University of British Columbia Press, Vancouver, 2010
348 pp., illus., $34.95 paperback
A double review with From Far and Wide: A Complete History of Canada’s Arctic Sovereignty
by Peter Pigott
Dundurn, Toronto, 2011 312 pp., illus., $35 hardcover
As climate change makes the possibility of regular ice-free shipping through the Northwest Passage more likely, there has been an increasing number of books devoted to exploring the question of Arctic sovereignty. Acts of Occupation and From Far and Wide follow a string of books published in the past few years, such as Polar Imperative, by Shelagh D. Grant, and Who Owns the Arctic, by Michael Byers. These titles are the tip of the iceberg — so to speak — suggesting that this topic is not cooling down.
Acts of Occupation looks at a fascinating period between 1918 and 1925, when the age of heroic Arctic exploration was coming to an end and the cautious work of federal bureaucrats to establish Canada’s policy on Arctic sovereignty was just beginning. Personalities such as explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson — a ruthlessly ambitious adventurer with a talent for self-promotion — wrangled with stodgy civil servants like J.B. Harkin, Canada’s first parks commissioner, who regarded the Arctic as part of his domain and thus positioned himself as a player in foreign policy.
The book makes the people behind some of the farcical events of the period come to life. We learn, for instance, that Stefansson, hoping to receive government funding for a new Arctic expedition, fuelled unfounded fears in Ottawa that Denmark had designs on the Arctic territory claimed by Canada. Harkin, ignorant of Arctic history, took Stefansson seriously, leading to a flurry of bumbling diplomatic action.
Meanwhile, Stefansson did not get the government backing he hoped for, so he led his own unsanctioned expedition to claim Wrangel Island — traditionally Russian territory — for Britain in 1921. Four young men died trying to settle the remote island.
Harkin, although successful as parks commissioner, is described as out of his depth in pushing forward his own plans for the Arctic. Harkin was so overconfident that an acquaintance once wryly remarked, “King Henry 8, J.B. Harkin, God, and the Pope will have a great time some day when they all meet.”
Although Harkin didn’t really trust Stefansson, he was enthusiastic about one of the latter’s plans — basically turning Ellesmere Island into a giant muskox ranch. But domesticating the muskox proved unviable. A similar plan to make Baffin Island a grazing range for reindeer imported from Norway also went nowhere.
Since they plumb previously untapped archives, authors Janice Cavell and Jeff Noakes uncover long-hidden but fascinating details about this period. As its title implies, Peter Pigott’s From Far and Wide offers a much broader view of the topic. It covers areas already well trodden by others, but it does so in a lively, even poetic way.
In his introduction, Pigott, a former employee of the Department of Foreign Affairs, describes the book as a play in six acts. Act one is an overview of the British Royal Navy’s role in Arctic exploration. There is a grisly description of how the Franklin expedition came to be poisoned by tinned stew sold to the navy by an unscrupulous London entrepreneur who mixed in bone, hair, and yard dirt and poured it all into lead-soldered cans treated with arsenic.
Act two covers commercial interests in the North — the fur trade and the gold rush — while act three deals with late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century exploration. The frenzy of American military activity in the North during the Second World War is the focus of act four, while acts five and six cover the construction of the Cold War DEW line and, finally, the concerns of the present day.
Pigott’s lively writing will appeal to a non-expert looking for an engaging overview of Canada’s history in the Arctic.
— Nelle Oosterom (Read bio)
Nelle Oosterom is the Senior Editor of Canada's History.