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.