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Traverse of Ellesmere Island, Nunavut (Photo: John Dunn)

Northern exposure

For 80 years, the RCGS has been a driving force in the Canadian Arctic
By Mary Vincent with research by Wendy Simpson-Lewis

When Charles Camsell founded The Canadian Geographical Society in 1929, he had a bold ambition: to make the educational organization a leader in informing Canadians about the geography of their country. For Camsell, the key to understanding Canada was to understand the Arctic. While the North has come and gone from and returned to the public and political agendas, the Society has been a strong proponent of the region, through its programs and magazine, for 80 years. In May 1930, the first issue of the Canadian Geographical Journal, as this magazine was then known, featured sketches and paintings of the landscapes and people of the Arctic Archipelago by Frederick Banting, who co-discovered insulin, and Group of Seven artist A. Y. Jackson. That article’s scope set the tone for the Society’s continued coverage of Arctic issues.

The Society’s work in Northern Canada was launched by Camsell’s guiding hand. This self-described “son of the North” was born in Fort Liard, N.W.T., in 1876, the son of a Chief Factor of the Hudson’s Bay Company. The Arctic was in his blood. A visionary geologist and map-maker, Camsell was the Geological Survey of Canada’s Geologist in Charge of Exploration and had the monumental task of overseeing the exploration of vast northern tracts covering 1.4 million square kilometres, or about 25 percent of the country. He was an early advocate of using airplanes to survey the Arctic and, throughout his lifetime, travelled to many areas still unexplored and unmapped.

Sketch of A. Y. Jackson by Frederick Banting. (From Canadian Geographical Journal, May 1930)
Camsell, who died in 1958, was the first in a long line of Society affiliates to be in the vanguard of geographical exploration of the Arctic. Moira Dunbar (1918-1999) was also a trailblazer on many levels. She was one of the first women to fly over the North Pole and was the first woman to conduct scientific observations from Canadian icebreakers, and she remains the only female recipient of the Society’s prestigious Massey Medal, awarded annually to recognize outstanding achievement in the exploration, development or description of Canada’s geography. In 1947, Dunbar left a successful career as a stage actress in London, England, to move to Canada. She joined the Canadian Defence Research Board in 1952 to study Arctic geography and sea ice, working on the standardization of ice terminology and making important findings on the climatology of ice distribution. As the citation for her Massey Medal notes: “No one intending to do anything in northern transportation is likely to get very far without making use of her research.”

Keith Greenaway and Moira Dunbar (TOP, in 1956) and Arctic Ocean expert Eddy Carmack (BELOW) won Massey medals for northern research.
(Photos: Top courtesy of Dougal Dunbar; below, Deddeda Stemler)
Other Massey medallists have also made invaluable contributions to our knowledge of the Arctic. In 1959, the Society awarded the first medal to Henry Larsen (1899- 1964), the great Canadian navigator who captained the RCMP patrol vessel St. Roch on the first journey through the Northwest Passage from west to east, helping Canada mark its Arctic sovereignty.

In the 1980s, Richard Harington, the 1987 Massey medallist, led work on climatic changes of the past 20,000 years, just as climate change was emerging as an environmental issue. Archaeologist Robert McGhee, recipient of the award in 2000, has pioneered studies on the development of Inuit cultures. One of the world’s most respected experts on the Arctic Ocean is Eddy Carmack, who won the medal in 2007. Like the Society, he strives to make science and geography accessible, and as a volunteer on Students on Ice expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctic, Carmack has introduced teens to the complexities of ocean currents. For International Polar Year, he undertook the most ambitious study yet of Canada’s oceans (Canadian Geographic July/Aug 2007).

One of the Society’s greatest achievements in the North is the Mount Logan Expedition. In celebration of Canada’s 125th birthday in 1992, the Society sponsored a climb to the top of Canada’s tallest mountain to determine its precise height. Until then, there were no accurate measurements of the massif, located in southwestern Yukon. “The exact height of the tallest mountain was something Canadians really should know about their country,” noted expedition leader Michael Schmidt in a Canadian Geographic article on the expedition (Sept/Oct 1992). On reaching the summit, the team used Global Positioning System technology — relatively new at the time — to calculate the elevation of Mount Logan at 5,959 metres. As its flag flapped vigorously on the peak, the Society literally made its mark on Northern Canada.

This image, taken in the early 1950s, is featured in the “Accessible Arctic” photo exhibit. (Photo: Richard Harrington)
As the North plays an increasingly important environmental and economic role in Canada’s future, the Society is committed to promoting geography’s importance in understanding the region’s evolving issues, such as climate change, Arctic sovereignty and resource development. For its 80th anniversary, the Society, in partnership with the Canadian Museum of Nature, launched a travelling photography exhibit on the Canadian Arctic, which opened in June in London, England. It’s a retrospective of some of the best images of the landscapes, wildlife and people of the North to have been featured in Canadian Geographic over the past eight decades. Taking a cue from its goal to make Canada better known to Canadians and to the world, the Society is putting the Arctic in the global spotlight with this photographic showcase.

Mary Vincent is a writer in Ottawa. Wendy Simpson-Lewis is the Society’s historian.

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