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  • A Historical and Legal Study of Sovereignty in the Canadian North: Terrestrial Sovereignty, 1870–1939 by Gordon Smith
  • Adam Lajeunesse
A Historical and Legal Study of Sovereignty in the Canadian North: Terrestrial Sovereignty, 1870–1939, by Gordon Smith, edited by P. Whitney Lackenbauer. Calgary, University of Calgary Press, 2014. 512 pp. $39.95 Cdn (paper).

In A Historical and Legal Study of Sovereignty in the Canadian North, Gordon Smith and his editor — Whitney Lackenbauer — offer one of the most comprehensive and detailed histories of Canada’s Arctic sovereignty. Smith, a historian by profession, began this work in the early 1970s for the Department of External Affairs, as the federal government was scrambling to assess its Arctic policy in the wake of the Manhattan crisis (1969). By 1973 Smith had produced a preliminary report, but continued the work until his death in 2000 — leaving behind a voluminous, yet incomplete, manuscript. This book is the first volume of Smith’s magnum opus, carefully edited by Canada’s leading Arctic scholar to maintain as much of the original work as possible, while shaping it into something far more readable. [End Page 388]

A Historical and Legal Study is an examination of Canadian policy and activity in the North from 1870 to World War II. This was a formative period, when Canada’s position in the Arctic (both physical and legal) was sometimes considered tenuous, and successive Canadian governments worried that their sovereignty might not survive a foreign challenge. The book covers the transfer of the Arctic from Great Britain to Canada, and Canada’s subsequent efforts to organize and administer its northern inheritance. Digging deep into the archival record, Smith chronicles this process and offers an incredibly detailed account of Canada’s earliest efforts to secure its sovereignty through effective occupation. In so doing, it covers the voyages of William Wakeham (1897), A.P. Low (1903–04), Joseph-Elzéar Bernier (1908), and Vilhjalmur Stefansson (1913–1918), as well as the first rcmp patrols to extend Canadian law into the newly-formed northern territories.

Smith also provides readers with an incredibly detailed account of the early challenges to Canadian sovereignty, covering the Alaskan boundary dispute; the threat posed by foreign whalers operating in the Beaufort Sea and Hudson Bay; the perceived Danish threat to Ellesmere Island; and the Norwegian interest in the Sverdrup Island group. On each of these topics, Smith provides fresh insight and — for the historian — new source material to consider.

The most important contribution, however, is likely Smith’s revisiting of the Danish sovereignty scare of 1919 to 1921. This ‘‘crisis’’ was sparked by Danish explorer Knud Rasmussen’s apparent rejection of Canadian ownership of Ellesmere Island (seemingly with his government’s backing). Through his extensive mining of the documentary record, Smith’s conclusions support more recent work by historians Janice Cavell and Jeff Noakes in disproving this threat narrative. The traditional view has always been that the Danes were genuinely interested in Ellesmere Island and only surrendered their claim after Canada established posts on the island. Smith’s well-supported assessment, however, is that Canadian authorities had blown the threat far out of proportion, allowing themselves to ‘‘become obsessed with a morbid, neurotic, unreasoning fear, which had little basis in reality and which caused them to see, figuratively, burglars under every bed’’ (263).

Key to understanding Arctic sovereignty is an appreciation of international law and of the new legal theories that emerged during the early twentieth century. As such, Smith devotes considerable attention to this subject, examining the question of effective occupation, the Canadian fixation with the sector principle, and the effect of new international legal precedents (such as the Eastern Greenland decision) on Canada’s legal position. It is against this legal backdrop that Smith charts many of Canada’s government expeditions and even the questionable activities of its sometimes agent, Vilhjalmur Stefansson. In so doing, Smith presents [End Page 389] the reader with a better understanding of the motivations and intentions of the key actors.

Behind this comprehensive history is exhaustive research, undertaken over many years at Library and Archives Canada. Indeed, if the work has a weakness it must be that this avalanche of...


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