The son of ICELANDERS who moved to the Dakotas in 1880, educated at the universities of Iowa, North Dakota and Harvard, Stefansson made 3 forays into the Arctic between 1906 and 1918, travelling more than 32 000 km2 of arctic territory. In 1910 he "discovered" a little-known group of Victoria Land natives whom he called the "Blond Eskimos" (ie, COPPER INUIT) and sparked a controversy, which would impugn his scientific expertise, by suggesting that their lighter and European features could be the result of generations of intermingling with a Scandinavian colony of Greenlanders that had vanished in the 15th or 16th century; subsequent scientific investigations have since discounted this theory and did nothing to enhance Stefansson's reputation. As commander of the CANADIAN ARCTIC EXPEDITION (1913-18), which was fraught with internal dissension, he discovered some of the world's last major landmasses - Lougheed, Borden, Meighen and Brock islands - while drifting dangerously, but deliberately, on ice floes.
A prolific writer, his most famous book being The Friendly Arctic (1921), Stefansson had a simple message regarding Canada's NORTH : the Arctic was not a bleak, frozen waste but a habitable region that must be developed. The over-the-pole routes of today's airlines, nuclear submarines surfacing at the North Pole, and the possibility of using gigantic submarine tankers all had their origin in Stefansson's vision of a strategic and commercial polar Mediterranean which, if controlled and exploited by Canada (and the British Empire), could make the Dominion one of the great powers of the 20th century.
To some he was the "prophet of the North"; to others he was an arrogant charlatan. He left Canada under a cloud, partly because he had made enemies during the Canadian Arctic Expedition but also because the projects he later undertook to prove his theories failed. His poorly planned scheme for the domestication of reindeer (imported from Norway) in northern Canada (1921-25) ended in chaos; his unauthorized claiming of WRANGEL Island, north of Siberia, for Canada generated an international incident (1921-24) that upset the USSR and the US and embarrassed Great Britain. The Canadian government was infuriated, seeing his action as high-handed and undercutting Canada's claims to its ARCTIC ARCHIPELAGO. Also, all 4 members of the Wrangel Island expedition, including a young Canadian student, died tragically and, some say, unnecessarily. Stefansson, who had not gone on this expedition, was now perceived as a troublemaker whose ideas and presence in Canada were unwelcome. From the mid-1920s on, most of his time was spent in the US, where he was regarded as one of the world's foremost arctic experts.
See also ARCTIC EXPLORATION.
Author RICHARD J. DIUBALDO
Links to Other Sites
Northern People, Northern Knowledge
An exceptional collection of rare film clips, photographs and documents from the controversial Canadian Arctic Expedition of 1913-1918, the first multi-disciplinary scientific expedition to the Canadian Arctic. From the Canadian Museum of Civilization.