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Canada's Northern Strategy

Canadian Arctic Expedition 1913-1918 – Poster

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The Canadian Arctic Expedition marked a significant turning point in Canada’s Arctic territorial history and helped shape Canada into a nation, strong and free. The Canadian Arctic Expedition was the first major multi-disciplinary scientific research study undertaken in the Canadian Arctic. Beginning in 1913, anthropologist Vilhjalmur Stefansson led an international team of scientists, sailors and guides to undertake research and exploration in the western Arctic.

By asserting Canadian control over thousands of square kilometres and confirming Canada’s modern Northern border, the Expedition and its activities laid the foundation for the future of Canada’s development in the Arctic. The Expedition also showed that despite its youth, Canada was prepared to vigorously exercise its sovereignty. Over the course of five years, the Expedition’s work led to unparalleled discoveries, which further defined Canada’s northern boundaries and provided significant scientific and cultural knowledge of the Arctic and Northern peoples.

Vilhjalmur Stefansson at base camp near Cape Kellett, Northwest Territories,
Canadian Museum of Civilization, George
H Wilkins, 50869
Dog sled team travelling up the Firth River, Yukon Territory,
Canadian Museum of Civilization, John Ruggles Cox, 39489


Harold Noice standing beside flag and cairn on Meighan Island, Northwest Territories (Nunavut),
Canadian Museum of Civilization, Vilhjalmur Stefansson, 50688

The work of the Canadian Arctic Expedition was foundational in strengthening Canada's sovereignty over the High Arctic. In 1913, Prime Minister Robert Borden had significant interest in asserting Canada's Arctic sovereignty. By funding the Canadian Arctic Expedition and claiming its discoveries for Canada, the government established a strong foundation for its sovereignty in the North.

The Expedition discovered five major Arctic islands as well as a number of smaller ones, established the outer edge of the Continental shelf and mapped Arctic coastlines. A number of flags were planted, asserting Canadian sovereignty in the High Arctic. Stefansson’s bold, adventurous spirit was a driving force behind this remarkable Expedition, and his daring vision was critical to the Expedition’s success.



Kenneth Chipman taking solar observations at Bernard Harbour, Northwest Territories (Nunavut),
Canadian Museum of Civilization, Rudolph Martin Anderson, 38746

The Southern Party, led by Dr. R. M. Anderson, a zoologist, was the first systematic, interdisciplinary study of the Canadian Arctic. For three years, a diverse group of scientists, including ethnologists, geologists and geographers, worked in the Coronation Gulf region. During this time, they amassed vast volumes of data, specimens and photographic material. The Expedition's scientists gained international acclaim for their research results. Their scientific studies were compiled into 14 volumes and were the basis for future scientific studies in the Arctic. This work helped shape Canadians' understanding of the North, both the land and its people.



Copper Inuit near motion picture camera on Berens Islands, Northwest Territories (Nunavut),
Canadian Museum of Civilization, George H Wilkins, 50913

The Canadian Arctic Expedition had a significant impact on the knowledge and understanding of Northern people, particularly the lesser known Copper Inuit. Diamond Jenness' extensive anthropological studies and collection of artifacts provided great insight into the daily life and culture of Inuit. A large number of Inuit men and women made invaluable contributions to the Canadian Arctic Expedition, acting as guides, seamstresses and cooks, as well as assisting with a number of physical tasks around camp. The relationships established and the knowledge exchanged during the Expedition had lasting impacts on the North and provided a basis for future relations between the Canadian government and Northern peoples.


In Memoriam

The Karluk, ca. 1913-1914. From Fitzhugh Green, Bob Bartlett Master Mariner (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1929) 152.
Courtesy of Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage

Personnel of the Canadian Arctic Expedition were subjected to extraordinary hardships. Although the sinking of the Karluk led to the most dramatic loss of life, many others died over the five year period. During the course of the Expedition, 17 individuals sacrificed their lives.


The Arctic Today

C. Germano, Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada

The Canadian Arctic Expedition propelled a proud Canadian scientific legacy in the North, one that continues to make significant investments in Arctic science and technology. In 2017, the Canadian High Arctic Research Station will open in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut. This world-class Arctic research facility will be on the cutting edge of Arctic issues, including environmental science and resource development.

John Cox taking latitude measurements at harbour at Cape Barrow, Northwest Territories (Nunavut),
Canadian Museum of Civilization, Kenneth Gordon Chipman, 43279

The Government of Canada is committed to working with Northerners as we face the challenges and opportunities of the North. Through Canada's Northern Strategy, the government is supporting economic development, addressing critical infrastructure needs and supporting Northerners' well-being.