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CHARLES CAMSELL (1876-1958)

Charles Camsell is a major figure in the history of geology and mining in Canada. Born in Fort Liard, Northwest Territories, the son of a chief factor of the Hudson's Bay Company and a Métis mother, Camsell brought a unique northern sensibility to his careers as explorer, mining engineer, geologist and senior public servant.

After attending school and university in Winnipeg between 1884 and 1894, Camsell returned to the North where he found short-term work as a teacher, trapper, prospector, boatman, river guide, cook and mail carrier. His uncertainty about his future was resolved through a chance encounter at Fort Providence in 1900 with a Geological Survey of Canada team that was embarking on an expedition to explore the uncharted regions around Great Bear Lake. Because he spoke several Aboriginal languages and had extensive travel experience in the North, Camsell was invited to join the team. The expedition inspired Camsell to take academic training in geology at Queen's and Harvard, and later, in 1908, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

From 1901 until 1920, Camsell carried out important field explorations in northern Ontario, the Northwest Territories, Yukon and British Columbia. Appointed to the permanent staff of the Geological Survey of Canada in 1904 and promoted to the position of ''Geologist in charge of exploration" in 1914, Camsell travelled thousands of miles on foot and by canoe into the unmapped parts of western and northern Canada, playing an especially prominent role in the exploration of the Mackenzie Basin. As a geologist, he produced numerous detailed studies that contributed to our understanding of the geology of Canada.

Camsell's career entered a new phase when he was appointed deputy minister of Mines in 1920, a position he held (his department was reorganized as the Department of Mines and Resources in 1936) until his retirement in 1946. Camsell excelled as an organizer, presiding over his department's transition from the era of exploration by canoe to the airplane and initiating laboratory research to complement field exploration. Camsell became convinced that the Mines Branch could make the greatest contribution to the national economy by helping to develop a mining industry capable of competing on the world stage. To this end, he spent much of his time attracting capital to exploit Canada's mineral resources.

Camsell held a number of other positions and responsibilities. He was a member of the National Research Council from 1921 to 1936, a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, and the founder of the Canadian Geographical Society in 1929. Camsell also became involved in the administrative and legislative functions of northern government, first as a member of the Council of the Northwest Territories and later as Commissioner of the Northwest Territories.

Throughout his life, Charles Camsell remained a true ''son of the North." At a time when very few northerners made careers for themselves in southern Canada, he reached the top level of his profession and played an influential role in the development of Canada's mining industry. The Charles Camsell Hospital in Edmonton, which he did much to establish for Aboriginal tuberculosis patients, is named in his honour, as is the Camsell Range west of Fort Simpson and Camsell Portage, on Lake Athabasca. His 1954 memoir, Son of the North, brought the ruggedness and adventure of his early life in northern Canada to life for many Canadians.


News Release associated with this Backgrounder.