Thursday, January 20, 2011

“The Polar Imperative” Shortlisted for Gelber Prize

The Polar Imperative: A History of Arctic Sovereignty in North America by by historian Shelagh Grant, on the race to claim sovereignty in the Arctic, has been shortlisted as a potential contender for the Lionel Gelber Prize. According to the website, the prize is award to the English-language book that “seeks to deepen public debate on significant global issues”. We'll find out who won on March 1.

Grant is adjunct professor of history at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario, and was recently interviewed in Maclean's Magazine entitled "Do we really own the Arctic? Why we can’t protect our far North". She talks about the effect of climate change now and in the past on the Arctic and its people, Chinese northern ambitions and Canadian sovereignty claims. Though far too brief as such things are, it is worth the read.

It is interesting in the way a knowledgeable informed understanding of sovereignty and the North blows away the silly invented sovereignty threats for partisan gain that politicians, like the current Canadian government, do to drum up patriotic fervour to increase electoral chances rather than increasing standards of living or scientific knowledge or action.

Grant's book explores the early settlements of the Arctic by indigenous peoples to the most recent efforts of several circumpolar nations – and ultimately, the victory of the Canadians – in exercising sovereignty in the Arctic.

In a review, Doug Saunders summarizes Grant's analysis of the Canadian government's efforts and endeavours in the North:

The obverse side of this strategy has been Ottawa's repeated, century-long habit of announcing investments in the Arctic that never materialize. In this, Canada is in notable contrast to Denmark, which has spent large sums developing and supporting Greenland (which became an independent state last year) and its mainly Inuit people, even though it is even further from Copenhagen than Canada's Arctic possession is from Ottawa.

Grant lists Ottawa's recent history of empty flourishes: “plans for a nuclear-powered icebreaker were dropped; plans for a fleet of nuclear submarines were shelved; orders for search and rescue helicopters were cancelled.” The list of Arctic initiatives announced by Harper in 2008, including a deep-sea port and a fleet of icebreakers, proved to amount to almost nothing: Much was old spending, or promises without commitments, or cheaper projects in the Subarctic that did nothing for the far north.

It is only the Inuit themselves who have been able to establish a real Canadian presence in the North. The creation of the territory of Nunavut in 1999 has turned Iqaluit into a real centre (albeit one just below the Arctic Circle); the independence of Greenland last year shows that Inuit are far more willing than Europeans or their descendents were to exploit the Arctic's resources and turn their region into an economic hub.

In her conclusion, Grant lists the dozen “visionaries who were responsible for changing the map of the Arctic,” from Erik the Red and Martin Frobisher through Roald Amundsen and Vitus Bering; significantly, there is not a single Canadian among them. It may be on our maps and in our anthem, but the Arctic remains an utterly alien place to Canadians.

All the more so now, sadly, where the false concerns over "Arctic sovereignty" and the melding of sovereignty with legal issues over international vs national waterways are played up for giant political photo ops at the expense (literally) of real development desperately needed.

I have not yet read Grant's book but it is timely and I will. All of the best to her with the Gelber Prize nomination.

Monday, January 17, 2011

New Canadian History Search Site

This I like a lot.

The Canadiana Discovery Portal is a new google-like search site of Canadian history which brings over 60 million pages of photos, maps, articles, newspapers, letters online in an easily searcheable database.

The Canadiana Discovery Portal is a project of The Portal is currently in beta phase but it is now freely accessible to the public.

A quick search of "John Franklin" reveals hundreds of documents, including photos, maps as well as texts. I did not know that Stephen Leacock had written a book entitled Adventurers of the far North: a chronicle of the frozen seas. Well, he did and on page 6 he refers to Franklin and includes Stephen Pearce's famous The Arctic Council planning a search for Sir John Franklin. That took about 2 seconds to find and review. (A full online version of the book can be found here.)

This is good news for Canadian historians. I think it is great news for those non-academics among us who are passionate about Canadian history, but don't dedicate our lives or careers to its study. Digitization democratizes information and, ideally, leads to broader knowledge among greater numbers. I've learned nearly as much about the Franklin Expedition, for example, from online sources - scattered here and there as they are - as from texts. (As an aside, as I've mentioned to some friends, I think there is a gaping hole to be filled online in Arctic/Franklin history. If anyone wants help working on an aggregator site or some such thing, let me know...)

The website portal bills itself as "your best single source for Canadian documentary heritage. It is a free service that enables users to search across the valuable and diverse digital collections of Canada’s libraries, museums and archives."

The number of online collections is growing. So check back often! is also the home of the "Early Canadiana Online" which claims to be "the first large-scale online collection of early Canadian print heritage". It currently offers twelve online collections totalling over three million pages of digitized content and is continually expanding. Talk about kid in a candy-store.

Arctic readers will especially appreciate and get a smile out of the Globe and Mail article (copied below) and one of the examples of search "finds" the reporter notes from his research: "On hockey, there are photographs of Lester B. Pearson on the ice in Switzerland, as well as an 1856 account of Captain F.W. Beechey's travels through the Northwest Passage and his observation of First Nations playing a game that looked like hockey."

Hockey, history, Lester Pearson and Arctic exploration! Hold my Brain; be still my beating Heart.

I suspect my productivity at work may suffer a bit this winter.

This is going to be fun!

Google-like search site connects 60 million pages of Canadian history

Stephanie Levitz
Ottawa— The Canadian Press
Published Monday, Jan. 17, 2011 12:33AM EST

Call it the Google of Canadian history.

An ambitious new search engine has been launched by an alliance of digital heritage advocates designed to allow one-stop searching for centuries of Canadian history.

The Canadiana Discovery Portal combs through more than 60 million pages of information from 30 different library, museum and archive collections across the country.

From old Saskatchewan postcards to sheet music, the search engine brings together access to 14 different institutional collections from coast to coast and in both French and English.

Unlike traditional academic search engines, this one has been designed for ease.

“It's more Google-like,” said Ron Walker, executive director of, an organization that facilitates digital initiatives and is spearheading the portal initiative.

“Here's everything that exists, type in a name and see what comes up.”

The collections are varied. Quick searches on perennial topics in Canadian conversations yield a surprising diversity of results.

On hockey, there are photographs of Lester B. Pearson on the ice in Switzerland, as well as an 1856 account of Captain F.W. Beechey's travels through the Northwest Passage and his observation of First Nations playing a game that looked like hockey.

The portal isn't meant just for academics.

Genealogists can peek in and see where their family names may pop up in local newspapers. Artists can seek inspiration from old images or sound, whether they live in Montreal or Morocco.

“The biggest point is really access for Canadians and those who want to learn about it Canada,” said Brent Roe, the executive director of the Canadian Association of Research Libraries.

Linking the online collections together is a costly endeavour.

In June 2009, received almost $200,000 from the federal government just to develop software to help institutions connect parts of their collections.

But that doesn't cover the cost of transferring physical collections online.

Mr. Walker estimates that to digitize all of Canada's heritage materials created before the 1990s — when content start to be created in a digital format — could cost as much as $1 billion.

Back in 2005, Library and Archives Canada officials started a national discussion on a digital information strategy for the country. But after issuing their final report, they closed the books on a national approach.

Individual organizations are creating digital content on their own.

For example, by the end of this year, Library and Archives expects to double the volume of their online content, including giving access to digitized images of original census documents from 1861 and 1871.

In Quebec, approximately 10 million objects dating back to the 17th century have now been digitized by the provincial archives. In Vancouver, the local public library has put 25,000 pictures of B.C. and the Yukon online.

There is also the work of private companies like Google to digitize books.

The challenge with all digital efforts is keeping up with the pace.

In addition to the reams of new documents being created, each day copyright expires on historical documents, making them freely available to be digitized and published.

“One of the issues is to preserve it and the other is to make it accessible,” said Mr. Walker.

“We think by making interesting content accessible it will generate more interest from the public.”