The man who put canada on the map

By William Barr, The Globe and Mail, 27 June, 2009, Focus, p. F3

Given its desolate surroundings, Parry’s Rock is hard to miss – a four-metre high block of sandstone dropped by a glacier on the south shore of Melville Island and named for the British sailor who first explored the area an inscribed his name on it.

But Canadian also should know that this is where 34 men gathered on July 1, 1909 for a group photograph in fort of a bronze plaque they had attached to Parry’s Rock to show that they had laid claim to “the whole Arctic archipelago” on behalf of the “Dominion of Canada.”

The expedition was lead by one of this country’s forgotten heroes – a Quebec-born mariner and explorer named Joseph-Elzéar Bernier, whose dedication to the north now serves as the foundation for Canada’s claim to sovereignty in the Arctic.

That sovereignty was a burning issue a century ago and now that the melting ice pack is making Arctic waters ever more navigable, it is back in the headlines. Had Bernier not laid his claim, and made several other voyages as a representative of the federal government, the geopolitical configuration of the North might be quite different today.

On paper, the Arctic islands had been transferred to Canada by an Imperial Order in Council as of Sept. 1, 1880. Wisely, the British kept the wording vague because the full extent of the archipelago was unknown. Still undiscovered were such major islands as Axel Heiberg, Amund Ringnes, Ellef Rignes, King Christian, Brock, Borden, Mackenzie King, Lougheed and Meighen.

For 20 years after being given the region, Canada ignored it. Then, toward the end of the century, alarm bells rang in Ottawa following a series of foreign incursions.

From 1898 to 1902, U.S. polar explorer Robert Peary spent his winters on Ellesmere Island, just north of Baffin Island. He, like Roald Amundsen, the Norwegian who began his historic transit of the Northwest Passage in 1903 and made no territorial claims. But another Norwegian explorer, Otto Sverdrup, discovered and explored four big islands – Axel Heiberg, Amund Ringnes, Ellef Ringnes and King Christian – and claimed them for his homeland.

All this northern traffic spurred Wilfrid Laurier, who had become prime minister in 1896, to action. First, A.P. Low of the Geological Survey of Canada landed at Cape Herschel on Ellesmere and took “formal possession” for Canada. But it was Bernier who mounted the most extensive campaign to reinforce Canada’s dominion over the Arctic.

He had already proved himself a remarkable character. Born to a long line of seafarers in L’Islet-sur-Mer on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River east of Quebec City, he had gone to sea at 14 and become captain just three years later. While employed delivering Quebec-built sailing ships to British owner, he frequently made the transatlantic crossing in record time.

His passion for the Arctic seems to have begun in 1871, when he was 19 and happened to be in Connecticut when U.S. explorer Charles Francis Hall left in search of the North Pole. Hall didn’t survive the voyage, but northern navigation became Bernier’s primary interest and, for many years, he sought Ottawa’s support in his quest to conquer the pole for Canada.

Instead he was enlisted by Laurier to help secure the islands, and in 1906 (the year Amundsen completed his trip through the passage) made the first of three treks aboard C.G.S. Arctic,

He conducted several ceremonies to assert Canadian sovereignty over various parts of the archipelago, with the one in 1909 – just three months after Peary claimed to have reached the pole – designed to sum up all the others in case any islands had slipped through his net.

As well, being an official fisheries officer, Bernier issued licences and exacted fees from any foreign whalers he encountered – tangible evidence of Canadian control of the Arctic.

Later, he made three private expeditions to Baffin Island, where he operated trading posts and purchased land from the Crown. He also obtained a licence to mine coal on Pond Inlet in 1914 and filed a mining claim on Admiralty Inlet. All these activities became powerful demonstrations of Canadian sovereignty.

As a result, sovereignty claims to land areas have, with a few minor exceptions, long been settled. But conflict could arise over the Arctic seas, seabed and continental shelves, and Bernier’s activities again will have considerable bearing because sovereignty over the waters and seabed is determined by sovereignty over the islands.

For example, Canada and the United States are at odds over whether the Northwest Passage should be considered international waters and what should happen to the border between Alaska and the Northwest Territories once it heads out in the hydrocarbon-rich Beaufort Sea.

What’s more, the claims made by Otto Sverdrup could have proved very costly for Canada – predated those of Bernier and he repeatedly pressured Norway to uphold them.

Norway lost its bid for possession of eastern Greenland in 1933, when the International Court of Justice ruled in favour of Denmark. But had it appealed to the court over Sverdrup’s claims, a large chunk of what’s now known as the Queen Elizabeth Islands could very well be Norwegian – and allow Norway to claim a substantial area of the seabed to the north.

Luckily for the Canadians, this dispute was resolved in a “civilized” fashion. Norway formally recognized Canada’s title on Nov. 11, 1930, just weeks before the death of Sverdrup, who had been paid $67,000 by Ottawa for the maps, diaries and documents from his expedition.

By then, Bernier’s days also were numbered. He suffered a fatal heart attack on Christmas Eve, 1934, a week before his 83rd birthday. Forty years later, the Sverdrup Basin underlying the islands was found to contain at least 17.4 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 334 million barrels of oil – another good reason to thank the man who staked that claim at Parry’s Rock.

William Barr is a senior research associate with the Arctic Institute of North America at the University of Calgary. He also translated Joseph-Elzéar Bernier, Champion of Canadian Arctic Sovereignty, a biography by Quebec scholar Marjolaine Saint-Pierre to be published by Baraka Books and the Arctic Institute in September.

The First Concise English-Language History of Quebec as told by Jacques Lacoursière

Jacques Lacoursière, the renowned Quebec historian, can now be read in English. This handy guide to a little-known part of North American history tells the fascinating tale of the settlement of the St. Lawrence Valley. But it also tells of the Montreal and Quebec-based explorers and traders who travelled, mapped, and inhabited a very large part of North America, and “embrothered the peoples” they met, as Jack Kerouac wrote. Based on meticulous research, Jacques Lacoursière and Robin Philpot connect everyday life to the events that emerged as historical turning points in the life of a people, thus shedding new light on Quebec’s 450-year history––and on the historical forces that lie behind its two recent efforts to gain independence.

A People’s History of Quebec never ceases to surprise by its breadth and depth. For example, readers will learn about:

  • The pre-Conquest ginseng boom with exports to China, and its eventual bust
  • The Montreal fire chief who torched the Parliament of United Canada in 1849, which helps explain why Ottawa became the Capital
  • The Jewish Emancipation Act of 1832, a first in the British Empire, adopted thanks to Louis-Joseph Papineau and the Patriote Party
  • The Conscription crises in Quebec that shook Canada during both World Wars, and much more…

207 pages, 24 illustrations, $19.95

“A People’s History of Quebec is both an excellent history book to refresh the reader’s memory and a rich introduction to a people who supposedly had no history. A great read.”

Hélène de Billy, writer, biographer, journalist.

“Recipient of the Pierre Berton Award in 1996, Jacques Lacoursière is to Quebec what Pierre Berton was to English Canada.”

Canada’s National History Society, publisher of The Beaver

“If Lord Durham had met Jacques Lacoursière, he would surely not have written that the French Canadians were a ‘people with no history and no literature’. In fact, in Quebec, Jacques Lacoursière’s name is synonymous with history.”

André Champagne, Radio-Canada

In bookstores July 2, 2009.

America’s Gift in The Eastern Door

By Jordan Standup, The Eastern Door, July 10, 2009, p. 24

If the title isn’t intriguing enough, in just 271 pages you have the opporunity to learn what your ancestors used and created, alon with how those things are applied today.

The book written by Käthe Roth and Denis Vaugeois, opens with a lengthy introduction explaining that a similar version of the same books was first published in French and Spanish before being considered for English printing.

While thumbing through the first half dozen or so pages, readers might wonder what they’ll learn from this book. Readers will find a list of words that relate to Aboriginal people and the words’ specific role today.

Think of it as a very descriptive and much more interesting version of a dictionary, except that every item has something to do with your ancestors.

Still not quite up to speed? Here’s a small excerpt from the book as an example.

“Annedda: From Iroquois. The Iroquois recommended that Jacques Cartier use the bark of the annedda tree to cure his crew of scurvy.”

Because it reads differently from other books out there, it could be a bit of a task and at times feels a bit awkward, jumping from subject to subject. It is a lot to take in all at once.

Perhaps the most interesting subject in my opinion was about root beer.

“Root Bear: The Indigenous people of North America used sassafras and sarsaparilla infusions to make a medicinal potion. In the nineteenth century, when the patent-medecine fad was sweeping American and European markets, entrepreneurs discovered this formula, added sugar and carbonated water, and marketed it. According ot advertising of the time, “Indian Root Beers brought rapid relief from a variety of ills.”

Tell me that’s not interesting.

The book is filled with little gems throughout.

You can also find some information on different itemsthat you’d expece to see in a book about Aboriginal people such as canoes, tomahawks and snowshoes.

As the title suggests, the book covers all different kinds of indigenous people, including those as far down south as Brazil and Chile.

One of the best aspects of the book is that not only is it an interesting read for just about any age, but it is also a great reference for research.

This book would be a nice addition to any library of school.

At just 271 pages, the book can literally be read in one sitting. I would know because I did it. To be honest, it took nearly as long to produce this review as it did to read the book.

America’s Gift will be available in September, but those interest in more information about the book, the authors or the publisher could visit

Helping people discover their past

AN EMINENT QUEBEC AUTHOR teams up with an anglo sovereignist on a history of French Canada – in English

By Hubert Bauch, The Gazette, July 6, 2009

It doesn’t bother Jacques Lacoursière that he’s commonly called a “vulgarizer.” In fact, the eminent Quebec author and historian revels in what some might take as a slur.

In Lacoursière’s case, it doesn’t mean he’s given to pottymouth. It refers to the further definition of vulgarize, at least according to the Oxford dictionary, which is to “popularize,” and making history popular for the general public and accessible to the average reader has been his lifetime mission.

In his 77 years, Lacoursière has written numerous volumes of Quebec and Canadian history, many of them bestsellers. He says he concentrates on making his historical accounts readable as well as informative, blending great events and personages with revealing tidbits about the daily life of the common folk.

“The important thing for me is that people shouldn’t have to fall back on a dictionary to understand what I write,” he said in an interview. “For me, vulgarization means allowing people, the greatest possible number of people, to understand who they are through their past. Let’s not forget that the most popular edition of the Bible in history has been the Vulgate.”

English readers can appreciate Lacoursière’s approach in A People’s History of Quebec, a new book on which he collaborated with author and publisher Robin Philpot. It is a concise history of Quebec, from the earliest days of colonization to the aftermath of the most recent sovereignty referendum, rendered in an easily read 200 pages. As fascinating as the march of great figures and the mapping of landmark events are the details of how they affected the ordinary life of their times.

For example, the 17th-century debate, during the young colony’s struggling days, over whether the beaver is an animal or a fish. It was highly pertinent at a time when Catholics were enjoined from eating meat during 140 days of the year, though fish was allowed.

Since beaver were in abundance in the struggling colony and if, in fact, they belonged to the fish family, they could be served all year long, and thus the obvious question arose, the book notes. The resident bishop, the towering François de Laval, submitted it to theologians at the Sorbonne and to leading Parisian doctors. “The experts earnestly discussed the issue at length and consulted other illustrious scientists and came down with the conclusion that the beaver was a fish because of its tail. The decision brought joy to the colony.”

It was perhaps not a decisive factor in the English conquest of Quebec, but morale was surely diminished in the French ranks when they were ordered, under threat of hanging, to compensate for a meat shortage while the colony was under siege by eating horses. Their commanders tried to set an example by preparing a meal based entirely on horse meat, including such delights as horse-meat pies à l’espagnole, horse scallops and horse hooves au gratin. “They soon learned that you can put horse meat on the table, but you cannot make the soldiers and the people eat it.”

“There’s a lot of little detail like that about daily life, things that go beyond what I call political and constitutional life,” Lacoursiére said. “It makes the historical account more vivid and more accessible to people who wouldn’t normally read an academic history book.”

This isn’t the first time Lacoursière’s work has been published in English. Back in 1972, a series he wrote on Quebec and Canadian history was issued in 15 slim volumes in collaboration with the Steinberg’s and Loblaws grocery chains and sold in their supermarkets across the country you could check here. Lacoursière says it got him some ribbing from more highbrow historians.

“Some academics asked me if I wasn’t embarrassed to find myself in with a milk carton or a loaf of bread in a grocery bag. I said the important thing for me is that people discover their past, no matter how, no matter where I find myself with that.”

He is not without academic recognition. He has been a visiting professor at Université Laval and been bestowed the Pierre Berton Award by the Canadian National Historical Society and the Académie des lettres du Québec’s medal of achievement. He is a Member of the Order of Canada and a Knight of the Ordre national du Québec. A native of Shawinigan, he is a one-time law school classmate of former prime minister Jean Chrétien.

Noted biographer and journalist Hélène de Billy praises the book as a great read. A People’s History of Quebec is “both an excellent history book to refresh the reader’s memory and a rich introduction to a people who were told (infamously by Lord Durham in 1840) that they had no history.”

Co-author Philpot said the book is intended to fill a current void on bookstore shelves. “For some years now, I’ve heard from booksellers in Quebec City and Montreal that tourists come in and ask them what they have about Quebec in English and there’s really nothing like this. We’re hoping it will serve a purpose in helping people at large better understand where this Quebec identity comes from.”

The book is the first publication issued by Baraka Books, a new publishing house established by Philpot in collaboration with prominent publisher, author and former Quebec cultural affairs minister Denis Vaugeois. Philpot’s contribution to the project included translating Lacoursière’s basic text and adding elements that would appeal to a greater anglophone readership, both Canadian and U.S., pointing out for instance various place names in the United States, such as Detroit, Des Moines and St. Louis, that owe their origin to early explorers from New France, and the fact that O Canada was originally composed as a French-Canadian patriotic alternative to God Save the Queen.

“We hope to make Americans realize that important parts of their history are tied to Quebec,” he said. “In fact, Quebec is at the heart of North American history.”

Philpot, who was born and raised in Thunder Bay, Ont., before settling in Quebec 35 years ago, is best known as a rare anglo sovereignist who ran for the Parti Québécois in the 2007 provincial election. He is a former communications director for the Société St. Jean Baptiste de Montréal and has previously written books highly critical of Canada, including one that alleges the federalist side stole the ’95 Quebec referendum by subterfuge and illegal spending. He sees himself in a line with the likes of E.B. O’Callaghan, Thomas Storrow Brown and the Nelson brothers, who sided with the Patriotes during the 1837 Lower Canada rebellion.

For A People’s History, however, Philpot says he put ideology aside in favour of objectivity. “We took an ecumenical approach in this case,” he said. “Our publishing house isn’t a sovereignist initiative by any means. Maybe some people don’t like to hear that Quebec is an entity with its own history, but it’s an undeniable fact.

Other Baraka books in the works include volumes on early contacts between native and European tribes and on arctic pioneer Joseph-Elzéar Bernier, who staked the Canadian claim to the Arctic Archipelago.

Lacoursière says he would not have it any other way. “If a historian is identified with a political position, then all he writes is judged on that basis. For me, there are no good sides or bad sides – there’s just what happened.”

He does offer the observation that, in the early days of settlement, the French were more venturesome and more accommodating of the continent’s aboriginal peoples than the English. “In the days of the fur trade, the English approach was to build forts and wait for the natives to come to them, while the French traders would go forth to the natives. The contact was altogether different.”

He also suggests that this venturesome “Canadien” tradition has political resonance to this day: “If you psychoanalyze Quebecers as to why they are wary of independence, it is in part because their ancestors crossed North America, two-thirds of which at one point belonged to France. Francophones walked that land.

“Today, if independence were to come, we could think that barriers to the greater continent could arise. One of the features of Quebecers is that they’re at home anywhere.”

If it does come to another referendum, Lacoursière hopes his historical work will help everyone concerned to make an informed decision.

“If one day anglophones and francophones have a decision to make, it shouldn’t be made for sentimental reasons, but rather reflected on in a clear light of understanding.”