North American Exploration - Vol. 3

By John Logan Allen | Go to book overview

21 / The Government Explorer in Canada, 1870-1914

WILLIAM A. WAISER

"It is very commonly supposed, even in Canada, but to a greater extent elsewhere," remarked the speaker, "that all parts of the Dominion are now so well known that exploration, in the true sense of the term, may be considered as a thing of the past."1 These remarks were made by Dr. George Mercer Dawson before a meeting of the Ottawa Field-Naturalists' Club on 7 March 1890. Widely acclaimed as one of Canada's leading scientists, Dawson had been asked to contribute a paper on "some of the larger unexplored regions of Canada," and he decided to use the occasion to appeal publicly for the continuation of the kind of exploratory surveys that had been performed under government auspices over the past two decades. The comments were typical of Dawson: reasoned, dispassionate, and forthright. Armed with a large map of the Dominion, he identified sixteen "pockets," or areas of mainland Canada (excluding the Arctic Archipelago), that remained "almost or altogether unmapped," and he reported that "the whole topographical fabric of large parts" of existing maps of the country rested on "information of the vaguest kind." Far from believing that Canada's main features had been delineated, Dawson advised his audience that about one million square miles were "for all practical purposes entirely unknown."2

Dawson's speech was significant for a number of reasons. In 1870, when Canada acquired Rupert's Land (the area drained by Hudson Bay, including northern Quebec, Ontario, and Manitoba) and the Northwestern Territory (present-day Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and the Yukon and Northwest Territories excluding the Arctic islands) and increased seven times in size (from 384,598 square miles to 2,988,909 square miles), the country was scarcely three years old. The following year, after British Columbia joined Confederation, the country covered half a continent and reached the shores of three oceans: the Atlantic, the Pacific, and the Arctic. It was the kind of empire that should have belonged to other, older na

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