We’re looking for Arctic history in the wrong places

The June issue of the Literary Review of Canada finds Yours Truly responding to an LRC article published last month under the headline What Does Franklin Really
Mean? This August, sailing with Adventure Canada, I am hoping to return to the site that marks John Rae’s discovery.

Adriana Craciun is right to
question the wisdom of devoting a national historic site, location yet to be determined,
“to a failed British expedition, whose architects sought to demonstrate the superiority
of British science over Inuit knowledge.” We Canadians are looking for Arctic history
in all the wrong places.

Instead of obsessing over two
ships that disappeared in 1845, we should develop a national historic site commemorating
the triumphant discovery of the final link in the Northwest Passage — an
achievement that relied on Inuit methods of travel, and that involved a Scot,
an Ojibwe, and an Inuk.

I tell the story in my book Fatal Passage. In the spring of 1854,
acting on behalf of the Hudson’s Bay Company, and after wintering above the
Arctic Circle at Repulse Bay, Dr. John Rae led a small party across Boothia
Peninsula, bent on completing the mapping of the northern coast of North
America. By delineating that coastline between known points, the intrepid Rae hoped
to establish or invalidate the existence of a navigable Northwest Passage.

Hauling sledges through gale
force winds, blowing snow, and bitter cold, Rae and his two hardiest men — the
Ojibwe Thomas Mistegan and the Inuk William Ouligbuck, Jr. — travelled
Inuit-style, building snowhuts as they went, and eventually trekked north along
the west coast of Boothia Peninsula. On May 6, 1854, the three arrived at a
promontory that Rae named Point de la Guiche (latitude 68 degrees 57 minutes 52

Standing there, looking out over
a channel covered by “young ice,” Rae realized that this waterway, which connected
two locations accessible by sailing ships, would be ice-free and open during
the summer. He was staring out over the final link in the Northwest Passage.

Half a century later, when the Norwegian
Roald Amundsen became the first explorer to navigate the Passage, he sailed
through this channel and named it Rae Strait. In the epilogue to Fatal Passage, I describe how, in 1999, with
two fellow adventurers (one an Inuk), I travelled to Point de la Guiche and there
erected a plaque to mark the achievement of Rae, Mistegan, and Ouligbuck.

Forget about searching for two long-lost
ships and commemorating what Craciun rightly calls “the tragic uselessness” of
the Franklin disaster. Canadians should focus instead on building a national
historic site to mark the discovery — by the Scot, the Ojibwe, and the Inuk —
of the final link in the Northwest Passage.

Ken McGoogan

Toronto, Ontario


  1. Andrés Paredes on February 1, 2022 at 5:20 pm


    Probably you´re right.

    But… it would be great finding the ships,wouldn´t it? (even if by chance). The unresolved misteries can evolve into a kind of obssesion hard to ignore for some people.

    On the other hand, the life of John Rae is really fascinating, there is enough stuff to make a good film.

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