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Death of Constable A.J. Chartrand

For the week of Monday February 13, 2012

On February 13, 1942, Constable A.J. “Frenchie” Chartrand died in Boothia Peninsula, Northwest Territories. Chartrand had been serving as a member of the crew of the St. Roch, the second vessel to traverse the entire Northwest Passage and the first to make the voyage from west to east.

St. Roch – the RCMP Arctic schooner
© Courtesy of the Vancouver Maritime Museum
For hundreds of years, explorers from around the world had searched for the Northwest Passage: a sea passage through the Arctic, joining the Atlantic to Pacific. It was believed that such a passage would allow for quicker access to the East Orient (modern-day south and southeast Asia) and its riches. The expeditions encountered great difficulty, due to the extreme and unpredictable Arctic climate, and many ships sank in the search. The most well-known of these expeditions is that of Sir John Franklin in 1845, whose ships (HMS Erebus and HMS Terror) were lost as well as the entire crew. Many search and rescue voyages were launched in an effort to locate them and, while some of their graves and cache sites have been discovered, the whereabouts of the ships remains a mystery. The first successful crossing of the entire Northwest Passage was made by Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen from 1903-6.

On June 23, 1940, Constable Chartrand set sail from Vancouver aboard the St. Roch, a wooden schooner powered by an auxiliary engine and sails. The voyage was commissioned by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, under the command of Sergeant Henry A. Larsen. The goal was to make the eastward crossing of the Northwest Passage for the first time, in order to establish Canada’s sovereignty in the Arctic. 

Constable A.J. Chartrand and his dog at Herschel Island
© Yukon Archives

Although the St. Roch accomplished its traverse across the Arctic, Chartrand died of a heart attack en route and was not able to witness the end of this historic journey. However, following the voyage’s success, Chartrand was commemorated both with a Polar Medal recognizing his role in the voyage, and with the naming of Chartrand Lake in Nunavut in his honour. As the first vessel to navigate the Northwest Passage from west to east, the ship St. Roch was designated a national historic site. In addition, the First Eastward Crossing of the Northwest Passage has been commemorated as a national historic event.

Be sure to read other This Week in History stories on the Northwest Passage such as: In Search of the Northwest Passage, John Ross Explores the Arctic, Lost in the Arctic, Dreams of Arctic Riches, Generosity in Early Canada: a Key to Franklin's Success and Happy Birthday Henry!! For more information on the Parks Canada searches for HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, check out the 2011 Arctic Expeditions.

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