- A Historical and Legal Study of Sovereignty in the Canadian North: Terrestrial Sovereignty, 1870–1939 by Gordon W. Smith
Canada’s often contested claim to its Arctic territories remains an essential theme in northern history. Gordon Smith’s A Historical and Legal Study of Sovereignty in the Canadian North constitutes both an early and a late entry into this field. Published in 2014, it was actually completed many years earlier. Smith had written a dissertation on Canada’s Arctic claims in 1952, and he maintained his interest in the topic throughout his life as an academic and independent researcher for the federal government and into his retirement. His studies ceased only when he died in 2000, leaving a large and thoroughly researched but unwieldy manuscript. P. Whitney Lackenbauer has provided a valuable service in rendering the document suitable for publication. The result is an unusual work: part historical analysis, part sourcebook of original documents.
Smith begins with the complexities involved in transferring the Hudson’s Bay Company’s extensive territories to Great Britain and then, in 1870, to Canada, followed by the transfer a decade later of the rest of the Arctic Archipelago. But only in the 1890s, provoked by American whalers in the Beaufort Sea and miners chasing Klondike gold, did Canada indicate serious interest in its new northern territories. The Alaska boundary dispute opened another arena of contention, and Smith traces the issues at stake to Britain’s treaty with Russia in 1825.
Challenges to Canadian sovereignty continued into the early 1900s, as travellers from elsewhere searched for traces of the Franklin expedition, claimed territory, or navigated the Northwest Passage. Canada responded by defining new territories, provinces, and districts; sending its own expeditions; and dispatching the Mounted Police to display the flag and apply Canadian laws and regulations. The sector principle emerged to frame arguments for northern sovereignty. For nearly two decades Vilhjalmur Stefansson dominated northern affairs, attracting enthusiastic support for his Canadian Arctic Expedition (1913–18) but skepticism after his Wrangel Island misadventure and experiments with reindeer herding on Baffin Island. New arenas of contention opened over the Danish explorer Knud Rasmussen’s apparent denial of Canadian authority over Ellesmere Island, and then with respect to Norwegian interest in the Sverdrup Islands. Smith also examines a dispute over Greenland between Denmark and Norway that carried implications for Canada’s own Arctic claims. By the 1930s the Canadian government had become more confident regarding its presence in the north, through, among other initiatives, the annual Eastern Arctic Patrol. The book concludes with Captain Henry Larsen and his Northwest Passage voyage between 1940 and 1942 on the Royal [End Page 333] Canadian Mounted Police ship St. Roch—yet another initiative laced with concerns regarding sovereignty.
Smith focuses on diplomacy and debate at the highest levels, using prime ministerial letters, cabinet memos, and other official documents to reconstruct how senior officials understood and reacted to circumstances. Lengthy excerpts (and occasionally entire documents) supplement his analysis. This approach is characteristic of an earlier historiographical era, particularly in its neglect of the lives and perspectives of northerners themselves. Inuit activities and rights and their implications for sovereignty claims are ignored. Northerners—Ada Blackjack, a survivor of the Wrangel Island episode, is a rare exception—are present only as anonymous recipients of policies formed by outsiders. Some of Smith’s conclusions have also been challenged by more recent scholarship. However, this book is also the product of decades of careful work and reflection, and it provides a useful overview and analysis of key events, as well as access to selected essential documents. As Lackenbauer notes, Smith’s effort, although not a definitive account, can provide a valuable foundation for future study.