Canada Claims the Arctic Islands Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Following centuries of perilous explorations in the frozen islands and waterways by the United States, Norway, and Canada, Canadian explorer J. E. Bernier staked his claim on the Arctic at Melville Island.

Summary of Event

Canada’s claim to the Arctic received a significant boost when, on July 1, 1909, Captain J. E. Bernier placed a bronze plaque on Melville Island that declared the Arctic Archipelago to be Canadian territory. This action, however, was merely one of several that attempted to secure Canada’s claim to the frozen lands that extended from the Canadian mainland to the North Pole. The raising of flags and erecting of plaques, however, were largely symbolic events that carried little weight in international law. These lands were neither occupied nor administered by Canada. Canada;Arctic Archipelago Arctic Circle Exploration;Arctic [kw]Canada Claims the Arctic Islands (July 1, 1901) [kw]Arctic Islands, Canada Claims the (July 1, 1901) [kw]Islands, Canada Claims the Arctic (July 1, 1901) Canada;Arctic Archipelago Arctic Circle Exploration;Arctic [g]Canada;July 1, 1901: Canada Claims the Arctic Islands[00180] [c]Expansion and land acquisition;July 1, 1901: Canada Claims the Arctic Islands[00180] [c]Exploration and discovery;July 1, 1901: Canada Claims the Arctic Islands[00180] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;July 1, 1901: Canada Claims the Arctic Islands[00180] Bernier, J. E. Frobisher, Sir Martin Davis, John Parry, Sir William Edward Franklin, Sir John McClure, Sir Robert John Le Mesurier Peary, Robert Edwin Henson, Matthew Alexander

European exploration of the Arctic began in the time of Queen Elizabeth I of England, when Sir Martin Frobisher first looked for a shortcut—the Northwest Passage—to the East across the North American seas. During each of his three voyages (in 1576, 1577, and 1578), Frobisher found the passage blocked by Baffin Island. He was followed by John Davis, who searched for a passage around the island in voyages during the period 1585-1587. During his trips, he found the area now known as the Cumberland Sound. With that discovery, Davis also found the entrance to a strait and sound through which Henry Hudson sailed in 1610.

William Baffin and Robert Bylot returned to the Baffin Bay area in 1616 to explore the islands and channels leading westward, but because these channels, later named the Jones and Lancaster Sounds, were icy and foggy, the men believed that the bay did not allow passage. For nearly two centuries, this area went unexplored. In the late eighteenth century, however, Samuel Hearne and Alexander Mackenzie reached the Arctic headwaters on separate voyages. They learned nothing of the coastal areas adjoining either the Coppermine or Mackenzie Rivers and did not see any of the Arctic Archipelago, but they did see brief glimpses of Baffin Island’s east shore.

The search for a Northwest Passage continued in 1818, when the British Admiralty sent John Ross back to Baffin Bay. Like Baffin, Ross believed that Lancaster Sound was a closed bay without passage into the continent. Sir William Edward Parry, however, proved that the sound was a western gateway to a sea that had been uncharted by previous European explorers. Parry sailed about 800 kilometers along the Lancaster Sound, Barrow Strait, and Viscount Melville Sound (known afterward as the Parry Channel), and he wintered on Melville Sound, where he could view the banks of the island across the ice-filled water. In a later voyage, Parry lost a ship to the ice as he entered Prince Regent Inlet. Up to that point, all exploration had been curtailed by the short, two-month summers, which created a very small window of opportunity in which explorers could search for a passage. Many locations were frozen for the entire year, and ships could be icebound for years at a time before they were released or splintered in the crushing ice flows. The ice, the harshness of the weather in general, scurvy, hunger, and all the other obstacles slowed attempts to find the Northwest Passage.





From 1819 through 1839, canoe and boat parties farther south explored a channel along the shore from the Bering Strait to Boothia Isthmus. John Franklin sailed from English in 1845 with two Royal Navy vessels, and he attempted to enter Lancaster Sound from north of Baffin Island. After Franklin failed to return, numerous rescue parties were sent out from England, and a great deal of territory was mapped during the attempts to locate Franklin, who was never found.

During the 1850’s, other explorers continued to map the continental shore, Somerset and Victoria Islands, and the southernmost coast of Devon, Bathurst, and Melville Islands. One dramatic voyage involved the Investigator and its captain, Sir Robert John Le Mesurier McClure. He discovered Prince of Wales Strait and traveled through the Northwest Passage. Unfortunately, however, he put his ship into an icepack at the place where Franklin had been stranded. The ship was buffeted by gale-force winds and thrown onto its side. In September of 1851, McClure made it to the Bay of Mercy on the north shore of Banks Island, where he and his crew were stuck for eighteen months. They would have starved were it not for the arrival of a detachment from England.

Many others attempted to map regions of the Arctic and to reach the northernmost point, including Sir Francis Leopold McClintock, McClintock, Francis Leopold who filled in many of the gaps in others’ maps and traced almost all of the coasts of the archipelago (up to 77° north) during an 1859 expedition. Areas to the north of McClintock’s expedition were explored by both Americans and Scandinavians, and the channel between Greenland and Ellesmere Island and Ellesmere’s eastern shore were mapped in the 1870’s. In 1876, parties reached the top of Ellesmere and the northernmost point of what is now the Canadian territory of Cape Columbia. American explorer William Peary and others from Norway explored even more of the Arctic.

Exploration of the Arctic regions had an air of competition. In 1903, a dispute between the United States and Canada over the Alaskan-Canadian boundary along the coast of British Columbia was resolved in favor of the United States, and this action only increased Canada’s interest in securing its sovereignty. J. E. Bernier left Quebec City, Quebec, on his ship the Arctic and sailed northward on 1908. His expedition claimed the North Pole for Canada on July 1, 1909, at Parry’s Rock on Melville Island. Shortly before that, on April 6, 1909, Robert Edwin Alexander Peary, Matthew Henson, and their Inuit guide had made their way north by dogsled to claim the North Pole at Ellesmere Island. Both nations continued to claim sovereignty throughout the twentieth century.


In attempts to improve the merit of its claims, Canada established Mounted Police posts on Herschel Island, Craig Harbor, Pangnirtung, and Dundas Harbor. In 1969, the United States sent the Manhattan through northern waters without permission and did so again in 1985 with the Polar Sea, implying its sovereignty. Travel in much of the region remained difficult, even with aircraft and icebreakers, and many impediments prevented the maintenance of significant settlements by either nation. Native peoples continuously occupied these northern areas, however, and began doing so long before Europeans began to arrive. Canada;Arctic Archipelago Arctic Circle Exploration;Arctic

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bedesky, Baron. Matthew Henson and Robert Peary: The Race to the North Pole. New York: Crabtree, 2006. Account of the explorations of these two Americans aimed at young readers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bertram, Colin. Arctic and Antarctic: A Prospect of the Polar Regions. Cambridge, England: W. Heffer & Sons, 1958. An older discussion of Arctic history and Antarctic and Arctic exploration.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Confrey, Mick, and Tim Jordan. Icemen: A History of the Arctic and Its Explorers. New York: TV Books, 1998. Arctic history emphasizes explorers and their discoveries.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lopez, Barry. Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape. New York: Charles Scribner, 1986. Discussions of exploration of the Arctic as well as commentary about the natural history of the region.

Peary and Henson Reach the North Pole

Australasian Antarctic Expedition Commences

Amundsen Reaches the South Pole

Categories: History