About The Royal Canadian Geographical Society
|Traverse of Ellesmere
Island, Nunavut (Photo: John Dunn)
For 80 years, the RCGS has been a driving force in the Canadian Arctic
By Mary Vincent with research by Wendy Simpson-Lewis
The Canadian Geographical Society in 1929,
he had a bold ambition: to make the educational organization a leader in informing
Canadians about the geography of their country. For Camsell, the key to understanding Canada was to understand the Arctic. While the North
has come and gone from and returned to the public and political agendas, the Society has been a strong proponent
of the region, through its programs and magazine, for 80 years. In May 1930, the first issue of the Canadian
Geographical Journal, as this magazine was then known, featured sketches and paintings of the landscapes and
people of the Arctic Archipelago by Frederick Banting, who co-discovered insulin, and Group of Seven artist
A. Y. Jackson. That article’s scope set the tone for the Society’s continued coverage
of Arctic issues.
The Society’s work in Northern Canada was launched by Camsell’s guiding hand. This self-described “son of the
North” was born in Fort Liard, N.W.T., in 1876, the son of a Chief Factor of the Hudson’s Bay Company. The Arctic was in his blood.
A visionary geologist and map-maker, Camsell was the Geological Survey of Canada’s Geologist in Charge of Exploration and had the
monumental task of overseeing the exploration of vast northern tracts covering 1.4 million square kilometres, or about 25 percent of the
country. He was an early advocate of using airplanes to survey the Arctic and, throughout his lifetime, travelled to many areas still
unexplored and unmapped.
Camsell, who died in 1958, was the first in a long line of Society affiliates to be in the vanguard of geographical
exploration of the Arctic. Moira Dunbar (1918-1999) was also a trailblazer on many levels. She was one of the
first women to fly over the North Pole and was the first woman to conduct scientific observations from Canadian
icebreakers, and she remains the only female recipient of the Society’s
Medal, awarded annually to recognize outstanding achievement in the exploration, development or
description of Canada’s geography. In 1947, Dunbar left a successful career as a stage actress in London, England,
to move to Canada. She joined the Canadian Defence Research Board in 1952 to study Arctic geography and
sea ice, working on the standardization of ice terminology and making important findings on the climatology of ice
distribution. As the citation for her Massey Medal notes: “No one intending to do anything in northern transportation
is likely to get very far without making use of her research.”
A. Y. Jackson by Frederick Banting. (From Canadian Geographical Journal, May 1930)
Other Massey medallists have also made invaluable
contributions to our knowledge of the Arctic. In 1959, the Society awarded the first medal to Henry Larsen (1899-
1964), the great Canadian navigator who captained the RCMP patrol vessel St. Roch on the first journey through
the Northwest Passage from west to east, helping Canada mark its Arctic sovereignty.
and Moira Dunbar (TOP, in 1956) and Arctic Ocean expert Eddy Carmack (BELOW)
won Massey medals for northern research.
(Photos: Top courtesy of Dougal Dunbar; below, Deddeda Stemler)
In the 1980s, Richard Harington, the 1987 Massey medallist, led work on climatic changes of the past 20,000
years, just as climate change was emerging as an environmental issue. Archaeologist
Robert McGhee, recipient of
the award in 2000, has pioneered studies on the development of Inuit cultures. One of the world’s most respected
experts on the Arctic Ocean is Eddy Carmack, who won
the medal in 2007. Like the Society, he strives to make science and geography accessible, and as a volunteer on Students
on Ice expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctic, Carmack has introduced teens to the
complexities of ocean currents. For International Polar Year, he undertook the most ambitious
study yet of Canada’s oceans (Canadian Geographic July/Aug 2007).
One of the Society’s greatest
achievements in the North is the Mount Logan Expedition. In celebration of
Canada’s 125th birthday in 1992, the Society sponsored a climb to the top of Canada’s tallest mountain to determine
its precise height. Until then, there were no accurate measurements of the massif, located in southwestern
Yukon. “The exact height of the tallest mountain was something Canadians really should know about their
country,” noted expedition leader Michael Schmidt in a Canadian Geographic article
on the expedition (Sept/Oct 1992). On reaching the summit, the team used Global Positioning System technology
— relatively new at the time — to calculate the elevation of Mount Logan at 5,959 metres. As its flag
flapped vigorously on the peak, the Society literally made its mark on Northern Canada.
As the North plays an increasingly important environmental and economic role in Canada’s future, the Society
is committed to promoting geography’s importance in understanding the region’s evolving issues, such as climate
change, Arctic sovereignty and resource development. For its 80th anniversary, the Society, in partnership with the
Canadian Museum of Nature, launched a travelling photography exhibit on the Canadian
Arctic, which opened in June in London, England. It’s a retrospective of some of the
best images of the landscapes, wildlife and people of the North to have been featured
in Canadian Geographic over the past eight decades. Taking a cue from its goal
to make Canada better known to Canadians and to the world, the Society is putting the Arctic in the
global spotlight with this photographic showcase.
This image, taken in the
early 1950s, is featured in the “Accessible Arctic” photo exhibit. (Photo: Richard Harrington)
Mary Vincent is a writer in Ottawa. Wendy Simpson-Lewis is the Society’s historian.
“I grew up hearing all about the Sydney steel mill, the tar ponds and the controversy over the cleanup. The more I read and learned, the more my curiosity was piqued. It seemed a natural area for me to take my studies.”
— Hannah MacDonald,
Mount Allison University