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Canada's Northern Strategy

Canadian Arctic Expedition: 1913-1918

Commemorating the Canadian Arctic Expedition: 1913-1918


The True North Strong and Free

Harold Noice
Title: Harold Noice standing beside flag and cairn on Meighen Island, Northwest Territories (Nunavut)
Source: Canadian Museum of Civilization
CD File No.: CD2003-0269-008
Call no.: 50688

The Canadian Arctic Expedition (CAE) marked a significant turning point in Canada's Arctic territorial history and helped shape Canada into a nation, strong and free. By asserting Canadian control over thousands of square kilometers 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 demonstrate its sovereignty over a contested territory.

Over the course of five years, the Expedition's work led to unparalleled discoveries, including the discovery of previously unknown islands and the collection of thousands of photographs, specimens and artifacts. These discoveries further defined Canada's northern boundaries and provided significant scientific and cultural knowledge of the Arctic and of Northern peoples. The Expedition also had a significant impact on the North, including the introduction of new knowledge, tools and industry to Inuit and Inuvialuit, as well as the establishment of new settlements.



A History of Territorial Expansion

Map of Arctic north
Title: Map of Arctic north
Source: Canadian Museum of Civilization
CD File No.: CD96-663-025
Call no.: 51675

In 1867, Canada was a young and developing country, consisting of the provinces of Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Three years later, Canada expanded to include Rupert's Land and the Northwest Territories through the 1870 Rupert's Land Purchase from the Hudson's Bay Company. In 1880, Canada received confirmation from Britain of its authority over all of the Arctic islands stretching north from the Canadian mainland. It was, however, unclear how far Canada's Arctic borders reached as the region was relatively unknown.

Building on the 1880 confirmation, Canada issued an Order-in-Council in 1895 declaring that its borders extended from the 141° meridian at the Alaskan border to an undefined line west of Greenland. This Order-in-Council established four new districts in the Northwestern Territories: Mackenzie, Ungava, Yukon and Franklin. The district of Franklin would include Canada's High Arctic islands, extending from Victoria Island to Ellesmere Island and across to Baffin Island.

Active in the Arctic

Sir Robert Borden
Title: Sir Robert Borden
Source: Library and Archives Canada
MIKAN no.: 3623356

Canada was slow to exert its sovereignty in the Arctic as there was relatively little interest in developing an area so remote and barren. Throughout the final decades of the 19th century, much to Canada's displeasure, it was common for whalers and explorers from the United States, Russia and Norway, amongst others, to enter Arctic waters without Canada's permission.

One of the most famous of these incursions was Norwegian explorer Otto Sverdrup's 1898-1902 Arctic exploration that mapped most of the previously unknown Ellesmere Island and claimed three new islands for Norway. This triggered a dispute between Norway and Canada that would not be fully resolved until the 1930s.

In the new century, Canada took greater steps to increase its control over the Arctic. In 1903, following reports of rowdiness and lawlessness among American whalers in the Canadian Arctic, two Northwest Mounted Police stations were established, one at Herschel Island and another at Hudson Bay, to administer Canadian law in the region.

In 1913, Prime Minister Robert Borden was informed of two new American expeditions destined for Arctic waters and further threatening Canada's sovereignty. When Manitoba-born Vilhjalmur Stefansson, leader of one of the American-sponsored expeditions, approached the Canadian government for additional funding, Borden saw this as an opportunity to strengthen Canada's control and jurisdiction over the Arctic.

Stefansson's Initial Plans

Vilhjalmur Stefansson was an anthropologist and experienced Arctic explorer, having gone to the Arctic on anthropological expeditions twice before. For his third expedition in 1913, Stefansson hoped to find new undiscovered lands. He first went to American sponsors for funding, collecting a total of $50,000 to finance a crew of six men and one ship. Convinced that he needed more money, he turned to the Geological Survey of Canada, an organisation that had partially funded his earlier expeditions. The Geological Survey's director, Dr. Reginald W. Brock, was impressed with Stefansson's exploration plans and, aware of the sovereignty concerns in the North, sought an expanded role for Canada.

The Canadian Government Collaborates with Stefansson

Vilhjalmur Stefansson
Author: George Hubert Wilkins
Source: Canadian Museum of Nature
CMNAC/1996-057, Box 8

In February 1913, Dr. Brock arranged for a meeting between Stefansson and Prime Minister Borden. After this meeting, a Cabinet sub-committee sent Stefansson an offer. To Stefansson's surprise, the Canadian government offered to pay for the entire Arctic expedition so that any new lands discovered would be recognized as belonging to Canada. Canada's involvement meant that the Expedition grew larger in scale and scope. Instead of six scientists, 14 researchers from the world's top universities, including Edinburgh, Harvard, McGill, Oxford and Toronto, were part of the Expedition. Instead of one ship, four were purchased, with the ex-whaler Karluk as the main vessel.

The Expedition was divided into two parties to accomplish its dual goals of exploration and scientific research. The Northern Party, led by Stefansson, was responsible for discovering new lands, if any existed, on the Beaufort Sea. The Southern Party, led by Stefansson's long-time colleague, zoologist Dr. R. M. Anderson, was to conduct scientific research around the Coronation Gulf. The initial budget of the entire Expedition was $75,000, a figure that ballooned to $559,972 by the Expedition's conclusion in 1918. Sailing from Victoria, British Columbia, in the summer of 1913, the Canadian Arctic Expedition was the first major multinational, multidisciplinary, systematic study of the Arctic.

Routes Taken by the Canadian Arctic Expedition

Northern Party

The Canadian Arctic Expedition left Victoria, British Columbia, in June 1913 and travelled to Nome, Alaska, where the Expedition's Northern and Southern parties parted ways. Following the sinking of the Karluk in January 1914, the Northern Party's composition changed dramatically and there were doubts as to whether the Northern Party could even continue its Arctic mission. Despite the skepticism, Stefansson managed to rebuild the Northern Party and establish a base at Cape Kellett. From there, Expedition members would travel to Banks Island and explore the Beaufort Sea, searching for new islands.

Southern Party

The Southern Party sailed from Nome, Alaska, in July 1913. Due to unfavourable weather, the Southern Party wintered at Collinson Point, Alaska, for most of that year. When conditions improved, the Southern Party established a base known as Bernard Harbour. Despite the initial delay, the group of scientists managed to complete most of their objectives by 1916. Most of the field work related to botany, geology, geography, oceanography, zoology and other scientific disciplines were conducted in the Coronation Gulf region.

Defining Canada's Borders: The Discovery of New Territory

In a span of five years, the Canadian Arctic Expedition covered over 10 000 km2 of previously unknown territory and discovered five of the last six unknown Canadian Arctic islands. After the Expedition, 53 geographical features, ranging from creeks, lakes and straits, were also named in honour of Expedition members.

Unlike traditional explorers who carried heavy supply cargoes, Stefansson undertook "ice trips" on which he and a handful of companions lived off the ice and the land, relying on seals and caribou for food and fuel. Stefansson's exploration method proved effective and superior to a competing 1913-1917 American Arctic expedition led by Donald Baxter MacMillan. When his supplies ran out in 1916, MacMillan was forced to return to his base to reload. In contrast, Stefansson's "living off the ice" method allowed him to continue exploration despite limited supplies.

After the Expedition, most countries recognized Stefansson's discoveries in the Beaufort Sea. The only significant Arctic sovereignty dispute that emerged following the Expedition was over Ellesmere Island, which Denmark claimed was "no man's land" and open territory. Stefansson, however, believed that Canada needed to strengthen its Arctic presence through occupation and economic development of the newly discovered islands, asserting that his "living off the ice" method was feasible for everyone. Stefansson offered a new way of thinking about the Arctic, not as a wasteland, but as an area full of potential.

The North American Arctic was "the one remaining place in the world where great geographical discovery was possible."

Dr. Reginald Brock, Director of the Geological Survey of Canada, 1913.

Larger Islands:
  • 1915 – Brock Island, 764 km2
  • 1915 – Borden Island, 2795 km2
  • 1915 – Mackenzie King Island, 5048 km2
  • 1916 – Lougheed Island, 1312 km2
  • 1916 – Meighan Island – 955 km2
Smaller Islands:
  • Jenness Island
  • 1917 - Elvina Island, Kilian Island, Mikkelsen Island and others


Arctic Scientific Advancement by the Southern Party

While the Expedition's Northern Party was accountable to the Department of the Naval Service, the Southern Party was responsible to the Geological Survey, under the Department of Mines. Dr. Brock, the Geological Survey's director, had actively fought for the inclusion of scientific discovery in the Expedition, resulting in the creation of the Southern Party. The Party's mandate of multidisciplinary Arctic scientific research was unique and unprecedented. Within three years, the Party successfully gathered a great deal of scientific results. Some of the Party's accomplishments are detailed below.


Rudolph Anderson with a loon
Title: Rudolph Anderson with a loon at Bernard Harbour, Northwest Territories (Nunavut)
Source: Canadian Museum of Civilization
CD File No.: CD96-663-004
Call no.: 51614

The Southern Party assembled an impressive collection of rare bird and mammal specimens. Dr. Anderson personally collected 616 specimens of 73 species of arctic birds. These included the rock ptarmigan and yellow-billed loon. The Southern Party also collected 422 specimens of 22 species of mammals, including an arctic ground squirrel and a musk ox. These collections were later given to the National Museum of Canada in Ottawa. Today, the collection is found at the Canadian Museum of Nature.



Copper Inuit on shore at Bernard Harbour
Title: Copper Inuit on shore at Bernard Harbour, Northwest Territories (Nunavut)
Source: Canadian Museum of Civilization
CD File No.: CD95-953-024
Call no.: 42228

At the time of the Expedition, the Copper Inuit were an isolated, little-known community residing mainly in the Coronation Gulf and on Victoria Island. A number of Copper Inuit often visited the Southern Party at Bernard Harbour, mostly out of curiosity. Many of the Copper Inuit had never seen a non-Inuit before. Initially, two anthropologists were tasked with studying the Inuit: Henri Beuchat, who perished after the sinking of the Karluk, and Diamond Jenness. Jenness extensively studied Copper Inuit culture, language and general physical features. He also collected artifacts including snow goggles made of caribou antler, bone or wood, and a dancing hat made from caribou and seal skin. His recordings of folk songs and stories are some of the only remnants of a pre-contact Copper Inuit culture. Because of his work with the Expedition, he later became one of Canada's most prominent anthropologists.


Canadian geographer John Ruggles Cox
Title: John Cox taking latitude measurements at harbour at Cape Barrow, Northwest Territories (Nunavut)
Source: Canadian Museum of Civilization
CD File No.: CD96-604-029
Call no.: 43279

The Southern Party made significant advances in geography, largely due to the work of Canadian geographers John Ruggles Cox and Kenneth Chipman. Together, Cox and Chipman corrected and updated old British maps dating from the 1850s. Arctic weather conditions often slowed the progress of their efforts. To be more efficient, they divided the work, with Chipman surveying the east branch of the Mackenzie River and Cox surveying the west branch. The Southern Party successfully updated maps of the mainland coast of Northern Canada, the Mackenzie River Delta, and Bathurst Inlet.

Canadian geographer Kenneth Chipman
Title: Kenneth Chipman taking solar observations at Bernard Harbour, Northwest Territories (Nunavut)
Source: Canadian Museum of Civilization
CD File No.: CD95-937-005
Call no.: 38746


After the Expedition, the Southern Party produced 64 reports, compiled in 14 volumes, of the Expedition's research. The Canadian Arctic Expedition established Canada's reputation as a leading expert in Arctic science. Many of these reports are still relevant, particularly in understanding the impact of climate change on the Arctic.

The Sinking of the Karluk

The Karluk
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

Tragedy struck the Expedition in January 1914 when the Northern Party's vessel, the Karluk, sank near Wrangel Island off the coast of Siberia. Caught in ice floes in August 1913, the Karluk drifted off course until it was trapped near Camden Bay. After a month immobilized by the ice, Stefansson led a caribou hunting party of five men. Two days later, a violent snowstorm unexpectedly propelled the Karluk towards Siberia, permanently separating Stefansson from the Karluk. The vessel remained off the Siberian coast until it finally sank on January 11, 1914. The Karluk crew members survived the sinking but not all survived the aftermath. Eight men drowned or froze to death while attempting to reach land off the coast of Wrangel Island. Two others died from food poisoning and one died of a gunshot wound, apparently accidental. In autumn 1914, after the Karluk's captain, Robert Bartlett, and Inuit guide, Kataktovik, journeyed to Siberia to find help, the remaining crew members were finally rescued. Following his separation from the Karluk in September 1913, Stefansson managed to return to Alaska where he formed a new Northern Party.

A Clash of Personalities

Stefansson was recognised as a daring Arctic explorer and a visionary. His strong personality, though, often clashed with the more practical minded Southern Party scientists. Believing that discovery of new islands was more important than scientific research, he often demanded the use of the Southern Party's resources, most famously the Southern Party's vessel the North Star. To Stefansson's annoyance, the Southern Party aggressively protested against his demands. After the Expedition, Stefansson wrote a scathing account of the scientists in his 1921 bestseller The Friendly Arctic. In his book, Stefansson exaggerated the Expedition's exploits and created a mythic perception of the Arctic. He also publicly accused the Southern Party of mutiny and subordination, particularly over their unwillingness to lend him the North Star. His book sparked a long, bitter, public feud between him and the Southern Party that was never fully resolved.

Exploration in the Not-So-Friendly Arctic

Men moving supplies by sled
Title: Men moving supplies by sled in Alaska
Source: Canadian Museum of Civilization
CD File No.: CD96-650-024
Call no.: 50737

The Arctic is a harsh, demanding environment. During the winter, the Arctic is dark and freezing with few, if any, hours of daylight. Without proper equipment like snow goggles or warm clothes, explorers could suffer from snow blindness, frostbite and exposure. In the winter, large ice floes prevented ships from sailing. Explorers had to travel by dog sled which often required frequent rest stops. The summer, in contrast, was more accessible, but the season was short and had its own perils. A major plague was mosquitoes. One Expedition member recalled, "It is the astounding atmosphere of mosquitoes that envelops the whole face of the country in the summertime that is the real curse."

Staying healthy was also difficult. If lucky, crew members could eat seal, polar bear and caribou meat. Without proper nutrition, men developed scurvy, caught typhoid, or worse. Those inflicted with scurvy were often too weak to walk. Their teeth, according to Stefansson, were so loose that they could "be easily plucked out by the fingers." By 1916, even the usually strong Stefansson caught typhoid and pneumonia because of an unbalanced diet and exposure. His companion Storker Storkerson had to continue Stefansson's work without him in 1917. In total, 17 men lost their lives during the Expedition, with causes of death including suicide, starvation and exposure.


Contact with Northern Cultures

Copper Inuit archer
Title: Copper Inuit archer on Victoria Island, Northwest Territories
Source: Canadian Museum of Civilization
CD File No.: CD2003-0396-026
Call no.: 51167

For much of its early history, the Canadian government knew little about its Arctic territory and the Inuit who lived there. As part of its scientific mandate, the Expedition set out to learn more about Northerners. It encountered a strong, resilient, but largely isolated nomadic people who lived off the land and the ice. Some groups like the Inupiat were used to visitors from Russia, Alaska and Canada. Others, such as the Copper Inuit and the Netsilik Inuit, had almost no contact with outsiders. Through the Expedition's interaction with Northerners, the Canadian government learned more about Inuit languages, cultures and way of life.


Cooperation with Northerners

Copper Inuit near motion picture camera
Title: Copper Inuit near motion picture camera on Berens Islands, Northwest Territories (Nunavut)
Source: Canadian Museum of Civilization
CD File No.: CD96-653-022
Call no.: 50913

A number of Inuit were employed by both the Northern and Southern parties throughout the Expedition. Without Inuit assistance and expertise, more lives would have undoubtedly been lost during the Expedition. Inuit men often acted as guides, hunters, sled drivers and, in some cases, interpreters. Inupiat Patsy Klengenberg, son of a Danish whaler and an Alaskan Inupiat mother, for instance, became Jenness' apprentice. Jenness said of Patsy, "No better interpreter could have been found anywhere along the Arctic coast." Also vital to the Expedition were Inuit women who worked as cooks and seamstresses. Their supportive role was invaluable to survival of the Expedition, especially since exposure to the harsh Arctic climate and an unbalanced diet could lead to death. Stefansson once wrote that "an excellent seamstress [is] something no party wintering on the Arctic coast can afford to be without."


Cultural and Political Implications of the Expedition

Rock cairn
Title: Rock cairn in form of a cross near Port Epworth, Northwest Territories (Nunavut)
Source: Canadian Museum of Civilization
CD File No.: CD95-939-006
Call no.: 38873

When news of the Expedition spread, it drew unprecedented attention to Northerners. People from around the world were interested in studying the Arctic, leading to a high volume of explorers and traders in the Arctic. The Expedition also introduced new technology through trade to Northern peoples. In exchange for clothes, bows, arrows, stone pots and lamps, Expedition members often traded sewing needles, boxes of matches, knives, rifles and ammunition. These exchanges had both negative and positive effects on the Inuit and their lifestyle. The widespread use of rifles and snares led to a sharp decline in caribou and seals, creating a food shortage for Inuit communities. Intermarriages during and after the Expedition were common as well. These often led to offspring who were not fully accepted in either cultural community.


Canada's Northern Strategy

Exercising Our Arctic Sovereignty

Concept image of the CCGS John G. Diefenbaker
Concept image of the CCGS John G. Diefenbaker, which will be the first large icebreaker constructed in Canada in more than 20 years.

Courtesy of Canadian Coast Guard

Since the 1930s, there have been no significant challenges to Canada's sovereignty over its northern lands and islands, though disputes have occurred over Arctic waters. In the 1970s, to strengthen our Arctic claims, the government established a 100 nautical mile pollution prevention zone, later extended to 200 miles, as well as a 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone. In 1986, Canada claimed the North West passage as internal Canadian waters through the establishment of straight baselines around Canada's Arctic marine territory. Today, as a signatory to the United Nations Commission on the Law of the Sea, Canada is submitting a case to extend its continental shelf. The government also continues to firmly assert its presence in the North, having recently established an Army Training Centre in Resolute Bay, as well as having launched the procurement of new Arctic offshore patrol ships and a new polar icebreaker – the largest and most powerful ever in the Canadian Coast Guard Fleet.

Today's World-Class Science

© Ed Struzik – Aboriginal Affairs and
Northern Development Canada

The Canadian Arctic Expedition propelled a proud Canadian scientific legacy in the North – one that is stronger than ever today. As part of the Government of Canada's integrated Northern Strategy, Canada has and continues to make significant investments in Arctic science and technology. The Canadian High Arctic Research Station (CHARS) will be built in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, and is expected to open in summer 2017. CHARS will be a solutions-driven, world-class Arctic research facility that will be on the cutting edge of Arctic issues, including environmental science and resource development. Building on the capacity, success and leadership of the International Polar Year with regard to Arctic science and technology, CHARS will anchor a strong research presence in Canada's North by complementing the existing network of Arctic expertise and facilities.


Northerners in the 21st Century

© C. Germano – Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada

Today, proud Northerners lend their voices and talents to Aboriginal self-government and modern treaties, territorial politics and administration, and Canada's national democracy. The North also has a rich cultural landscape, with traditional cultural practices being preserved and evolving alongside new media and ideas. In recent years, domestic and international interest in the North has intensified because of the potential for resource development, the opening of new transportation routes and the growing impacts of climate change. The government is committed to working with Northerners as we together face these and other opportunities and challenges. Through Canada's Northern Strategy, the government is supporting economic development, addressing critical infrastructure needs and supporting Northerners' well-being. This partnership recognizes that Canada's future is intimately tied to the future of the North and seeks to leave a lasting legacy for generations to come.

© Ed Struzik – Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada

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