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A new president for the Society

John Geiger, new president of The Royal Canadian Geographical Society (Photo: Daniel J. Catt)

John Geiger was elected the 13th president of The Royal Canadian Geographical Society in November, replacing Gisèle Jacob, who served for six years. Like a number of his predecessors, Geiger is passionate about exploration, the topic of his best-selling books, which include The Third Man Factor: Surviving the Impossible (2009) and Frozen in Time: The Fate of the Franklin Expedition (2007). Born in Ithaca, New York, and a graduate of history at the University of Alberta, Geiger is currently the editorial board editor at The Globe and Mail and a Senior Fellow at the University of Toronto’s Massey College. He has served as a Governor of the Society, chair of its Expeditions Committee and vice-president of its Board of Governors. Geiger recently sat down with Canadian Geographic to discuss his vision for the Society.

CG: After you were elected a Fellow of the Society in 2003, the first committee you joined was the Expeditions Committee. Was it because of your inherent interest in exploration and expeditions?

JG: Yes, I think so. I undertook and participated in some fieldwork with Owen Beattie, an anthropologist at the University of Alberta. I wrote Frozen in Time with Owen, which was a best-seller in Canada. And from that, we did some work on the James Knight expedition of 1719, the only other Arctic expedition that ended with no survivors. That involved spending some field seasons on Marble Island, off the coast of Hudson Bay near Rankin Inlet.

CG: Is one of your goals to renew the purpose of the Society’s expeditions program, to branch out into bigger journeys?

JG: I would hope the expeditions program will continue to grow. We have one full corporate sponsor we’re very grateful to RBC for its support but we hope to add one or two major expeditions each year. The Royal Canadian Geographical Society is the best organization in Canada to undertake this kind of work. We are the ground zero for geography and exploration in Canada.

It’s an exciting time. I think the interest in expeditions is increasing annually. There are more and more people interested in pushing boundaries, oddly, given that so much of the world has been explored. There’s still this urge, this desire, to get out and put yourself at risk and to expose yourself to experiences that others have perhaps not encountered.

CG: In a more general sense, what are your priorities for the Society?

JG: The Society is evolving at a tremendous rate. We’ve almost doubled the size of the College of Fellows in the past two years. We’re reaching people in all corners of the country. I’m the first president from outside the Ottawa area in the history of the Society. I’m also the youngest. Maybe that tells you something about the way the Society is changing. I think it’s very important that we communicate what the Society is to the public. As you know, the vision of the Society is to make Canada better known to Canadians and to the world. My vision is to make the Society better known to Canadians and to the world. It’s a very important organization, and it does tremendously important work in geographic literacy.

CG: You mentioned you’re the youngest incoming president. What about the need to become, as an organization, younger and more diverse to try to reflect the country’s population?

JG: One of the points I’ll be emphasizing during my term is the need for the Society to be representative of Canada. The face of Canada has changed radically, and I think we have a real responsibility as an organization to reach into communities of new Canadians. Over the years, the Society may not have been as representative as it should be, but that’s changing.

CG: Perhaps one of the most important ways to achieve that is through our educational programs. What is your sense of what we’re accomplishing now, and what do you think we could be doing better?

JG: I think the Society has done an exceptional job through the Canadian Council for Geographic Education and the Geography Challenge, which are tremendous ways to engage young people. I don’t know of an organization that has better reach into the classroom. We have that because of our tremendous reputation, because of our independence, because the school systems and teachers know that we have no agenda. Our agenda is simply to educate young people about the importance of geography. Few countries have an organization like ours, with the kind of impact in schools the RCGS has had. It’s a tremendous legacy, and it’s a great responsibility to ensure that that continues. That’s always got to be a priority for the Society.

(Originally published in Canadian Geographic January/February 2011, The Inside Story)

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