Update to Chapter 6 of Acts of Occupation

Captain Joseph Bernier aboard C.G.S. Arctic, 1923.

Captain Joseph Bernier aboard the C.G.S. Arctic, 1923.
Library and Archives Canada, PA-118126.

When researching Acts of Occupation, one of our main challenges was to unearth the relevant information from the labyrinth of old government files at Library and Archives Canada. Filing systems in the 1920s were a vast improvement over those used in the nineteenth century, but key facts would often be missing from the major files, only to be found lurking in a minor file whose title might or might not give a clear indication of its contents.

To our dismay, even after much searching we couldn’t definitively answer one very important question: how was the decision to send the first Eastern Arctic Patrol in 1922 made? The planned 1921 patrol was cancelled, but J.B. Harkin, Jack Craig, and Oswald Finnie of the Department of the Interior were all determined that in 1922 the CGS Arctic would carry a patrol north. However, their efforts to influence the new Minister of the Interior, Charles Stewart, seemed to have little effect – until, in May 1922, the Cabinet suddenly decided to send the patrol. The main Department of the Interior file on the Arctic islands (RG 85 vol. 583 file 571) was frustratingly silent on how this came about. We could only speculate that Vilhjalmur Stefansson’s entreaties about Wrangel Island had turned the new Liberal government’s attention to Arctic issues generally (p. 146).

As it turns out, we weren’t wrong, but the story has a surprising twist to it, involving the famous Canadian explorer Joseph Bernier. When doing research for another Arctic project, I (Janice) found the long-sought documents in file 2502 (“C.G.S. Arctic Explorations & Radio Messages, Reports & Pictures”). Jeff and I already knew that Bernier, his colleague Alfred Tremblay, and a few of their business associates had organized a company called the Arctic Exchange and Publishing Company, and that Tremblay contacted the government in February 1922 with an offer to occupy the Arctic islands in exchange for cash subsidies and the exclusive right to carry out commercial activities there. The file on the Arctic Exchange and Publishing Co. (file 928) shows that government officials disliked the idea and quickly rejected it. As far as file 928 indicates, that was essentially the end of the matter.

However, the documents in file 2502 show that early in May 1922, soon after Minister Stewart had met with Stefansson for the first time, another meeting was called – this one to discuss the Bernier plan. Bernier and his associates had persuaded the Minister of Marine and Fisheries, Ernest Lapointe, and a few other Quebec MPs to plead their cause with Stewart. In deference to his colleagues, Stewart agreed to give the plan a hearing. Those present at the meeting were Stewart, Deputy Minister of the Interior W.W. Cory, Harkin, Finnie, Craig, Bernier, Lapointe, and two MPs.

But Stewart too rejected the application, which was long on promises but short on practical details. Taking deft advantage of the situation, Harkin, Finnie, and Craig then persuaded him that the government itself must take action. A memo written by Craig on 10 May records the decision – unfortunately, without explaining just what arguments were used to win Stewart over.

Bernier personally had no reason to regret the way things went, for he was appointed to once again command his beloved ship, the Arctic. His associates weren’t so happy: for years they continued to send angry complaints that their proposal would have been successful but for the machinations of bureaucrats, and that the company would have done “twenty times as much good work to the advantage of Canada, as you have done with your expensive expeditions.” (Joseph Béland to Lapointe, 15 June 1925, on file 928).

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