Shortcuts across the top of the world

Fighting Lady Franklin, and Canada, in the Far North

It seems that nothing in the Arctic is immutable; icebergs move and melt; the magnetic North Pole jumps about sixty kilometres every year and is currently heading toward Siberia; the Arctic Circle, too, is a shifting line. Early explorers saw fabulous mirages known as Fata morgana looming on the horizon and determined they were impassable mountain ranges.

What remains constant is that the Arctic is at once vast and intimate. More people live in Guelph, Ontario, or Kelowna, British Columbia, than live in the entire Canadian Arctic. Half of those Northerners live in four urban centres: Whitehorse (Yukon), Inuvik and Yellowknife (Northwest Territories), and Iqaluit (Nunavut); the remaining 60,000 or so are residents of small villages and communities dotted across what adds up to about 40 percent of the land mass of Canada. In the imagination of Canadians who think and care about the Canadian Arctic, it is the land of Indigenous peoples—less than half of the residents of Canada’s Arctic are qallunaat or kabloona or settlers—but in the circumpolar Arctic as a whole, 85 percent of residents are non-Native.

And while southerners may think of the North as “our Arctic,” Northerners increasingly look the other way and locate themselves in a circumpolar world. The northern boundary of Canada is the Arctic Ocean, the world’s smallest ocean, shared as a boundary by seven other Arctic states: the U.S. (because of Alaska), Russia, Finland and Sweden (both without any Arctic coastline but with land above the Arctic Circle), Norway, Denmark (because of Greenland and the Faroe Islands), and Iceland. The Northern islands of Canada embrace numerous waterways that Canada claims as internal, and which other states, especially as global warming makes these channels more navigable for longer stretches, insist are international waters. Canada’s Arctic waters extend down as far as Hudson and James bays; being part of a vast polar region in consideration of environmental, cultural and resource issues is a significant counterpoint to a more parochial vision of “our” Arctic.

The relationship between non-Indigenous peoples and the Arctic has always been both romantic and exploitative. Canadian governments never lose sight of the strategic importance of “our” Arctic in terms of both defence and resources; southern Canadians shoulder a Northern identity when it suits them, through travel, identification with the fates of polar bears and seals and icebergs; the history of exploration and adventure; now issues like climate change. The common element is that white men are always looking for something, always hunting, be it for gold, identity, or a shortcut across the top of the world.

For the past five centuries, there have been British, Europeans, and Americans passing through Canada’s Arctic. As energetically surveyed in Dead Reckoning, Ken McGoogan’s self-described “sweeping chronicle of Northern exploration,” from the late 1500s onward, white male adventurers, sailors, soldiers, scientists, and surgeons passed through this territory and its waters, searching for something, often looking for one another. The so-called Northwest Passage is entirely European in its perspective on the Arctic; it was the centuries-long obsession of mostly British explorers and adventurers, with the full support of the Admiralty, Parliament, and the Crown, to find a route through the Arctic to the riches of the, again from the European perspective, Far East. Mapping and scientific observation, locating the magnetic North Pole and the actual North Pole were also objectives of these expeditions; so too was the search for minerals, and the exploration of the Arctic ran parallel to and in some cases was supported by the mercantile interests of the Hudson’s Bay and North West companies. (The HBC’s royal charter, issued in 1670 by Charles II, required the “Company of Adventurers” to look for the Northwest Passage.)

The short, modern answer to the question “Who discovered the Northwest Passage?” is simple: many individuals on countless expeditions over many years in ships and on foot contributed to the mapping of the Arctic archipelago. But until the 20th century, this conquest was purely theoretical; large pieces of the puzzle were not navigable, because the ice pack was both immobile and shifting unpredictably for years at a time. Between 1903 and 1906, the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen made the first journey from east to west via Rae Strait (down the eastern side of King William Island) and along the coast to Cambridge Bay and Herschel Island, and subsequently to Nome, Alaska. During his overwinterings on King William Island, Amundsen also successfully tracked the shifting magnetic North Pole. The first west to east transit was made between 1940 and 1942 by the Canadian icebreaker St. Roch.

The hunt for the truth about one aspect of that ceaseless quest, what exactly happened to the calamitous expedition of Sir John Franklin in the late 1840s, was resolved, in 2014 and 2016, with the discovery of both of Franklin’s ships, Erebus and Terror, lying at the bottom of the Arctic Ocean, in two bays not far from King William Island; the last known location of the ships was near the northwestern tip of that island, where they were trapped in ice for at least two years. It is probably the finding of the ships, which are yet to be thoroughly explored, that inspired McGoogan’s latest book; he has already written four books on the subject of Arctic explorers, and this book covers much of the same territory, although with two worthwhile differences: he extends his chronicle backwards to the late 1500s, to include the exploits of Martin Frobisher and Henry Hudson, and his telling of familiar stories focuses on the contributions of the residents of the North—the Cree, Dene, Ojibwa, and Inuit, without whom there would have been even more calamities than there were. As McGoogan rightly notes, “Were it not for the Inuit, John Franklin’s ships would still be lying undiscovered at the bottom of the Arctic Ocean.”

And while the significance of individuals like Matonabbee (who was much more than mere guide to Samuel Hearne), Hans Hendrik (who accompanied American explorers Elisha Kane and Charles Hall), Ouligbuck and In-nook-poo-zhe-jook (essential to John Rae’s discoveries about the Franklin expedition), and Tookoolito and Ebierbing (Charles Hall’s interpreters) was diligently acknowledged in print by the explorers whose lives and expeditions they regularly saved, the Inuit oral record, extending over centuries, especially concerning the fate of Franklin, was willfully ignored and distrusted until recently. It is extremely satisfying to trace with McGoogan this history of knowledge, skill, and lore, from the interpreting and negotiating skills of the young Dene woman, Thanadelthur, who worked with Hudson’s Bay Company from 1715 to 1717, through the numerous 19th-century achievements of guides, hunters, interpreters, to the quiet 21st-century observations of Louie Kamookak and Sammy Kogvik, Inuit from Gjoa Haven (the hamlet on the southern shore of King William Island named after Roald Amundsen’s ship) that led to the discovery of the Franklin ships.

Readers of McGoogan’s other books will know of his ardent championing of the intrepid Scottish explorer John Rae, and McGoogan’s attendant fury (not too strong a word) at the calculated aggrandizement of John Franklin achieved by Jane, Lady Franklin, largely at the expense of Rae. Lady Franklin was a relentless and brilliant champion (which McGoogan freely acknowledges): first, she secured John Franklin’s leadership of his final voyage, then she engineered a ceaseless search for him and his ships, then she masterminded the obliteration from the record of Rae’s observations of likely cannibalism by the expeditionary crew at the end of the voyage, and finally triumphed in her dogged burnishing of Franklin’s reputation, through monuments, awards, citations, and a place in Westminster Abbey. Rae’s achievements and observations were consistently validated by successive explorers.

This part of the story, already covered by McGoogan in two other books, seems over-told here and not as compelling as what the record reveals and will continue to reveal on land and sea in the Arctic, where McGoogan is utterly at home and where he excels as a storyteller. As Vilhjalmur Stefansson wrote in 1921, “It is a commonplace in the history of polar exploration that the greatest advance in our knowledge of the region to the north of Canada resulted not from the life work of Sir John Franklin, but from his mysterious disappearance and the long series of expeditions that went out in search of him.” McGoogan has built a monument to Rae in the Arctic and joined the battle in Britain to salvage Rae’s reputation; he and Rae’s fellow Orcadians will not rest until Rae is properly acknowledged in Westminster Abbey, not merely on a “modest ledger stone” at the foot of Franklin’s “grandiose memorial.”

Both Pierre Berton, in The Arctic Grail (1988), and McGoogan (Berton’s natural heir as a storyteller) mine assiduously the extraordinarily vast, rich record of Arctic exploration written by the explorers themselves, and also preserved in beautiful maps and drawings. McGoogan’s book contains a lovely collection of engravings and paintings, but the maps in this book are next to useless; I found myself returning to those in Berton’s book or going online. It’s impossible to unravel this tangle of expeditions without maps; people like Franklin, Rae, Hearne, and others made numerous journeys around the Arctic, on foot, in sledges, in canoes, and ships; they covered thousands and thousands of kilometres, went over the same ground and waterways over and over again in opposing directions; they overwintered in extreme conditions, on shore or ships trapped in ice. They named everything they saw after family and patrons and royals, and then, if they were lucky, returned home to die. Berton strikes a plaintive note at the end of his book: “The haunts of the original people continued to bear the names of strangers—and still do today…It is not their loss that the map ignores them; it is our own.”

In the past several decades, the map of the Arctic has changed dramatically, notably with the creation of Nunavut in 1999, devolution agreements (covering control over natural resources) with the Yukon and N.W.T., and the formal renaming of many Anglo place names. It is on this contemporary terrain that Tony Penikett conducts his search for what he calls the Northern character, a term he intends as a starting point for wisely shaping the future of Canada’s Arctic, locally, nationally, and internationally. In Hunting the Northern Character he draws on a lifetime of living and working in Northern Canada to make an argument for who Northerners really are, and how the future of Canada’s Arctic might unfold.

On this ground, Penikett identifies three main characters: Indigenous villages, Arctic cities, and the eight nation states. The neglected, under-respected character in this trio is the Northern city, in which reside the settlers who form 85 percent of the population in the Arctic. In recent years, through the instruments of devolution, land claims agreements, and treaties, and even in the formation of the international body known as the Arctic Council, the role of the Indigenous leadership has been extremely effective and successful. In his trenchant “brief history” of treaties, Penikett points to the emerging strength of Indigenous positions, while noting that “Canada seems far more committed to negotiations than to settlements.” While championing Indigenous leaders, and promoting the community model for political and economic change in the North, Penikett lays out the systemic issues that affect Northerners: the ceaseless challenges of poverty, education, housing; the loss of status experienced by hunters and trappers, because traditional subsistence “no longer offers a sustainable path to food security.”

But there is rarely an official place set at any of these tables for the settlers or the cities. And the lingering problem of financial dependency undermines all forms of movement towards mature political and economic partnerships. Southerners, if they pay attention at all, hear only the stories of despair that float down from Indigenous villages, but Northerners themselves, settlers and Indigenous people, understand that all Northerners can and prefer to work together on building their future. Penikett offers the quiet observation: “the poorer the community, the richer the traditional culture…Does southern-model prosperity inevitably lead to Northern cultural poverty?”

Penikett also explores at some length the question of identity in the North: “Thanks to the presence of substantial mixed-race populations across the Far North, Northerners—a category that includes all Northern residents, whether Aboriginal or settler—may view the Indigenous-settler differentiation as somewhat muddy.” Not only in Canada but across the Arctic, “leaders and legislators from Indigenous and settler communities have been designing and redesigning Arctic institutions to radically transform the architecture of Arctic governance.” The “federally created boxes” are anachronisms. And again the role of the settlers, and the cities themselves, is mostly overlooked and discounted by federal politicians and bureaucracies.

Penikett is himself a Northern character; he was born in the U.K. but his father was a Yukon doctor, his brother an Arctic-Antarctic pilot. Penikett was married to a Tanana Dene woman with whom he had three children. He served five terms as an NDP member of Yukon legislature, two terms as premier, and has subsequently worked as a land claims and treaty negotiator and mediator. During his time as a Fulbright chair in Arctic studies at the University of Washington, he developed a series of talks for graduate seminars, which is the basis of this book. He is a highly regarded authority on Northern treaties, devolution, and circumpolar intergovernmental relations and policy.

Arctic cognoscenti (in a sense both the subject and primary audience of this book) will also remember Canada v. Penikett, a 1987 lawsuit in which the Yukon government unsuccessfully sued the federal government over the veto that the Meech Lake Accord would have given to existing provinces and Ottawa over the creation of new provinces, which condemned Northerners to forever be second-class citizens. This book represents an argument for devolution developed over 30 years.

There are tantalizing snippets of memoir in this book—Penikett is an excellent writer, and there’s one especially lovely description of his presence as honorary pallbearer at his former mother-in-law’s funeral and potlatch. But it is largely a comprehensive review of issues such as governance, international relations (a history and critique of the Arctic Council), resource management, climate change, and social issues like poverty, education, and health. Chapters on climate change, the “hungry ghost,” and the complex issue of sovereignty are especially good, as Penikett honours traditional knowledge (known colloquially as TK), and the slow integration of traditional knowledge into scientific research and analysis in the Arctic. Canada is not very good at protecting its sovereignty in the North; this country has the second longest Arctic coastline, after Russia, and not a single deep-water Arctic port, having years ago sold the port of Churchill, Manitoba to an American company. The disgraceful attempts over several decades to use Aboriginal people as “human flagpoles” has not evolved into any long-term funded strategy for dealing with increasing pressure on Canada’s presumption of pre-eminence.

If there is a single idea that infuses both books it is this: Attention must be paid to the original inhabitants of the North, not only in terms of oral history and traditional knowledge, but also, purely and simply, as a matter of trust. Penikett has great experience of and little patience with the attitudes of federal bureaucrats towards Northern and Indigenous governments, especially when it comes to jurisdictional and land and resource management and revenue-sharing:

Federal mandarins point damning fingers at the dearth of Inuit exploration geologists, mining engineers, and chartered accountants and the lack of administrative and professional expertise in Nunavut government ranks. The territory is only seventeen years old, but in the many decades prior to its birth—when the federal government held absolute authority over the Northern territories—how many Inuit geologists, mining engineers, or chartered accountants did Ottawa train?

None. Not one. Zero.

His book, which lays out a long and complex history of conflict, cooperation, and achievement among the Indigenous and settler groups (especially in Canada), is a strategically constructed argument for further devolution, further handing over of jurisdictional responsibility, a Northern-based approach to resources and sovereignty. His blunt message: “Not until both legislators and public servants are fully socialized Northerners do autonomy and democracy take root…The feds should step aside.”

Time and time again, federal governments break their promises on every aspect of Northern governance and development. Penikett quotes a colleague: Canadian politicians routinely “invoke temporary Northern visions to curry temporary southern favour.”

The Fata morgana of the 21st century.

CORRECTION
The original version of this review state that “85 percent of Northerners are non-Native.” This figure reflects the demographics of the circumpolar Arctic as a whole, and not the Canadian Arctic. According to the 2016 census, the population of the Canadian Arctic is less than 50 percent non-Native. This review has been amended to include that clarification.