. "We proved that we're able to operate together."

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