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Background to the 1913-1918 Expedition

After Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen achieved the first voyage through the Northwest Passage in 1906, and American Robert Peary claimed to have reached the North Pole in 1909, exploration in Canada’s Arctic became less about getting there first, and more about understanding the geography, the wildlife, and the people.

When Canadian-born explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson approached the Canadian government in 1913 for additional funding for a new expedition to Canada’s Arctic, backed by the American Museum of Natural History in New York, Prime Minister Borden took over the Expedition and added a strong scientific component. Thus the Canadian Arctic Expedition was born.

Stefansson as Expedition leader was a headstrong adventurer. R.M. Anderson, appointed leader of the scientific party, was a competent, meticulous scientist, reluctant to work with Stefansson because of his previous experience, but solid in his ambition to document as much of the biology and culture of the North as the Expedition would allow. The clash between the two leaders began at the launch of the journey and persisted through the Expedition and beyond to the publication of their findings.

Canadian and world newspapers of the day closely followed their progress.. However, overshadowed by the start of WWI, this great Expedition has never been appropriately recognized for what it achieved. The Expedition was an event which has had a world impact on polar science and for which Canada should claim great prestige.

The Canadian Arctic Expedition was declared an event of national significance in 1925, the first Arctic event to have been so recognised, but its official designation as a National Historic Event was lost for years, and only recently restored.

Fourteen volumes of scientific results and several popular accounts of the Expedition were published. Four books were written on the disastrous loss of the flagship Karluk. But much of the real story of this first major Canadian scientific expedition to the Arctic still remains locked in diaries.