04/21/2015 05:00 EDT | Updated 07/12/2015 11:59 EDT

Canadian Rangers: 5 questions about our 'eyes and ears' in the North

The Canadian Rangers have been the country's eyes and ears in the North for almost 70 years, at the ready for missions in isolated areas that can't be covered by the rest of the Canadian Armed Forces. 

A "significant number" of Canadian Rangers in the North have died in recent years, according to documents obtained by CBC News.

According to the Department of Defence, 49 Rangers and Junior Rangers have died since January 2011. A statement from defence officials says one of the deaths was related to the individual's service in the North — the rest were attributed to other causes "common in the larger population of the communities in which they live." Some may be dying of natural causes, as well, the department said, noting that Rangers don't have a mandatory retirement age.

Here are five questions about the Canadian Rangers and the role they've played since the end of the Second World War.

1. What are the Canadian Rangers?

The Canadian Rangers are a unique part of the Canadian Armed Forces Reserve, lauded by the government as the "military's eyes and ears" in the country's isolated areas. 

Recognizable by their red uniforms, Rangers provide patrols for national-security and public-safety missions in sparsely settled areas of Canada where it's not convenient or economically feasible for the military to be. There are five groups across Canada, but the largest by far is the 1st Canadian Ranger Patrol Group, which covers the three territories and Atlin, B.C.

This group includes 1,850 Canadian Rangers and 1,650 Junior Canadian Rangers (aged 12 to 18), according to the Rangers' official web page. 

Rangers are non-commissioned members, do not get combat training and are not expected to be deployed overseas.

2. Who are they?

Canadian Rangers are, by and large, aboriginal, though that's a result of geography rather than policy. The government says Canadian Rangers as a whole speak 26 dialects and languages.

In his book The Canadian Rangers: A Living History, historian P. Whitney Lackenbauer paints a picture of men and women that represent a microcosm of the country's North. Lackenbauer has previously said the Rangers are motivated by a mix of patriotism, community service and a love of the outdoors.

3. Why were they formed?

The Rangers were created on May 23, 1947, modelled after the Pacific Coast Militia Rangers who were created in 1942 at the height of the Second World War. The Pacific Rangers watched the coastlines of B.C. and Yukon against the threat of Japanese invasion. They disbanded after the war.

The Canadian Rangers were similarly charged with Northern and Arctic surveillance, but from coast to coast to coast.

Canada's coastline and North combines low population "with some of the most difficult climatic and physical environments in which to operate," Lackenbauer writes in his book. "As a result, the Canadian Rangers have played an important but unorthodox role in domestic defence for more than six decades."

4. What do they do exactly?

Located in about 200 isolated communities (the vast majority along the coastlines or north of 60 degrees north latitude), Canadian Rangers have a number of duties when called into service:

- Reporting any unusual sightings.

- Collecting local data for the Canadian Armed Forces.

- Conducting surveillance or sovereignty patrols.

- Responding to emergencies such as avalanches or missing persons. 

- Taking part in community events.

- Mentoring the Junior Rangers, a program created in 1996.

5. What kind of support do they get?

National Defence spends $38 million annually on the Rangers program, which has expanded by about 1,000 members in the past 10 years as Prime Minister Stephen Harper has sought to bolster Arctic sovereignty.  

The government has also moved to replace the Rangers' classic Lee-Enfield rifles, which they have used since the group's inception. It was announced last year that Colt Canada was making 6,500 rifles, along with spare parts and accessories, which the Canadian Rangers would gradually start to use between the middle of this year and the end of 2019.

Canadian Rangers receive up to 12 days pay each year and reimbursement for wear and tear on their personal vehicles if they're used for official Ranger activities.

Rangers also get 10 days of training when they join that includes rifle training, "general military knowledge," navigation and search and rescue. Further training is possible but not mandatory.

Canadian Rangers do not have the same access to services, including medical services, as regular forces members and reservists — unless they are injured on active duty, in which case they would have access to benefits provided by the Canadian Forces.