Exploration in the Canadian Arctic
François Cartier and Guislaine Lemay, McCord Museum
Exploration of the Arctic has been a facet of Canadian history from the arrival of the first Europeans in North America until today. The main motivation behind European expeditions to this terra incognita, this "world unfinished by the hand of its Creator," is to seek a navigable passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The country that discovers this route will have direct access to the wealth of the Orient.
So exploration is driven by economic reasons, but also a desire for prestige. The search for the famous Northwest Passage in the 19th century mobilizes more and more resources. The British admiralty, in particular, sends several missions, and the English public develops a passion for the adventures of its Arctic navigators. Whether because of their exploits or because of their failures -- and in some cases, disastrous fates -- many explorers become the stuff of legend: Frobisher, Baffin, Hudson, Ross, Franklin, Back and, lastly, the Norwegian Roald Amundsen, the first to conquer the Northwest Passage.
There is an obvious connection between the Arctic missions and the fur trade in the Canadian West. The explorers clearly benefit from the help of firms like the Hudson's Bay Company, which supply goods and provisions, or bold crews familiar with the territory.
Although the Northwest Passage is still not a commercial shipping route, even today, efforts made over the years to find a way through have given us detailed maps of these isolated regions of the globe, information on its flora and fauna, knowledge of its natural resources, and contacts with the peoples who have been living in those hostile landscapes for centuries and have learned to survive there. In the history of the discovery of Canada, the Arctic is one of the last regions to yield its secrets to the white man.