A Brief History of Arctic Research in Modern Canada

The 2014 Fall Report of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development was released this week by the Office of the Auditor General of Canada. According to the report, which was produced by Environment Commissioner Julie Gelfand, Canada’s Arctic navigational aids and icebreaking services are both antiquated and inadequate. She warned specifically against the use of outdated maps and surveys, which insufficiently protect Canadian interests in a region with a seemingly constant changing geography. At a time when receding glacial ice and increased marine traffic have many people the world over eagerly following Arctic headlines, this most recent news provides further ammunition to Conservative critics in Canada who take issue with the northern territorial sovereignty focus of Stephen Harper’s government. Canada’s Conservative party has long claimed the Arctic to be a political and economic priority, and it’s easy to see their point when considering the potential for resource exploitation that may stem from rapid environmental change in the region. But Gelfand’s audit suggests the government is severely unprepared to maintain and grow its own Arctic activity, let alone protect any territorial sovereignty claims. In today’s post we take a brief look at Canada’s modern cartographic interests in the Arctic, in attempt to contextualize the concerns raised by Gelfand.

In 1947 Canada’s Department of National Defence (DND) established the Defence Research Board (DRB). As a branch of the federal government, the DRB was put in place to offer analytical advice to the Minister of National Defence as well as scientific and technical assistance to the Armed Forces. Employed at DRB were some of Canada’s top scientific minds from various military and educational backgrounds, and as defence researchers it was their job to forecast potential security issues and help prepare national defences for the challenges of the postwar period. At this time the Canadian government started to view the Arctic as a potential geographic weak point, and funds were poured into the DRB for the creation of an Arctic research division. Of the most notable contributors to the Board’s Arctic research was Moira Dunbar, who was courted by DRB from the United Kingdom.

A pioneer in her field, Dunbar studied, advised, and wrote about Canada’s strategic Arctic interests for over twenty years while at the DRB. Together with RCAF Wing Commander Keith Greenaway, Dunbar flew numerous aerial reconnaissance missions over Arctic North America, collecting intelligence for the Canadian, American and British governments. Her work with Greenaway culminated in Canada’s largest collection of cartographic and glacial aerial photos of the monotonous expanses of the Arctic, many of which were first presented to the public in an annotated publication titled Arctic Canada from the Air (1956). Further to this co-authored publication with Greenaway, individually Dunbar published select articles and book chapters, including the introductory piece, “The Arctic Setting,” to one of Canada’s classic edited collections on northern security titled The Arctic Frontier (1966). Operating as one of only a few female scientists in the Canadian government in the early Cold War period, Dunbar successfully led the Geophysics Division of the DRB before being named as the Board’s Directorate of Physical Research, a position which she held until retirement.

Dunbar specialized in the climatological aspects of sea-ice research, but also served Canada in a diplomatic role. In 1964 she visited Finland and, perhaps more interestingly, the Soviet Union to examine icebreaking practices. This was only two years removed from the Cuban Missile Crisis of October, 1962, a point which many historians look to as the climax of Cold War tensions between the Democratic West and Communist East. For her contributions to tripartite defence relations between Canada, the UK and US, as well as her commitment to Arctic research and the development of Canada’s science and technology policies, Dunbar received the Massey Medal in 1972, and was named a Member of the Order of Canada and a fellowship of the Royal Society of Canada. She retired in 1978, but not before having witnessed first-hand significant change in Canada’s national defence establishment.

In 1974 the DRB was absorbed by DND as the Canadian government began to withdraw its economic investment in Arctic research. At the time Cold War tensions were thawing and the public, in reaction to widespread disapproval over fighting in Vietnam, was increasingly critical of scientific government research devoted specifically to war and defence. This shift in policy was so contentious that many senior defence researchers at the DRB claimed the Liberal government of Pierre Trudeau was guilty of malign neglect. It was a time of shifting attitudes and global priorities, and the Canadian government thought it best to pull money from defence research when the threat to national security was on decline.

In the context of the period Trudeau’s government took a calculated risk, but it was a move that set the course for Canada’s defence research for the foreseeable future. Funds for the DND have generally been on decline since, and as a result the difficulties facing Canada in Arctic research and protection have today reached a dangerous point. An influx of funds will certainly help, but as a nation Canada is unable to ‘buy’ back time. Unfortunately the roots of our modern insufficiencies are deep, and we may therefore be confronted with an uncertain and unfavourable Arctic future.