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About The Royal Canadian Geographical Society

In tune with the times

From its humble origins, Canadian Geographic has evolved with the country and the world
By Monique Roy-Sole with research by Wendy Simpson-Lewis

"This country is rapidly becoming one of the outstanding nations of the world, and it is important that her people should be familiar not only with their own land but also with the geographical and other characteristics of different parts of the Empire and of the countries with which she may have political or trade relations. That will help her to take her proper place, and that is one of increasing significance, in the affairs of the Empire and the world. "

When Viscount Freeman Willingdon, the Governor General of Canada, delivered these words at the inaugural meeting of The Canadian Geographical Society on January 17, 1930, he saw the need for the organization in a country defined by its vast geography, much of it still unknown. But the honorary patron of the fledgling Society also impressed upon the distinguished assembly that it could help inform Canadians about their country’s budding role as a citizen of the world.

Seventy-five years later, with globalization fostering an increasingly borderless world, Canadian Geographic is celebrating its diamond anniversary by devoting this issue to our international ties. It may seem a bit of a departure, given the magazine’s almost exclusive coverage of all things Canadian over the past two decades, but in many ways, it marks a return to our roots.

It was a globe on the cover of the initial issues of the Canadian Geographical Journal, as it was then known, that signalled the magazine’s international scope. Roughly half the articles were of foreign content in the early years, though not quite the informed and critical coverage today’s readers have come to expect. The lead story in the first edition was an account of Viscount and Lady Willingdon’s Christmas vacation in the West Indies.

Travelogues were common and the destinations usually exotic. The narratives were largely descriptive, and the observations were, well, in keeping with the general attitudes of the time. In” Zanzibar and Zanzibarbarians,” published in August 1934, J. Langley Levy wrote of the residents on the African island:” The Arab types on Zanzibar Island look as if they had dropped out of the pages of The Thousand and One Nights or as if they had been contemporary with Omar Khayyám. They are turbaned, or fezzed, and bearded, and these beards are fearful and wonderful things.”

While Canada was in the clutches of the Depression and the magazine struggled to survive, there was curiously no ink spilled on the great economic and social crisis. Instead, readers were introduced to places like Canberra, dubbed” the Ottawa of Australia,” Java, Formosa, Bali and Siam. Book reviews mainly featured titles on international travel, and a regular column called” Geography of world events” was launched in October 1935. In the April 1939 issue, devoted to agriculture, there was even a colourful map of the world entitled” The sun never sets on Massey-Harris,” which highlighted the 52 countries in which the farm-equipment manufacturer conducted business, complete with national flags and coins.

Canadian Geographical Journal

When war was declared on Germany in 1939, the Journal shifted from travel and exploration to the activities of the Canadian Army overseas. Some articles adopted a more didactic approach, such as” Poland’s fight for freedom,” penned in 1939 by Lawrence J. Burpee, the magazine’s founding editor. He offered historical and geographical context for Poland’s wartime plight but didn’t mask his feelings on the nation’s treatment by Germany and Russia.” Someone said to me, ‘Why should I fight for Poland?’ Well, there are a number of reasons, including the not necessarily remote one of self-preservation in a mad world. But, after all, is not this a homely illustration of the situation facing us today: You go for a walk and come upon a big bully choking the life out of a small boy. Will you take a hand in the fight — or will you pass by on the other side? Remember, you can still help the small boy. He is not dead, only desperately hurt.”

Post-war prosperity turned the focus of international coverage to Canada’s trade relations with other countries. In 1945, the Journal ran four features on our trading partners around the world. It continued to publish stories on international travel throughout the 1950s, but more and more they reflected the culture, economy and geography of distant lands, due in part to the frequent contributions of anthropologist Diamond Jenness and the photographer/writer team of Richard and Lyn Harrington, who reported from such far-flung places as Liberia and Swaziland.

Canadian Geographical Journal

Royal fever gripped the nation in the 1950s when Elizabeth II was crowned Queen of the United Kingdom. The Canadian Geographical Journal reflected the joyous mood in its coverage of royal events and even devoted entire issues to the Queen’s coronation (August 1953) and to the royal tour of the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway (September 1959).

The 1960s and 1970s marked a decline in reporting from around the globe, but those stories which did make it in looked more at Canada’s international development role. With the appointment in 1973 of David Maclellan, a passionate nationalist who was the first professional journalist to serve as editor, the magazine began to feature more topics of national priority and interest. Stories with a global angle were few and generally serious and thought-provoking, such as a five-part series on American ownership of our resources and land. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, only the odd article, such as a 1992 report on Canadian peacekeepers, specifically highlighted our role abroad.

With this anniversary issue, Canadian Geographic is reintroducing international coverage, without, however, renouncing its principal focus: reporting in words, photos and maps on how we inhabit this country. Once again, the magazine is evolving to reflect the times — and tipping its hat to its humble origins.

For more history of The Royal Canadian Geographical Society and Canadian Geographic, see Canadian Geographic's Special Feature: History of a Society

— Monique Roy-Sole

Best of times



1929 Charles Camsell and 27 others form The Canadian Geographical Society in February

1930 First issue of Canadian Geographical Journal published in May, includes story on Tibetan travels of Sir Francis Younghusband

1959 Massey Medal inaugurated to honour personal achievement in exploring and describing Canada's geography

1972 Gold Medal established to recognize achievement in field of geography

1973 Research-grants program starts with goal of stimulating students' interest in geography

1985 Launch of first annual photo contest, which drew 3,000 entries from the outset

1992 To celebrate Canada’s 125th birthday, the RCGS sponsors expedition to measure Mount Logan, Canada’s highest peak (5,959 m)

1993 Canadian Council for Geographic Education founded to serve as resource for geography teachers across the country

1994 The Great Canadian Geography Challenge, a nationwide student competition, begins

1995 First poster map, “Canada: A Land of Superlatives,” released; Canadian Geographic website launched

1996 Expeditions committee established; first annual environment issue published in May/June

1997 géographica, the Society's French-language magazine, launches

1998 Canadian Geographic Presents” documentary series hits the airwaves on the Discovery Channel

2001 Canadian Geographic named Magazine of the Year by the National Magazine Awards Foundation; "CG Kids" weekly television series and website debut

2004 Canadian Geographic releases The Canadian Atlas: Our Nation, Environment and People as part of 75th-anniversary celebration
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