VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – Arctic sovereignty is one of those important subjects most Canadians don’t think a lot about, but probably should. Our country has 162,000 kilometers of Arctic coastline, while 40 per cent of Canada’s landmass is in its three northern territories. With climate change warming up the icy passages of the North, control of the Arctic is about to become even more contentious than ever. Now, a new book looks at the history of the issue through two legendary vessels.
Sisters of The Ice: The True Story of How St. Roch and North Star of Herschel Island Protected Canadian Arctic Sovereignty was written by R. Bruce McDonald. He has a unique perspective as he is also the captain and the current owner of North Star of Herschel Island.
“My wife and I purchased this old arctic fur trading ship 25 years ago,” he says. “I became much more interested as a sailor in when did the question of Arctic sovereignty come up. When did it rear its head? When did Canada, actually the federal government, start showing an interest in protecting this part of the world?”
The answer would be probably around the time the St. Roch was pressed into service in 1929, what Macdonald calls a “statement” by Ottawa.
“The RCMP St. Roch was really the first large federal investment in protecting Canadian Arctic sovereignty and she patrolled the Western Arctic and was very well thought of,” he explains.
“At the time when St. Roch was sent up, there was no [Canadian] marine presence. So, they sent St. Roch up there to be patrolling that area, so it was a statement by the government that, ‘No, we’re taking this seriously now.’”
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St. Roch’s exploits include being the first vessel through the Northwest Passage west to east, the first vessel to navigate the passage in both directions, and the first vessel to circumnavigate North America. The ship was placed in permanent dry dock in 1958, leading to the opening of the Vancouver Maritime Museum the following year.
Macdonald’s vessel would pick up where St. Roch left off, maintaining Canadian Arctic sovereignty during the Cold War.
“Yes, there’s a lot of talk about what is going on and what will be going on with Canada’s Northwest Passage. But I think that it’s important to look back to see all of the hard work, all of the effort that’s gone into protecting this area of Canada by all these remarkable people.”
People like Fred Carpenter, a renowned trapper and Inuit leader who designed North Star of Herschel Island.
Today on @NEWS1130: I speak with @ArcticShip, author of “Sisters of The Ice: The True Story of How St. Roch and North Star of Herschel Island Protected Canadian Arctic Sovereignty,” new from @Harbour_Publish. A virtual book launch is set for June 1st. #1130bookshelf pic.twitter.com/y022o2qEk4
— John Ackermann (@jackermann) May 23, 2021
“So, Fred had taken the ship down to Tuktoyaktuk and he ended up wintering over and left Banks Island during the beginning of the Cold War uninhabited,” he explains.
“Information came down that both Russia and the United States were now looking at this large island, as it was equidistant between the two countries, as a place for missile silos. So, the Canadian government needed a ship to go up. St. Roch had long since been retired. So they asked Fred.”
“They just sort of knocked on the door and said, ‘Would you be willing to go up and hold this land for Queen and Country?’ And in no time at all, he’d filled the ship with enough volunteers that they had to get a second ship called Reindeer. These two ships went up there and for this Fred was offered no pay. No nothing.”
Macdonald calls passing on stories like this a lovely responsibility.
“It’s important to remember our history before we look too far forward with what could happen. They set the bar pretty high and I hope that we can live up to that.”
Sisters of The Ice: The True Story of How St. Roch and North Star of Herschel Island Protected Canadian Arctic Sovereignty is available from Harbour Publishing.
A virtual book launch is being held on June 1st at 7:00 p.m. Admission is free, but you must register first.