Taissumani, April 4

The Arctic Circle – 500th Meeting


The Arctic Circle is an Ottawa-based club that has shown remarkable resilience over the years. On April 8, 2014, it will achieve a milestone with the holding of its 500th meeting.

Its constitution outlines two simple objectives for the club: “to enable those interested in the Arctic to meet for informal discussion” and “to keep club members informed of current events in the Arctic.”

The question of who is eligible for membership is equally simply stated, membership being open to “all those who are or have been actively interested in the Arctic.” It is “interest”, not “active involvement” that is the criterion.

The post-war years saw a rapid interest in the Canadian Arctic. Many prominent northern veterans lived in Ottawa, and it was a chance remark by one of them that sowed the seeds for what would become the Arctic Circle.

Tom Manning, an explorer, biologist and geographer, remarked to his wife that it was no longer possible to seat all those people active in the Arctic around the family dinner table. At a dinner with Graham and Diana Rowley on Oct. 30 of that year, the two families discussed forming an “Ottawa Arctic Club.”

By Dec. 8, the draft organization of the club was virtually complete and the first meeting was held at 8 p.m. at the RCAF Officers Mess on Gloucester St. The attendance of over 100 people showed the need for such an organization.

The honour of being speaker at that first ever meeting was given to Flight-Lt. A. H. Tinker of the Royal Canadian Air Force, who showed his film, “The establishment of weather stations at Eureka Sound and Cornwallis Island by Task Force 68.”

The club has met in the winter months ever since. Each meeting has featured a speaker and an opportunity for discussion. The record for having addressed the club the most times is held by Norman Hallendy, who has spoken at seven regular meetings (and one annual dinner.)

In 1959, the club began the practice, which continues to this day, of having an annual dinner in the spring. The dinner too features a distinguished speaker.

The first, on May 19, 1959, was the Honourable Alvin Hamilton, then Minister of Northern Affairs and National Resources, who spoke on the work of his department in the north.

This year it is fortunate that the 500th meeting and the annual dinner coincide; the guest speaker will be Dr. Peter Adams (scientist, former politician, Professor Emeritus at Trent University) who will talk about “The Arctic Circle and polar science: seven decades and onwards.”

The club’s first president was Erling Porsild, a Danish-born, Greenland-raised explorer and botanist, about whom a fascinating biography, The Reindeer Botanist, was published last year.

Others who have held the presidency include Inspector Henry Larsen of the RCMP, once commander of the famous vessel, St. Roch; Graham Rowley, explorer, archaeologist and former scientific advisor to the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development; and Moira Dunbar, glaciologist with the Defense Research Board and co-author of Arctic Canada from the Air.

From the club’s inception until 1988 it issued a bulletin, The Arctic Circular, which published news, reviews and articles of northern interest. In its early years it often was the first to publish the results of northern scientific research.

As an example, the first results of Helge Ingstad’s research into Norse sites at L’Anse aux Meadows in northern Newfoundland was published in The Arctic Circular. For twenty years (1948-1967) Diana Rowley was the bulletin’s editor.

The unstoppable Diana, one of the club’s founders in 1947, still attends monthly meetings as an active member of the club.

Club membership and attendance at meetings is open to anyone who is interested. Yet there are seldom any from Ottawa’s large Inuit community present, although Inuit have been guest speakers on a number of occasions.

And as the membership ages, it is a constant challenge for the club to attract new and younger members. Yet the Arctic Circle is now two-thirds of a century old and fortunately shows no sign of disappearing.

May the upcoming 500th meeting serve as a time of renewal for this venerable institution.

Taissumani recounts a specific event of historic interest. Kenn Harper is a historian, writer and linguist who lives in Iqaluit. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to kennharper@hotmail.com.

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