The Royal Canadian Geographical Society
Making Canada better
known to Canadians
and to the world.

Publishers of Canadian Geographic Magazine Publishers of géographica


About The Royal Canadian Geographical Society

Sixty Years of Discovery

RCGS logo The Canadian Geographical Society was founded at a turning point in modern Canadian history, and this fact led to its early struggles. It was conceived in the heady days of February 1929, when anything and everything seemed possible. The economy was booming. The Great Crash and Black Thursday were inconceivable.

Dr. Charles Camsell (left), founder of the RCGS, explored large areas of the North
Dr. Charles Camsell (left), founder of the RCGS, explored large areas of the North
However, it was May 1930 by the time the first issue of Canadian Geographical Journal, as this magazine was then known, was published. What a gulf separates those two dates! The Great Depression had begun in earnest, and the fledgling Society and its magazine had to be nurtured through the longest economic crisis of this century. The guiding light and first president of the new Society was a fascinating Canadian, Charles Camsell. Born in Fort Liard, N.W.T., he was the son of a chief factor of the Hudson’s Bay Company. A geologist by training, he had explored and mapped large parts of Northern Ontario, Manitoba and the Northwest Territories for either railway companies or the Geological Survey of Canada. Camsell had been elected a fellow of the British Royal Geographical Society n 1915 and had long lamented the lack of a similar society in this country.

However, when it came time to look for a model for a Canadian geographical society, Camsell’s inspiration clearly was the National Geographical Society, founded in Washington, D.C., in 1888. Membership in the British society was restricted to explorers and “qualified individuals”. However, as the National Geographical Society had done, Camsell announced that the Canadian society would be “open to anyone interested in geographical matters” willing to pay the modest annual membership dues of $3. And, like the National Geographic Society, Camsell decided that the prime activity of the Canadian society would be to publish a popular monthly magazine, and that a subscription to this magazine would be one of the main benefits of membership. It is no coincidence that the first issue of Canadian Geographical Journal, 106 pages with a cover price of 35 cents, was the same size and format as National Geographic magazine.

Inaugural meeting of the RCGS
Inaugural meeting of the RCGS: Dr. Charles Camsell, the first president of the Canadian Geographical Society, and guests of honour at the Society's first inaugural meeting. Seated from left to right: Dr. Camsell, Viscount Willingdon, Honorary Patron of the Society; Viscountess Willingdon; Sir Francis Younghusband. Behind, from left to right: Lieut.-Col. H. Willis O’Connor, D.S.O., Aide-de-Camp to His Excellency; Dr. Isaiah Bowman, Director, American Geographical Society.

Nonetheless, the contrast between the births of the two societies could not have been greater. The phenomenal growth of the National Geographic Society, which by 1930 already had a membership of 1.2 million, was made possible by the wealth and influence of two men: Gardiner Greene Hubbard, a Boston lawyer and entrepreneur, and his son-in-law, Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone. The Hubbard family donated a handsome building for the new society’s Washington headquarters, and Bell, as its second president, devoted his enormous energy — and his own money — to fostering the society.

Membership Application: Canadian Geographical Society
Membership Application: Canadian Geographical Society (click to enlarge)

The Canadian Geographical Society was launched with neither a private endowment nor indeed any immediate source of income. It did, however, boast a number of prominent Canadians among its directors at its 1929 founding. Among them were the geologists and explorers Joseph B. Tyrell and J. Mackintosh Bell; O. D. Skelton, Mackenzie King’s right-hand man at External Affaires; the pioneering ethnologist Marius Barbeau; and John W. Dafoe, the highly influential editor of the Manitoba (later Winnipeg) Free Press. Camsell himself was deputy minister of mines and he recruited three other deputy ministers in the Dominion government. There were also the presidents of three universities, and professors representing four others across the country. Despite these highly placed individuals, the geographical society was unable to obtain any government financial assistance. And the directors — mainly public servants or academics — were not men of great wealth and thus not in a position to be large benefactors. What they shared was an optimism that Canadians were eager to learn about their country and would subscribe to a magazine devoted to advancing geographical knowledge. Learning was the key word. The society was incorporated as a non-profit, educational and scientific organization, with the status of a federally registered charity. It was independent of governments and wholly Canadian, with no affiliation to the National Geographic Society or to the Royal Geographical Society in Britain.

Camsell believed there was a practical and patriotic aspect to the Canadian Geographical Society’s mission. Many of the country’s social and economic problems, he contended, were the result of a lack of knowledge of their geographical causes. By telling Canadians about their geography and each other, a start could be made at solving these problems.

Lawrence J. Burpee,  founding editor of Canadian Geographical Journal

The new Society’s aim of “making Canada better known to Canadians and to the world” was announced in the premier issue, and the phrase has since become a motto. It was likely written by Lawrence J. Burpee, the founding editor of Canadian Geographical Journal and a man of prodigious energy and public spirit. By 1930 he had already written a dozen books and been one of the founders of the Canadian Historical Association and the Canadian Author’s Association, as well as serving on half a dozen other boards, including the Boy Scouts of Canada. Generations before Pierre Berton and Peter C. Newman sounded the same theme, Burpee wrote that academic historians had committed the crime of making Canadian history dull. He tried to make it come alive by focusing on the exploits of the early explorers in books such as The Search for the Western Sea (1907), which tells the stories of Samuel Hearne, the La Vérendrye family, Peter Pond, Alexander Mackenzie and David Thompson. HE also wrote a biography of Sir Sanford Fleming. Burpee was a travel writer too, with a particular fascination for the Rockies. Among the Canadian Alps (1914), On the Old Athabaska Trail (1926) and Jungling in Jasper (1929) are some of his tales of these mountains.

Wherever Burpee went in the Rockies, traveling either on foot or horseback, he lugged along a large box camera. His interest in photography is reflected in the magazine he edited, which from the very beginning was advertised as “profusely illustrated”.

Burpee had a dry, gentle sense of humour and in Jungling in Jasper tells this story of one photo that got away: “I struggled through a quarter-mile of heavy underbrush to get a picture of a particularly fine ram that was posing on the summit of a crag on the opposite bank of the river. First I dropped the tripod, then a branch swept the camera out of my hand, then a mischievous twig picked the spectacles neatly off my nose and dropped them into a big hole, and I had to find a dry spot for the camera and tripod while I groped in the mud for my glasses. Naturally, by the time they had been recovered and cleaned, the ram had disappeared.”

After having kept Canadian Geographical Journal alive during its struggling early years, Burpee stepped down as editor in 1936. He maintained his connection with the Society, staying on as a director and contributing articles and profiles of explorers to the magazine. Ever in demand, he was immediately elected president of the Royal Society of Canada and showered with honours — life member of the National Geographic Society and honorary doctorate from the University of Toronto, to cite just two. Burpee left the magazine and the Society in sound enough financial shape that it could now afford — for the first time — to hire a full-time editor and manager. The directors chose Gordon M. Dallyn, a veteran of World War I, a forester by training, who had worked for the Canadian Forestry Association for almost a decade as an assistant editor of its magazine. In addition to his experience in association management, Dallyn also brought to Canadian Geographical Journal a keen interest in photography. As well as illustrating many stories with his own photos, he also attracted to the magazine rising young Canadian photographers such as Fred Bruemmer, Richard Harrington and Malak Karsh.

Dallyn went on to become the Society’s longest serving manager and editor, finally stepping down in 1959. Wilfrid Eggleston, founder of the School of Journalism at Carleton University and a longtime member of the Society’s Editorial Committee, wrote of Dallyn’s 23 years as editor: “Canada is notably rough on its native periodicals. The story of magazine publishing in Canada is strewn with wrecks and failures. More reading matter is brought in across the Canadian-American border than across any other boundary anywhere. In the case of the Canadian Geographical Journal, the struggle to survive has always been intense and it reflects greatly to the credit of Gordon Dallyn that so fine a magazine has been published year after year, through the Depression years of the late 1930s, and in the difficult war years, never for a moment free from the problem of maintaining quality and circulation in the face of fierce competition.

“The editor of a magazine such as the Journal must be a combination of creative writer, midwife to struggling authors, storehouse of ideas, brain-picker … copyreader and critic. Gordon Dallyn has also been a one-man committee of financial ways and means, always puzzling how to make the contents of the magazine yield sufficient additional revenue through reprints to make the budget balance.”

A turning point in the Society’s history came in 1973, when the directors chose a professional journalist to succeed Major-General Megill as executive secretary and editor of Canadian Geographical Journal. David Maclellan had started out as a reporter with daily newspapers in his native city of Halifax. He went on to become a correspondent for Associated Press in London, then a reporter for the Ottawa Journal. During World War II, he was with Canadian Army public relations, serving in Italy. After the war, he published a magazine in Nova Scotia. When it was bought by the Maclean-Hunter organization, the company hired him to work for several of its magazines in Toronto. He eventually became editor of Canadian Printer and Publisher. In the early ‘70s, when the domination of our economy by American corporations was a major preoccupation, he commissioned a five-part series of articles on American ownership of our resources and land. After the election of the first Parti Québécois government in 1977, he wrote a passionate essay on the importance of keeping Quebec in Confederation. Although he was a unilingual Nova Scotian, he understood and sympathized with the desire of francophones to preserve their language and culture. When Maclellan joined the Society, it was once again losing money. The future of the organization was very much in the balance, but the board of directors decided it was worth making one more attempt to solve the Society’s financial problems.

In 1978, Maclellan shortened the magazine’s name to Canadian Geographic and designed a direct-mail campaign to tell the Canadians about the newly invigorated magazine.

Over the next two years he more than doubled the circulation, from 40,000 to 100,000. Increased revenue from subscriptions and advertising was reinvested in more commissioned articles, more colourful photos and maps. New staff with training and experience in journalism were hired.

Among the people Maclellan attracted to the magazine was Ross W. Smith, who had been a senior editor at the Ottawa Journal until it was closed by the Thomson organization in 1980. In addition to 30 years of newspaper experience, Smith was already familiar with the magazine as a longtime member of its Editorial Advisory Committee. With Maclellan’s retirement in 1983, Smith was appointed editor, and over the next six years Canadian Geographic’s circulation continued its meteoric rise, doubling from 110,000 to 220,000. Smith moved the Magazine in new directions, publishing a series of articles on environmental issues — acid rain, maple dieback, vanishing wetlands, clear-cut logging — that are notable for their balanced presentation of the facts. He also launched the popular columns on place names and weather which appear in each issue. He introduced more articles about the places where the majority of Canadians live — our cities and farmlands. The magazine had developed a reputation as a magazine about the Arctic. Smith assigned more articles about our changing urban areas. “When we do a story about Winnipeg,” he would say, “it’s not to tell Winnipeggers about their own city. It’s to tell everyone else in the country about Winnipeg. I know very well, though, that Winnipeggers will read the story closely to see if we got it right.” Striving to get it right, checking the facts with scientists and researchers in the field remained a tradition passed on from editor to editor.

In 1982, a professional geographer, Dr. J. Keith Fraser, became the Society’s executive secretary, publisher and general manager. As a federal government scientist and a past president of the Canadian Association of Geographers, Fraser brought to the position a highly developed network of contacts with Canada’s geographical community. He was also thoroughly familiar with The Royal Canadian Geographical Society, having been involved as a fellow and director since 1959. Under Fraser’s leadership, the Society began to expand its other activities, using revenue from the magazine and donations from members. From the beginning, the Society had held public lectures on geographical subjects, usually in Ottawa. In recent years the lecture program has been expanded, and illustrated talks have been held at cities across the country. The Society has increased its grants program whereby it provides money for student projects and independent researchers, as well as scholarships for students studying in the Arctic. In addition, the Society funds major geographical projects undertaken by geography departments at universities and it sponsors an essay contest to spur interest in geography at the high-school level. The Society has also become involved in producing books, maps and films for television, activities that will expand as a result of the move to larger headquarters in 1988. Also in that year, in order to handle these expanding ventures, the Society’s management was reorganized with the appointment of a new publisher, Susanne Hudson. In her career in magazine management, she had been publisher of a national personal finance magazine, Your Money and advertising director of Toronto Life. As well as being publisher of Canadian Geographic, her role at the Society included responsibility for new projects. Dr. Fraser remained executive secretary and general manager.

That The Royal Canadian Geographical Society has survived the past seven and half decades — and flourished despite some very difficult times — is due to three groups of people. First, its members, who have remained extraordinarily loyal over the years, often passing on memberships from generation to generation, from grandparents to grandchildren, from uncles and aunts to nephews and nieces. Second has been its volunteers, who serve on its board of directors and committees, some great lengths of time, providing much valued continuity. Dr. Howard L. Trueman, for example, a research scientist with the federal Department of Agriculture, served on the Editorial Advisory Committee for 43 years, from 1940 to 1983. Alex. T. Davidson, the current president, a geographer and former chief administrator of Parks Canada, began his involvement with Society in 1967. Many other volunteers have served for similar time spans. The third group is the Society’s small staff, CEO Louise Maffett, Lita Kaback, Carolyn Chapman and others over the years.

By Ian Darragh

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