This Week in History


For Science and Sovereignty!

For the week of Monday, August 8, 2016

On August 13, 1913, HMCS Karluk became lodged in pack ice north of Alaska and remained trapped for the next five months before sinking north of Siberia. The Karluk was the flag-ship of the first Canadian expedition to the Arctic. Expedition members were responsible for the most thorough study of the Arctic at the time and their work helped to reinforce Canada’s northern sovereignty.

Canadian Arctic Expedition schooners at Herschel Island, Yukon Territory
© Canadian Museum of History

Britain transferred control of the Arctic Archipelago to Canada in 1880. Canada was, however, unclear on its northern borders, and slow to assert its claim. It was common for American, Russian, and Norwegian expeditions to enter the Arctic without Canada's permission. In 1913, when Manitoba-born explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson began to plan an Arctic expedition, Prime Minister Robert Borden saw an opportunity to reinforce Canada’s sovereignty in the north. Borden offered federal funds to pay for and expand the expedition. Stefansson was to search for new islands in the high Arctic, claiming any that he found for Canada, while a second team studied the south-western Arctic.

Stefansson and others on Karluk
© Library and Archives Canada, 1960-101 NPC

Setting out in 1913, the expedition rendezvoused north of Alaska, where it split into northern and southern teams. Over five years, the northern party covered more than 10,000 km2 of uncharted territory, discovered five previously unknown islands, and conducted the first survey to determine the shape of the Arctic continental shelf. The southern party collected thousands of specimens of previously undocumented plant and animal life, improved old maps of the Mackenzie Delta, and documented the culture of several Inuit groups. After their return, expedition members produced a 16-volume research report.

For its importance in asserting Canadian sovereignty and launching Canada to the forefront of Arctic sciences, the Canadian Arctic Expedition 1913-18 was designated a national historic event. Vilhjalmur Stefansson was also designated a national historic person for organizing and leading the expedition.

For more information on the first Canadian Arctic Expedition, and the fate of the Karluk and some of its members, read An Impossible Rescue and Explorer Maps Unknown Lands in the This Week in History archive. Also, read John Ross Explores the Arctic, John Rae: Intrepid Northern Surgeon and Surveyor, “...It was not distances that meant anything to us.” and Dreams of Arctic Riches for more stories on Arctic exploration.

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