Abolishing the Arctic
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 25 Oct 1928, p. 225-234
Stefansson, Vilhjalmur, Speaker
Media Type
Item Type
First a summary of some of the points the speaker made in his address about 10 years ago. A look through history at man's journeys northwards. The Alaska purchase and reasons for it. Evidence that in every millenium of the past the centres of wealth and power have been fund farther north than they were a thousand years before. Comparing life in a tropical climate to that in a "good" climate. A look at climatic conditions in Chicago and Winnipeg. Misrepresentation of the Northwest Territories in Canadian school books. Trying to understand the reasons for such misrepresentation and misunderstanding about the north by people further south. Looking at an analogous situation in the United States in the 1800's. The role of mines and mining in bringing the North into its own and co-ordinated with that, flying. Subjects spoken of 10 years ago that sounded visionary, now sounding very ordinary.
Date of Original
25 Oct 1928
Language of Item
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Full Text
26th October, 1928

PRESIDENT FENNELL introduced the speaker. DR. STEFANSSON was received with loud applause, and began with a reference to the death of his greatest benefactor in Canada, Sir Edmund Walker, and his older friend, Prof. Mavor, who first introduced Sir Edmund, who had joined Harvard University in financing the speaker's first trip to the Arctic in 1906, and given his constant support after that. In 1908 the Geological Survey of Canada, of which Mr. Reginald Brock was Director, joined the American Museum of Natural History in financing the second expedition, partly through the influence of Sir Edmund. That expedition continued for four and a half years, making six altogether inside the Arctic Circle. In 1913 Sir Edmund helped to influence the government of Sir Robert Borden to send out another expedition, which was five and a half years continuously in the Arctic; so that after eleven and a half years in the Arctic the speaker thought he was qualified to speak on the subject. He went on:

I think I might summarize some of the points I made in my address before this Club about ten years ago. They sounded then like pipe dreams. They continued to sound much that way even when I developed them next year into a series of articles in the "World's Work" Magazine. Six years ago, in 1922, they were published in book form, still with a visionary tinge, as most people saw them. (The address referred to is dated Nov. 11, 1918, and the book is called THE NORTHWARD COURSE OF EMPIRE).

The well-known slogan, "Westward the star of Empire takes its way", is only partially true, for civilization has been taking its way more consistently northward than westward for many thousands of years. In 2000 B.C.--4000 years ago-civilization was a narrow belt along the Tropic of Cancer east from Egypt and perhaps west too. Around 1000 B.C. the belt had extended down towards India and China. By the year one, this belt of civilization had extended into the subtropics and tropics of the western hemisphere centering around Yucatan. In the eastern hemisphere it had widened north into Crete and Greece and the Roman countries.

An Egyptian club 4000 years ago would have appreciated a luncheon speech congratulating Egypt upon its superior natural conditions-climate, soil, and position in relation to other countries. That ancient authority, Tacitus, said, "Who can conceive that any one, unless forced by stern necessity of war, will ever willingly go north of the Alps?" But it has come to pass that people do actually go to Paris by choice. (Laughter.)

Passing on to the time when the Moors were prominent in the civilization of the world, Draper, the historian, in his "Intellectual Development of Europe", tells us that there was a period when the stables of the Moors in Spain were not only better architecturally, but in some respects cleaner, than the palaces of the kings of England. The Moors were then in the habit of saying about the people of Great Britain, "They are only half civilized, and what else can you expect of a remote and clammy island on the very edge of the world? Their civilization is low now, and doubtless it will always remain so." But the Moors were eventually driven out of Spain and a Christian Armada of people who thought themselves more advanced than the British sailed north. But they never sailed back except as straggling and fugitive ships. Civilization, or at least the seat of military power, had passed far north beyond Rome or Spain, to England.

After a later war, when peace was being arranged in 1763 between Great Britain and France, and when sugar was just coming to be an important commercial product, Britain suggested to France that they might surrender the island of Guadaloupe. France replied, in substance, that they hated to give up this particular island for it contained valuable sugar and cocoa plantations, adding that they would much rather surrender Canada. To this the British replied, in effect, "Canada is big, but what is it good for? A few codfish on the Newfoundland banks, and a few furs, but on the whole not a valuable piece of property. We want a place with a climate in which people are willing to live. We want Guadaloupe".

The speaker had made no research to determine whether it was correct but he knew it was the ordinary view that Benjamin Franklin deserved credit for the point of view which eventually prevailed. This Bostonian and Philadelphian, usually considered the wisest or at least the shrewdest American of his generation, agreed with the British plenipotentiaries that Guadaloupe was worth more than Canada. "But," argued Franklin, "Guadaloupe is a distant island while Canada is contiguous territory. If we allow the power of France to grow up at our back door we shall have constant friction, with diplomatic squabbles and the potential seeds of another war." It was economically only, therefore, that Guadaloupe was the more valuable. For military and diplomatic reasons, Great Britain should accept Canada. And so they did accept it.

It is true that in the days of Franklin Canada was not the vast geographical expanse it now is, but instead only a comparatively small territory east of the Great Lakes. Even so, in the Canada of that day there have grown up cities of which Franklin never heard, the real estate in which is worth more than the entire island of Guadaloupe. (Applause.)

When the United States purchased Alaska in 1867, paying $7,200,000, it did not apparently occur to anyone, even Seward, who did the bargaining that the territory was worth it. Three schools of historians, represented by Channing, Rhodes, and Woodrow Wilson, have advanced theories as to why the United States bought Alaska, but none of those theories considers the possibility that the land or even the seas adjacent might be valuable. The Alaska Purchase was apparently nothing but a political deal to repay Russia for having held the Spaniards in check on the western coast of America during the war between the States. Now that vast territory is known to have rich values in minerals, forests and grass. The rivers have their values too, and the seas roundabout. In 1919, for instance, salmon was only one of the fish cultivated. The sockeye was only one of the many kinds of salmon. Of the sockeye only a part was canned, yet the portion that was canned was sold that year for $23,500,000, more than three times the original price of Alaska.

Those who want to rebut these arguments may say in reply that, true enough, it is a little curious that Tacitus could not foresee the coming greatness of France and Germany, that the Moors did not foresee the dawning power of Britain, nor Franklin the value of Canada, nor Seward the value of Alaska, still it is a long lane that has no turning and that perhaps we have come to the turning point now. But we have shown that in every millenium of the past the centres of wealth and power have been found farther north than they were a thousand years before. The burden of proof rests upon those who now try to prove that the course of history is about to reverse itself, so that the centres of power will stop moving northward.

We hear it frequently said that Canada has a bad climate.

When the Puritans left England, some went to Massachusetts and some to the West Indies. The latter were said to be going to the better climate. But the descendants of those who went to Massachusetts became the backbone of the American nation while those who went to the tropical islands became poor white trash. (Laughter.)

After the war of 1776-S3 some people of the American colonies went south into the tropical islands again, and some went north into the Maritime Provinces and other parts of Eastern Canada. Again history repeated itself; those who went north have been prominent, and if you are descended from them you will say they are the backbone of the Canadian nation, while those who went south became white trash and disappeared.

The point is, there are two kinds of good climate; there is a good loafing climate and a good working climate. (Laughter and applause.) I suggest that it is not a good climate where bananas and yams flourish if men decay. Canada, excepting Victoria, B.C., has a working rather than a loafing climate. (Hear, hear, and applause.)

In the United States no city has a worse climate, in the opinion of the country as a whole, or in that of her residents, than Chicago. It is bad in nature, and bad on account of the smoke nuisance which they permit. Yet, in spite of that, and in spite of the gales which blow stiff and cold from Lake Michigan, Chicago is one of the great cities of the world, and growing rapidly. The climate seems to have no effect on her growth. If you are willing to live in Chicago you will be willing to live in Winnipeg if your earning power is as good. Winnipeg is therefore fast becoming the Chicago of the Canadian west, and growing soundly and normally. But the type of people who would move from Chicago to Winnipeg would move from Winnipeg to Great Bear Lake if they thought it would pay them, even though the winter is a month or two longer. Whether they are willing to move there depends in part on how they are informed, or misinformed, about the Far North.

In 1906, when journeying down the Mackenzie River, I met Elihu Stewart, then head of the Forestry Service of Canada-I think he was a resident of Collingwood, Ontario. He published later a report describing trees 100 feet high, growing straight and beautiful, north of the Arctic Circle. The Government published that report. Ten years after, the Ontario Department of Education approved of the use in the Public School of a book which said, in substance, that so severe was the climate on Great Bear Lake that trees no more than six feet high and no bigger round than your wrist required hundreds of years to grow. They left it at that, with an apparent desire to prove that the Bear Lake territory is terrifying rather than inviting. The fact is that on every shore of Great Bear Lake, north as well as south, there are trees 100 feet high that grow in dense forests, so that you have to clear your way between the trees with a hatchet as you walk.

Do you think it is any real advantage to Ontario that the Northwest Territories shall be so misrepresented in your text books ?

As late as ten years ago, every series of school geographies in common use in the United States said that "North of the Arctic Circle it is always cold" (except one or two which said, "North of the Arctic Circle it is never warm "-they gave you that much choice). (Laughter.) In a little campaign which I started against these text books at that time I pointed out, among other things, that John Davis, after whom the Davis Straits are named, had reported as early as the days of Queen Elizabeth and William Shakespeare that he had observed in the Arctic on some occasions weather as salubrious as any he had seen in the Cape Verde Islands, and that the United States Weather Bureau, more than a decade before the geographies in question were published, had commenced reporting from its Arctic station at Fort Yukon, Alaska, temperatures of 80, 90, and even 100 degrees in the shade. I suggested that unless they wanted to keep the whole Arctic as imaginary as its leading imaginary tenant, Santa Claus, the Americans had better take some steps to bring their text books into conformity with the information in which William Shakespeare and Queen Elizabeth believed three hundred years ago and in which their Weather Bureau believes today.

I am particularly glad to repeat this to an Empire Club audience, for I notice with great satisfaction the presence of my old friend, Sir Frederick Stupart, head of the Dominion Weather Service, who is so honest that even in an attempt to shield me he would not be able to keep from looking disturbed if he did not know that what I am saying is in strict accord with the facts.

The discrepancy between the six foot trees of Great Bear Lake as represented in the Ontario text books and the hundred foot trees found even a hundred miles north of that lake as described in reports of the Forest Service, was no isolated case. Moreover, there seemed to be in the south people.who preferred to believe whatever they could that was evil and terrible about the north. At first I did not understand this or see any rhyme or reason for it, but I think I understand it now through analogy to a phase of United States history which I have been studying recently.

Canada today is a settled fringe along the northern frontiers of the United States, just as the United States, 150 years ago, was a settled fringe along the western shores of the Atlantic. As late as 1800 the wealth of the United States was as nearly centered in the east as Canadian wealth was in the south in 1900. Around 1800 it began to be said in Massachusetts and Virginia that you could raise bigger crops on land you could get for nothing out around the Mississippi River than you could on land which you would have to buy near Boston or Richmond. Previously a farmer had divided his land between the elder and younger sons or tried to provide the young with the means of buying an adjoining farm. Now the younger son, if he was not going to the city, was likely to pack up and cross the Alleghenies. This meant one man less to buy groceries at the village store, a team of horses less to be shod by the local blacksmith, one customer less to bid up the price of real estate. It seemed obvious then that anybody was an enemy of the local community who spread abroad news of how good and cheap the land was on the Mississippi or the Ohio. There resulted a hatred of anybody who spoke well of the west and an indiscriminate charging of everyone with being a liar as well as a public enemy who praised the west.

Running the west down was even raised to the level of statesmanship. There was a real danger, apparently, that colonies planted too far beyond the Alleghenies might grow into independent states, possibly hostile to the Atlantic States. This was indeed more than a possibility as we see from reading the history of that day, and as we can- easily realize if we remember that telegraphs, telephones, railways, automobiles, and good roads in the modern sense were not only unattained but undreamed of. Zebulon Pike, for instance, after whom Pike's Peak is named, thought himself to be doing a public service when he put into his official government report of a journey beyond the Mississippi a statement to the effect that many Americans had been afraid that the United States would expand too fast, but that, by the grace of God, there was no danger of it, since he had found himself after crossing the Mississippi in the heart of a great desert. Thus was invented, rather than discovered, the Great American Desert which attained the proportions of what it was called, the American Sahara, and leaped at once into the textbooks of every community east of the Alleghenies that was anxious to curb the westward march of the pioneer.

Other statesmen joined Zebulon Pike as, for instance, the one who reported to the United States Army that there was scarcely a blade of grass in the vast triangle within the forks of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers.

Two accidents dispelled the Great American Desert. The first, historically, was the development of the sect of Mormons who became so unpopular that they had to flee the east, and who were so wisely led by Brigham Young and others that they marched across the plains states into the real desert of the inter-mountain section where, through irrigation, they established the blossoming communities of Utah.

The second accident, later but more important, was the discovery of gold in California, and the almost insane rush towards that hl Dorado by the Forty-niners.

We have not as yet had the good fortune of developing in southern Canada any religious sect or other group so unpopular that they have been driven north to help dispel the Arctic desert of Canada. But we are having a good fortune analogous to the gold rush of '49. For nothing that has so far happened in Canada has done so much to dispel the myths of the north as the rich discoveries of minerals in Northern Ontario and Northern Manitoba.

I said a moment ago that I was glad to talk about Arctic weather in the presence of Sir Frederick Stupart, the man who knows more about Canadian temperatures than anyone else living. I am no less glad to state what I believe about the myth-dispelling power of the recent northern mineral developments in the presence of that lack Hammell, who seems to deserve a more important individual place in them than any one man ever deserved in the western gold development of '49.

Next to mines in bringing the North into its own, and co-ordinated with it, is flying. If an airplane wants to fly from a great city in the United States west of New York to a great city in Europe it must fly over Canada to follow the safest as well as the shortest route. From Chicago to Stockholm, for instance, your line of flight runs through Cochrane, Ontario, and across Northern Labrador. Hassell and Cramer were real pioneers last summer when they opened that shortest and safest of routes to Europe.

In flying from Seattle or Vancouver to Berlin you actually fly across Canada north of Hudson Bay. If you are Paris bound you fly over Hudson Bay and Iceland, entering Britain by way of the Orkney Islands and Scotland.

Several great cities of the United States can save anything from 500 to 2,000 miles by flying over Canada on their way to Europe. That is bound to locate in Canada eventually many important way-stations for the aerial services of the United States and of Europe. We also have great cities of our own with their developing needs of swift commerce. They have an important advantage over cities in the United States through being nearer Europe by the Arctic flying routes, for those are safer as well as shorter routes.

When I spoke of a few of these things to you in this room ten years ago they sounded visionary. Now I am afraid they sound very ordinary. Ten years from now they will sound like an incomplete rather than inaccurate report of things done and already surpassed. (Loud applause.)

HON. MR. JUSTICE RIDDELL expressed the hearty thanks of the Club to the speaker for his informative and interesting address.

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Abolishing the Arctic

First a summary of some of the points the speaker made in his address about 10 years ago. A look through history at man's journeys northwards. The Alaska purchase and reasons for it. Evidence that in every millenium of the past the centres of wealth and power have been fund farther north than they were a thousand years before. Comparing life in a tropical climate to that in a "good" climate. A look at climatic conditions in Chicago and Winnipeg. Misrepresentation of the Northwest Territories in Canadian school books. Trying to understand the reasons for such misrepresentation and misunderstanding about the north by people further south. Looking at an analogous situation in the United States in the 1800's. The role of mines and mining in bringing the North into its own and co-ordinated with that, flying. Subjects spoken of 10 years ago that sounded visionary, now sounding very ordinary.