Gordon W. Smith’s A historical and legal study of sovereignty in the Canadian North: terrestrial sovereignty, 1870-1939


Gordon W. Smith has long been known to historians of northern Canada for his ground-breaking work in the 1960s on Canada and arctic sovereignty. In the years that followed, he devoted his time and his impressive research skills to a comprehensive study that would cover every possible aspect of the subject from 1870 up to his own day.

Smith produced a lengthy manuscript fairly early on in the process, then spent over two decades carrying out additional research, often gaining privileged access to closed government files. Sadly, however, he never either completely finished the manuscript or incorporated most of his new findings into it. His massive work, thousands of handwritten pages long, remained unready for publication at the time of his death in 2000.

Smith’s friends and relatives knew that the manuscript nevertheless had great value. Last year, the University of Calgary Press published its first part, edited by Whitney Lackenbauer.

Even though it’s abridged, the edited version runs to nearly 500 pages! An electronic version is available free of charge on the University of Calgary Press website. In an era when academic books can bear substantial price tags, many thanks are due to those who made this possible.

One of us (Janice) had the opportunity to review the publication.

As she mentions, during our research for Acts of Occupation, we came across correspondence between Smith and Arctic geographer Trevor Lloyd, whose papers in the Trent University Archives contain many copied documents on the sovereignty scare created by Vilhjalmur Stefansson. In 1920, Stefansson told Canadian officials that there was a Danish plot to take over some of Canada’s Arctic islands. According to Stefansson, the Danish explorer Knud Rasmussen was pretending to have scientific motives, when in fact he planned to colonize uninhabited Canadian islands with Greenlanders.

Lloyd read Smith’s draft manuscript in 1974. Smith accepted Stefansson’s story as true, but Lloyd had already done extensive research in Danish archives and in the files of the British Foreign Office. His findings proved that there never was any Danish plot, so he convinced Smith to change his analysis of this episode.

We’re happy to take this opportunity to highlight Lloyd’s research and his contribution to Smith’s work. Here are links to an obituary of Lloyd and a photo of him receiving the Hans Egede Medal from Prince Henrik of Denmark in 1984.

Spotted in the Archives

One of the Loening Amphibians used by the 1925 Macmillan-Byrd Expedition, at Squantum, Massachusetts. Chapter 8 of the book discusses the Canadian response to the expedition, which proposed to search previously unexplored Arctic areas using three aircraft such as this. By 1925, Canadian officials were far better prepared to react to threats to Arctic sovereignty than they had been just a few years earlier.

Photograph by Leslie Jones
Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection, 08_06_001830

Fresh and cold–Lager beer direct from the North Pole

Fresh and cold--Lager beer direct from the North Pole

This 1877 advertisement, printed by the A. Hoen & Company of Baltimore, seemed particularly appropriate for this Canada Day long weekend, when more than a few lagers and other beverages will be consumed. Happy Canada Day!

Fresh and cold–Lager beer direct from the North Pole
A. Hoen & Co., Baltimore
Published by F. Klemm, No. 254 N. Central Ave., c1877
Library of Congress, cph 3g04440

J. B. Harkin’s Marriage

J. B. Harkin is a key figure in Acts of Occupation, yet one about whom there is little biographical information. We were able to put together a picture of his career from government files, but since he left no personal papers, his private, emotional life remained somewhat of a mystery. (Harkin’s biographer E. J. Hart also had little to say about the private side in his recent book, J. B. Harkin: Father of Canada’s National Parks). There seemed to us to be hints of some private frustration that made Harkin especially determined, even unrelenting, in pursuit of his career goals, but we had only guesses in place of conclusive facts.

We knew that Harkin had not married until December 1924, the month before his forty-ninth birthday. We knew, too, that the marriage ceremony was carried out at home, by a Presbyterian minister, even though Harkin himself was Roman Catholic. The bride, Jean McCuaig, had worked in the same government department as Harkin for many years. The likelihood was that they had known each other a long time. Harkin’s mother, Eliza, to whom he was devoted, had died of influenza a few years before. Was the difference in religion, which might have upset a devout mother, the reason for his long bachelorhood?

This is the kind of question that often teases historians but seldom gets a clear-cut answer. We were therefore delighted to hear from a reader who was also a relative of the Harkins. She told us that her mother had often recounted the story of how “Uncle Bun” (Harkin’s nickname was Bunny) and Jean McCuaig had been in love for years, but waited until after his mother’s death to marry. “This tale of sorrow and romance was piquant enough to be passed on to me after three generations,” she comments. She also provided this beautiful photo of Jean (far right) with her two sisters, Jessie and Anna Isobel. The second photo, taken by Jeff, shows the Harkins’ grave in Beechwood Cemetery, Ottawa.

Our thanks to Margot McPherson!

Resources: The Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum on Tumblr

The Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum at Bowdoin College has been on Tumblr for a number of months now. Its staff regularly uploads new content relating to the museum, its collections, and its activities. Among the people who show up are Peary and MacMillan (obviously), but also others like W. Elmer Ekblaw, one of the members of the 1913-1917 Crocker Land Expedition. Vilhjalmur Stefansson would later use Ekblaw’s 1920 article “A Recent Eskimo Migration and its Forerunner” to help fabricate a (non-existent) Danish threat to Canadian arctic sovereignty.

You can visit the museum’s Tumblr at:


Personalities: Otto Julius Klotz

Otto Julius Klotz, 1901

One of the pleasures of archival research is encountering people through the records they’ve left behind. In some cases, documents can give only brief insights, but in others, they can reveal fascinating personalities. Dominion Astronomer Otto Klotz is one of the latter.

Our research led us to Klotz because of his membership in the Advisory Technical Board (ATB), which had been created to consider complex or technical matters brought to the attention of the Department of the Interior. We were trying to reconstruct the events surrounding Stefansson’s warning of the (non-existent) Danish threat to Canadian arctic sovereignty, and the origins of the planned government expedition in 1920. Klotz had been a member of the Board (and, it turned out, of its Arctic subcommittee), so we turned to his papers at Library and Archives Canada. Fortunately for us, Klotz was an inveterate diarist, who penned daily entries from 1866 until his death in 1923. He recorded details of his daily life, including his official duties. Even better, he did so legibly and with a delightfully wry sense of humour, making him a very useful and eminently quotable source.

In October of 1920, for instance, Klotz reported on the rapidly developing plans to counter the perceived Danish threat:

In morning meeting of our Advis. Tech. Board and we learned that our memo of last Friday about the Arctic Islands was changed by the Gov’t to an immediate “land expedition” by the Mounted Police to be followed in the spring by one by vessel. — We all smiled. We can see the Mounted Police charging “overland & overice” from Winnipeg to Ellesemere Land — 2000 miles in an fair line — establishing posts, law and order among the musk ox, and above all establishing sovereignty against the wily Danes until the exploring ship arrives next year. We authorized our chairman Dr. Deville to discuss with the Deputy Minister the matter rationally instead of plunging blindly into a wild ill-considered scheme. We all believe in obtaining the sovereignty for Canada, but use reason & common sense to attain the end.

(Otto Klotz diary, 20 October 1920)

A week later, he noted further developments, including the proposal to use an airship to transport people to Ellesmere Land:

Advis. Tech Board meeting in morning. Another resolution about Arctic Islands — recommending immediate effort with a ship to reach Bylot Island; also for a dirigible to proceed from Scotland to Ellesmere Land — some 2000 miles — which it is supposed to do in 70 hours! — and then what? plant the British flag — and impress the Eskimos if there are any — and the musk ox! … — Our whole business is a comedy.

(Otto Klotz diary, 27 October 1920)

In addition to his reports on the ATB’s activities, Klotz’s diary also contains a wide range of observations about his experiences and life in Ottawa. He commented on many aspects of his day-to-day life, including Shakespeare (“I always feel when seeing Richard III played like going on to the stage & murdering the arch fiend — the Duke of Gloucester”), or the date for Thanksgiving (“a most commendable custom”), which was not yet fixed by law (“But as the day has no fixture in our calendar, one can not plan long in advance for the occasion”). The diary’s a fascinating document, and it was one of the many happy discoveries during our research.

As with so many of the other figures in Acts of Occupation, Otto Klotz is buried in Beechwood Cemetery, and we found his family headstone when we visited there towards the end of our research. One of his sons (Max) predeceased him by two years, and is buried nearby. As he did with so many other things in his life, Klotz wrote about the sad event in his diary.

To learn more about Otto Klotz, see his entry in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, as well as his Wikipedia page. His papers, including the wonderful diaries, are held by Library and Archives Canada (R6645-0-4-E / MG30-B13), and there’s an online finding aid.

Journeys to the Ends of the Earth: Scholars explore connections between polar explorations, past and present

Polar map from The Quarterly Review, October 1817, page 214.

From the current issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education:

Over the past decade, global warming has melted polar sea ice down to record lows—but during the same period, thanks to a growing awareness of the climate phenomenon, the Arctic and the Antarctic have vastly expanded in the popular imagination. Nowhere is that clearer than in the broad recent interest in the European, Russian, and North American explorers who crisscrossed the poles in the 19th and early 20th centuries, searching for trade routes like the Northwest Passage and the mythical Open Polar Sea.

Amateur adventurers are following in the early explorers’ tracks: A six-man crew rowed 460 miles to the magnetic North Pole last year in a testosterone-fueled attempt to best Ernest Shackleton’s 1916 polar rowing record, and this summer, the New Bedford Whaling Museum sponsored a voyage to replicate the 1869 Bradford-Hayes artistic expedition up the coast of Greenland. Creative reinterpretations of the early polar narratives have been plentiful over the past decade, including this year’s Dead Men by Richard Pierce, exploring the legacy of the ill-fated Scott Antarctic expedition, and Mat Johnson’s 2011 novel Pym, a retelling of Edgar Allan Poe’s 1838 Antarctic nightmare The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. Even the TV survivalist Bear Grylls is getting in on the act, claiming to have discovered relics of the British explorer John Franklin’s lost 1845 Arctic expedition.

Russell Potter, a historian of polar exploration at Rhode Island College and founder of the online Arctic Book Review, says he’s seen a major upswing in writing about the poles over the past 15 years. In the mid-90s, he would receive a handful of books on the subject each year; more recently, he’s received as many as 30. He attributes the interest to global warming as well as to a postmodern nostalgia for an imagined age of heroism. There’s an “elegiac sense of the passing of the era and the loss of the beauty and the danger of ice,” he says. “These stories from the heroic age with a reflection of how these things have changed today, that fascinates people.”

Read the rest of Britt Peterson’s article “Journeys to the Ends of the Earth: Scholars explore connections between polar explorations, past and present” in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Canada’s Far North was site of lifelong passion for Geoffrey Hattersley-Smith

Geoffrey Hattersley-Smith, from the obituary in the Globe and Mail

Geoffrey Hattersley-Smith, from the obituary in the Globe and Mail.

Noted glaciologist and polar academic Geoffrey Hattersley-Smith died just over a month ago at the age of 89. From Josh Wingrove’s obituary for Hattersley-Smith in the Globe and Mail:

At first, the ice didn’t interest Geoffrey Hattersley-Smith. The young man who grew up in southeast England instead wanted to study forestry. There was much, though, that he hadn’t planned on.

He left school to serve in the Royal Navy, because he felt he should, and later found himself serving during D-Day.

In the end, it was another subject entirely that caught his eye, a field far removed from forestry, rural England and the war – ice.

So began his trek as a glaciologist, Arctic and Antarctic academic and explorer (a term he loathed) – Hattersley-Smith became a leading pioneer of research in Canada’s Far North.

He climbed Nunavut’s highest peak, endured frigid and austere conditions and delivered the Canadian government, principally its military, an unprecedented understanding of the north during the heights of the Cold War.

Read the rest of the obituary on the Globe and Mail‘s website. There’s also an obituary in The Telegraph.

One of Hattersley-Smith’s accomplishments that garnered him attention outside of scientific circles was the recovery of explorers’ records from various cairns in the Canadian arctic. Among them were records left by the British Arctic Expedition of 1875-76, by Godfred Hansen in during his 1920 expedition to lay a depot for Roald Amundsen, and a section of Peary’s polar flag and records deposited in 1906. In one of Peary’s cairns, Hattersley-Smith also found a record left in 1930 by ill-fated German explorer H.K.E. Krüger and his companions. Hattersley-Smith discussed the discoveries he and his colleagues made in a 1955 article in Arctic, available online (pdf).