Canada’s last frontier, the Arctic, was revealed early in the twentieth
century, just as aircraft were replacing ships and canoes as the preferred
means of discovery. Half a century earlier, scientists started questioning
what – rainfall, soil, flora and fauna, minerals – lay in those
explored places, using specialized instruments to make further discoveries.
By the middle of the 19th century, the Hudson’s Bay Company was almost out of the exploration business (interactive map: Arctic Exploration 1851-1944 - map layer: Primary routes, 1851-91). Canadians should honour the HBC as the principal organization involved in unmasking the interior of a continent, an undertaking that lasted fully two hundred years. The Arctic was explored by British ships coasting innumerable islands in the style that had been established by England in the 16th century.
The United States entered the Arctic late in the 19th century with an entirely different mission: reaching the north pole (map layer: Primary routes, 1892-1906). Standing at the North Pole represented one of mankind’s many dreams, and immortality for the first person there. The Pole, finally reached by Peary in 1909, offered no apparent value beyond the symbolic. That may change in the 21st century.
More important for Canada was the exploration of the last of the unknown Arctic region, the Queen Elizabeth Islands (map layer: Primary routes, 1907-1939), followed by the navigation of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police boat St Roch through the Northwest Passage, in both directions, in the 1940s (map layer: Primary routes, 1939-1944). It was a statement of sovereignty and of Canada’s ability to bring services to Inuit communities in the far north.
Land exploration gave way to land assessment during the 19th century (map: Scientific Expeditions and Surveys 1857-1892 -> map layer: Primary routes, 1857-1861). In places like southern Ontario, land assessment was undertaken by settlers who cleared forests to make farmland, try crops, drain wetlands, and control pests; they were scientists in all but name. But elsewhere, notably Western Canada, scientists preceded settlers and focused on agricultural limits: rainfall and growing season, for instance (static map: Climate of British North America after Blodget, 1875). The definition of “Palliser’s Triangle” established the value of land-area studies, sequel to the linear probes of the explorers (static map: Palliser; GSC Reconnaissance 1866-1892).