Triumph in the High North

By the turn of the 20th century, the growing importance of gathering geographic information on Canada's northern regions continued, and a new emphasis on the ethnographic study of the Inuit emerged.

The search for the Northwest Passage by water to the east remained. Encouraged by the success of Robert McClure as well as by his own adventurous streak, Roald Amundsen, a Norwegian, finally sailed the Passage. He conquered the route which had intrigued centuries of travellers before him.

A new motive for knowledge and exploration of Canada's north appeared  --  the need for Canada to assert sovereignty over the Arctic archipelago that it had inherited from Britain several years after Confederation. In the wake of Amundsen's voyage, the Laurier government found itself having to defend what it considered to be Canadian territory against foreigners who were exploiting Arctic waters freely, not paying duties, and even claiming parts of it for other nations.

Roald Amundsen navigates the northwest passage

Roald Englebert Gravning Amundsen (1872 - 1928)

The Norse were not the last Scandinavians to be interested in the exploration of Canada. In Norway, several explorers were fascinated by the Arctic and the Antarctic, and conducted important scientific expeditions. Of these explorers, the Swedish Baron Adolf E. Nordenkiöld was the first, in 1878-1879, to sail from the Atlantic to the Pacific above Russia. In 1889, Roald Amundsen, then 17 years of age, was on the wharf when Fridtjof Nansen landed after having crossed the ice north of Greenland for the first time. He again was on shore when Otto Sverdrup returned home in 1902 after four years of exploration on the coast of Ellesmere Island and in the straits of Eureka and Nansen.

Roald Amundsen was born in Norway in 1872. His father was a ship owner and his mother dreamed that he would become a doctor. The young man abandoned his medical studies for navigation. His first experiences were on whalers in the Spitzbergen area. In 1897, he accompanied the Belgian navigator Adrien De Gerlanche on an expedition to the Antarctic where he learned of the difficulties related to survival in the north. But his dream was to take up the challenge of looking for a passage across the Arctic to the northwest. At this time, the North was relatively well known but no-one had yet sailed from east to west. He found six companions and bought a light ship, the Gjöa, in 1902. The travelers prepared themselves for living under extreme conditions with intense physical training  --  by running and spending long hours skiing and biking.

In 1903, Amundsen and his companions sailed to the west coast of Greenland, reached Baffin Bay and entered Lancaster Sound. Then, following Peel Strait, they dropped anchor in a bay that Amundsen called Gjöa Harbour, on King William Island, where he spent two winters. During his stay in the Arctic, Amundsen met ten groups of Inuit. He demonstrated great interest in their lifestyle and adopted their type of clothing. From them, he learned how to build igloos, and how to hunt and fish. In the account of this voyage, Amundsen spoke of deterioration in the lifestyle of Inuit who have been in contact with Europeans compared to those who have had no contact with them.

If Amundsen's primary objective was to go through the Northwest Passage, the mission for which he had received financial support was to see if the magnetic pole that James Clark Ross had found in 1830 was still in the same location, something which was questioned at the time. Amundsen's scientific research relocated the magnetic pole more than 50 kilometres northeast of the position set by Ross over 70 years earlier.

On August 13, 1905, Amundsen again sailed west. He went through Simpson Strait, south of King William Island, a treacherous strait strewn with ice and barely submerged rocks. He then crossed the Gulf of Queen Maud and entered Dease Strait to come out at the other end of Dolphin and Union Strait into the gulf that bears his name today. This period, he wrote, comprised "the three longest weeks of my life". He was rewarded, though. On August 27, 1905, while resting in his cabin, Amundsen heard one of his companions cry, "'Vessel in sight!'" A whaler was coming from the west. Moved, Amundsen realized that his childhood dream had just come true. He had crossed the Northwest Passage and he knew that he could complete the rest of his trip.

August 27, 1905:
"The North West Passage had been accomplished  --  my dream from childhood. This very moment it was fulfilled. I had a peculiar sensation in my throat; I was somewhat overworked and tired, and I suppose it was weakness on my part, but I could feel tears coming to my eyes. 'Vessel in sight!' The words were magical."

(Amundsen, London 1908)

On September 2, however, the ice held him a little west of the mouth of the Mackenzie. Impatient to announce his accomplishment, Amundsen left by sledge with the Inuit who brought the whalers' mail and went to Eagle City, Alaska, 800 kilometres from the coast, to send a telegram to Fridtjof Nansen, then returned to his ship. He reached Bering Strait the following summer and arrived in Nome, on the southern coast of Alaska, in August 1906.

Amundsen's voyage is important because it was the first time that a ship sailed the Northwest Passage. The explorer had gone through great moments of anxiety before the unknown and had faced difficulties sailing in the northern ice. His success lay in his masterful navigation, good preparation and his adaptation to the environment.

"Having achieved the first ambition of my life," wrote Amundsen, "I began looking about for new worlds to conquer." On December 14, 1911, he was the first explorer to reach the South Pole. Thirsting for challenges and for voyages off the beaten track, Amundsen managed, among other things, to fly over the North Pole in a dirigible in May 1926. Two years later, he went looking for an Italian aviator who had disappeared at the North Pole. He never returned.

Joseph Bernier: The arctic islands for Canada

Joseph-Elzéar Bernier (1852 - 1934)

Joseph-Elzéar Bernier was born in L'Islet on New Year's Day 1852. He was part of a line of captains on the south shore of the St. Lawrence. His baptism with the sea occurred at the age of two when his parents took him to Cuba on a ship captained by his father. At 17, his father presented him with a ship that he had had built, to train him. Joseph-Elzéar took it as far as Ireland, where he brought wood. For many years before undertaking his voyages to the Arctic, Bernier crossed the Atlantic, piloting new ships built in Quebec for England on their maiden voyages, a job requiring specific expertise. In 1871, Bernier was in Connecticut when Charles Francis Hall left for his last polar expedition. As of that moment, northern navigation became his primary interest and he built his personal on board library with books and maps on Arctic voyages.

For many years, at the end of the last century, Bernier tried to persuade the Canadian government of the importance of taking possession of the islands north of Canada. Finally, in 1904, he bought a German ship for the government, which he named the Arctic, and filled it with provisions for five years. He planned to go around Cape Horn and enter the Arctic through Bering Strait. However, as he was leaving, the Department of Marine and Fisheries countermanded the expedition and sent him to Hudson's Bay with the Royal North-West Mounted Police to stop a defrauder and to set up posts for this police force. In spite of his disappointment, he would later write that this voyage was useful as they conducted studies on ice and on navigation. "But so far as I was personally concerned the first arctic voyage of real importance to me was that of 1906-07, [...]" (Bernier 1939, 306).

Bernier left Quebec in 1906, headed for the Far North, to confirm Canada's sovereignty over the Arctic islands. The British government had formally ceded these islands to Canada in 1880 but the Canadian government had taken no measures to confirm its sovereignty and to exercise its jurisdiction over this territory. It seemed more important to do this than to try to reach the North Pole, as there was talk in the United States of American explorers taking possession of the Arctic archipelago for their country. The explorations of the Norwegian Sverdrup around Ellesmere Island were so disconcerting to the Canadian government that they paid him a large sum for his surveys and his maps by way of having him abandon any claim.

Like his predecessors, Bernier took Lancaster Sound and reached McClure Strait between Banks and Melville islands, then entered Prince of Wales Strait. During this first voyage, when he stopped at Beechey Island, Bernier found that the rock inscribed by Franklin during his last winter was unsupported. Bernier and his companions built a cairn and put the plaque on it. From island to island, Bernier rediscovered the places that were reached and marked by his predecessors. Thus we learned that some of them had built caches in which they left information and provisions for themselves and for others in case of shipwreck and that these constructions were used as targets by the whalers. Captain Bernier brought back from these caches documents that were left by explorers, which he deposited at the National Archives of Canada. On each of the islands, Bernier and his team conducted topographic surveys followed by a ceremony marking the official taking of possession by Canada.

Between 1906 and 1925, Bernier made twelve trips to the Arctic and spent eight winters there. The expeditions of 1906 to 1909 were primarily conducted to get basic information to claim for Canada all the islands in the Arctic north of the North American continent. The Arctic expeditions ceased during the First World War. Bernier then transported mail on his ship, the Guide, along the shores of the St. Lawrence and the coast of Labrador and also made several transport voyages to Europe. The end of the war was marked by the return of scientific expeditions to the Arctic.

Establishing Canadian sovereignty in the Far North meant introducing the laws of Canada into the region. To this end, Bernier needed to issue permits to whalers and to fishermen who came hunting and fishing in territorial waters. He also participated in the establishment of numerous Royal Canadian Mounted Police posts. He says in his memoirs that the most northerly post, Bache, is the home of Santa Claus and that, each year, thousands of letters to him are delivered there.

When Bernier undertook his voyages, most of the Inuit communities had already been in contact with Europeans and their North American descendants. The latter, even though very paternalistic towards them, as was the norm at the beginning of the 20th century, still needed their help in the Arctic. Bernier hired two Inuit during his first voyage, knowing that they would not only be able to help him on the voyage but would serve as reporters, informing their communities of what they had seen. On his voyages, Bernier transported a large quantity of food and other articles, which he distributed in the Inuit communities.

"[...] but first of all hired young Monkeyshaw, and old Cameo, two Eskimos who would be useful in various ways during the cruise. I had another purpose in view in selecting the men according to their ages. I wanted them to tell their friends what they had seen to the west. If I had taken only a young man, his story would not have been accepted unreservedly by his tribesmen, but with corroboration by an older man his statements would be unquestioned. Besides which as a broadcaster, the young man would live longer."

(Bernier 1939, 312)

Bernier conducted his last voyage to the Arctic as commanding officer in 1925, the same year that he had to abandon the Arctic, which had been worn by the ice. Bernier gave many lectures on the Arctic both in Canada and abroad and continued to travel to all the continents. He died of a heart attack on Christmas Eve 1934.

His explorations and his activities allowed Canada to establish its sovereignty over some 740,000 square kilometres in the Arctic and to sensitize the Canadian public to the political and economic importance of the Far North. It has been written of Captain Joseph Elzéar Bernier that he was the "the greatest Canadian navigator".

Transportation : Three Arctic Vessels

Given the size of the massive icebreakers that smash their way through the Northwest Passage today, it is ironic that the first vessel to navigate the passage was no larger than an average-sized wooden pleasure cruiser. The Gjöa was a 22 metre long fishing boat when Roald Amundsen found it in northern Norway, named for the wife of the first owner. The vessel was rigged for sailing, but Amundsen installed a 13 horsepower diesel engine. "Our successful negotiation of the North West Passage," he wrote, "was very largely due to our excellent little engine." (Delgado 1999, 171) Along with the engine, he reinforced the hull with beams and added a 76-mm-thick layer of oak around the bow.

Amundsen's plan was to launch a small expedition. The Gjöa had a crew of just six, plus 17 sled dogs. (It was hoped that the dogs, as much as possible, would live off the land.) Amundsen knew that the expedition would take him close to shore in narrow channels, littered with shoals, and that such a route was best attempted by a light vessel with a shallow draft. Where others had tried to smash through the ice, he would manoeuvre around and between the floes. Amundsen's plan worked. Today the Gjöa is preserved in dry-dock at the Norsk Sjofartsmuseum in Oslo, Norway.

Captain Bernier's vessel, the Arctic, deserves an honoured place alongside the Gjöa in Canadian maritime history. It was already a veteran of polar exploration when Bernier purchased it for the Canadian government in 1904. Built in Germany as the Gauss, it had taken part in an expedition to the Antarctic in 1901-03 where it became just the second vessel in history to spend the winter. Made of oak, with a 275 horsepower engine and a crew of more than 30 men, at 50 metres the Arctic was much larger than the Gjöa.  --  it had to be to carry out the many duties assigned to it. As well as exploring the archipelago, the Arctic was a patrol vessel, supplying police outposts, surveying harbours, collecting customs and, eventually, making it possible for Canada to lay claim to its most northerly territories.

The Arctic travelled tens of thousands of kilometres through the northern ice without a single serious mishap. During World War One it served as a lightship in the St. Lawrence River, but when the government launched a regular eastern Arctic patrol in 1922, the Arctic, with Captain Bernier at the helm, was pressed back into service for another four seasons. Following the 1925 cruise, Bernier retired and the Arctic was taken out of service and dismantled.

A worthy successor to the Arctic was the St. Roch, launched in Vancouver in 1928 as a patrol vessel for the RCMP's northern division. It was a 32 metre, diesel-powered vessel with a rounded wooden hull that had been specially designed to absorb and deflect the force of the ice. In 1941-42, under Captain Henry Larsen, it replicated the voyage of the Gjöa but in the opposite direction, becoming the first vessel to complete the Northwest Passage from west to east. In 1950 it was the first vessel to circumnavigate North America. Retired in 1954, the St. Roch was declared a National Historic Site and sits in dry-dock, open to visitors, at the Vancouver Maritime Museum.


The blank areas on maps were rapidly filled during the early 20th century. On the 1898-1902 Norwegian expedition led by Otto Sverdrup, the Axel Heiberg and Amund Ringnes Islands were mapped. Sverdrup's maps were purchased by Canada in 1930 for $67 000 to reinforce Canadian claims to the area. From 1903-06 another Norwegian expedition, under Roald Amundsen, made important magnetic surveys that led to the exact location of the Magnetic Pole. Over the following two winters, Amundsen sailed his ship, the Gjöa, through the Northwest Passage, the first European to have done so. Both the Sverdrup and Amundsen expeditions returned with scientific observations and specimens.

The last substantial additions to Canadian territory were made during a series of expeditions led by the Canadian born Vilhjalmur Stefansson (1906-18). From 1908-12 he was sponsored by the American Museum of Natural History, and from 1913 to 1918 by the Canadian Government. Although these expeditions were mainly scientific, they led to the discovery and mapping of the last major Arctic islands  --  Lougheed, Borden, Bank and Meighan, all in the northwestern Arctic.

The expeditions that grabbed the popular imagination around this time were the attempts to reach the Geographic North Pole by the American naval officer, Robert Peary. After a number of attempts, Peary is thought to have reached the Pole on April 6, 1909, with Matthew Henson and four Inuit  --  Oo-tah, E-ging-wah, See-gloo and Oo-ke-ah. The thoroughness and rapidity of the early 20th century surveys were based on the successful adaptation Europeans had made to living and moving in the Arctic since the 19th century Admiralty expeditions. Although credit is often given to the Norwegians for these innovations, they were already being used by Europeans during the 1850s, particularly by John Rae, who was a keen observer of the Inuit.

With many nations involved in Arctic exploration and activities such as whaling, Canada became worried about law enforcement and sovereignty, even though the arctic islands had been transferred by Britain to Canada in 1880. RCMP patrolling and staking of land claims began in 1904, out of bases set up on Herschel Island and at Cape Fullerton. Of the early officers, none travelled more widely than Joseph-Elzéar Bernier (1904-11), probably Canada's greatest arctic navigator. In 1909, on Melville Island, he formally claimed the Arctic Islands for Canada. One of his successors, Henry Asbjorn Larsen, in the RCMP schooner St. Roch, was the second person after Amundsen to traverse the Northwest Passage and the first to do it from west to east (1940-42). In 1944 Larsen was the first to sail the Passage from east to west in one season (86 days) and in 1950, the St. Roch was the first ship to circumnavigate North America. Today the St. Roch is a national historic site in Vancouver.

While these new scientific explorers and law enforcement officers were still preparing maps with the instruments and skills developed in the 19th century, the detailed mapping necessary to a modern society was being done by government agencies. In 1892, the Department of the Interior set up a survey division to prepare maps at a scale of one inch to three miles. They were followed by the Geographic Section of the Department of Militia and Defence in 1904, and the Topographic Survey Division of the Geological Survey in 1908. The latter agency had produced maps since it's inception (1842), but now began producing topographic maps as well.

In 1906, the Deparment of the Interior published the first edition of the National Atlas of Canada with further editions in 1915, 1958, 1974 and 1990s). This was an achievement to be proud of, because Canada became the second country in the world, following Finland (1899), to have accomplished such a feat of mapmaking. The three mapping agencies (the Department of the Interior, the Geographic Section of the Department of Militia and Defence, and the Topographic Survey Division of the Geological Survey) were combined into one in 1923 to develop a system for topographic maps, the precursor of our current mapping system. In spite of its large size and small population, Canada became one of the first countries in the world to be mapped completely at the largest international scale (1:50,000), where one centimetre on the map represents 500 meters on the ground. At this scale, Canada is documented on 13,000 separate map sheets.

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