In Iqaluit, history repeats itself

The Calanus, 2005

The oceanographers and marine biologists who sailed aboard the M.V. Calanus between 1949 and 1979 produced an enduring body of knowledge that contemporary researchers still cite in their research. A local curiosity, the vessel now lies rotting on the Iqaluit beach behind Lower Base. (PHOTO BY JIM BELL)

You may have heard by now that the Government of Nunavut is paying $2.2 million — most of which is actually Ottawa’s money — to build a custom-made research vessel that by 2011 will sail the waters of the eastern Arctic to gather knowledge on behalf of Nunavut’s fishing industry.

The federal government has already poured $1.9 million into the scheme. Earlier today in Iqaluit, Chuck Strahl, the minister of northern affairs, announced the federal government will spend another $320,000 to outfit the ship with research equipment.

“We need better science to underpin the decisions we’re making,” Strahl declared, much to my amusement. I’ll bet one place Strahl didn’t visit on his little fly-in, fly-out sojourn is the forlorn stretch of beach behind Iqaluit’s Lower Base neighbourhood.

There he could have contemplated the ignoble remains of another custom-built ocean research vessel that once plied the waters of the eastern Arctic: the M.V. Calanus.

The 49.5-foot ketch was designed by the renowned oceanographer Maxwell John Dunbar and a team of naval architects for the specific purpose of doing Arctic research. With its rounded bottom and shallow keel, the vessel could be lifted upwards by the sideways pressure of ice to avoid getting crushed. The Industrial Shipping Co. of Mahone Bay, N.S. built the Calanus in 1948, and it entered service in 1949. Unlike the GN’s vessel, this one was capable of operating year-round, if necessary. And unlike the GN’s vessel, this one was used in the interest of science, not commerce.

Max Dunbar, incidentally, was a brilliant scholar, thinker and teacher who won numerous awards, medals and honorary degrees. Best of all, he treated politicians and bureaucrats with a healthy degree of contempt and resisted the insidious politicization of science.

In a lengthy obituary in the journal Arctic published in 1995, the year Dunbar died, his colleague Edward Grainger had this to say about his old friend:

He was frequently critical of attempts by politicians to determine science policy, believing that scientists should be solicited for answers, not politicians or senior civil servants who have lost touch with science or have never been scientists at all.

The Fisheries Research Board of Canada, which mutated into the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, used the Calanus to support the work of an agency called the Arctic Biological Station, which was attached to McGill University and once operated out of Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue, Que. While in Iqaluit, their researchers used a building in the Base area that eventually became the Nunavut Research Centre. That structure is likely to be has been bulldozed away after construction finishes on to make way for a replacement building paid for with money from the Conservative government’s stimulus plan.

After the Department of Fisheries and Oceans lost interest in the vessel in 1979, it fell into the hands of the Municipality of Iqaluit, who planned to use it for some tourism scheme that never materialized. The late Bill MacKenzie, Iqaluit’s beloved scavenger and beachcomber, bought the Calanus, but he was unable to doing anything with it before his untimely death in 2001.

Only a tiny handful of people in Canada know anything about this vessel and its history. From time to time, some call for its restoration, but no one pays them any mind. Look on ye might and despair — nothing lasts forever. Here’s Edward Grainger, from an article he published in 1995.

The present condition of this important little vessel reveals a sad and unworthy conclusion to a unique career of three decades. She represents a phase of Canadian activity now largely past: the period of transition from mainly geographic to scientific exploration in our Arctic. Little time remains to take action if we are to prevent the irretrievable loss of this historic ship.

Calanus in 1955, frozen in ice near IgloolIk

The Calanus, which was designed to survive the pressure of thick sea ice, lies frozen near Igloolik in November of 1955. For nine months that winter, its crew used the vessel as a home and as a laboratory for studying plankton, water properties and walrus. (PHOTO COURTESY OF E.H. GRAINGER)

For a more accurate history than I will ever be competent to provide, read this article in the journal Arctic by Edward Grainger, published in December of 1995:

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2 Responses to In Iqaluit, history repeats itself

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  2. Peter Baril says:

    I crawled over every inch of her at least a dozen times 30 odd years ago. She was still so salvagable then. As she has deteriorated over the decades, I have visited her faithfully for an hour or so every single summer, a pilgrimmage of sorts, just sitting to commune with her and her ghosts. Last summer I introduced her to my then eight year old son.

    Thanks for the background and the links to more of her details.

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