Minting a Polar Controversy

Taissumani: 2007-07-27

By Kenn Harper

The Royal Canadian Mint has inadvertently created controversy with its issuance of a coin to commemorate the 125th anniversary of the first International Polar Year.

The coin, which shows the Queen on one side, depicts on the reverse an image of Sir Martin Frobisher and an Inuk in a kayak.

The controversy has been raised by Canada's national Inuit organization, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK) over the suitability of juxtaposing the images of Frobisher and the kayaker, given that in 1576 Frobisher abducted a kayaker and hauled him off to England, from whence the poor man never returned. This unfortunate juxtaposition has reminded Inuit of the abduction, and of the trauma of the first documented encounter between Inuit and Englishmen in present-day Canada.

But there are two sides to every story. As the Globe and Mail editorialized on July 23, accounts of the voyage show that the Inuk in question was taken aboard and held to barter him for the freedom of five of Frobisher's crew who disappeared when they went by boat too close to an Inuit village. Frobisher never saw them again. "If indeed it is a ‘dark moment,'" the Globe noted, "its gloom is cast equally."

Most Inuit, of course, will never see this $20 commemorative coin and most, I think it's safe to say, are unaware of what happened in Frobisher Bay over 400 years ago. The coin, moreover, doesn't depict Frobisher lifting the kayaker physically from the sea in his kayak (as Frobisher did.) A large compass rose separates the two men, a sailing ship sits in a placid sea against a backdrop of mountains. A polar bear, now the world-wide symbol for an Arctic imperiled by global warming, heads for the water in the lower front.

A spokesman for the mint has said that the kayaker on the coin represents Inuit as the first explorers of the north and that the man is not meant to be evocative of the abduction. Alex Reeves said, "It's about polar exploration and nothing else. It's not about Sir Martin Frobisher's first meeting with Inuit peoples."

He went on to say, "We chose a design composed of elements which depict polar exploration themes, recognizing Inuit peoples as the first polar explorers and also recognizing Sir Martin Frobisher and his first attempt to discover the Northwest Passage."

But why? The effort seems well-intentioned and poorly executed. The mint wants to commemorate the 125th anniversary of the first IPY. But that event, happening in 1882-3, was over three centuries after Frobisher's forays into the Eastern Arctic. Poor choice.

Furthermore, Frobisher's voyage (at least the first one) was, as the mint's spokesperson acknowledges, all about finding a Northwest Passage – in other words, about exploring and advancing geographical knowledge.

This has nothing to do with the aims of the first IPY. Its purpose was to advance scientific knowledge, specifically through a study of meteorology, magnetism and the aurora. Again, poor choice.

And we could launch into a protracted debate on whether Inuit were the first polar explorers. There is no doubt that they and their predecessors of the Thule, Dorset and pre-Dorset cultures were the first people to live in the Arctic, but were they explorers or merely people trying to make a living, raise their families in a tough environment, and move on when environmental or societal conditions warranted?

Of course they should be commemorated on polar coins and other memorabilia. Good choice, poor reason.

The first IPY had two major stations in what is now Canada. One, the German station at Sirmilik Bay in Cumberland Sound (about which I wrote in a three-part article which commenced on May 25, 2007) certainly employed Inuit as assistants in manning the station and keeping the scientists alive through the provision of skin clothing and country food.

But there was no scientific leader recognizable enough to be depicted on a commemorative coin. The other, at Lady Franklin Bay, was the tragic expedition led by Lieutenant Adolphus Greely of the United States Army. There were Inuit involved, but they were Greenlanders.

And unfortunately for the worthy Greely, with tensions periodically flaring today over sovereignty in the Canadian High Arctic, there was little chance that the Royal Canadian Mint would choose to depict an American army officer on a Canadian commemorative coin. (A third IPY station in Canada, at Fort Rae, was small and had no recognizable figures associated with it.)

Perhaps Karl Weyprecht, the lieutenant who had been co-leader of the Austro-Hungarian North Pole Expedition of 1872-74, and subsequently the driving force behind the establishment of the first IPY, might have been a better character to commemorate. Ironically, having set all the wheels in motion, he died in 1881, the year before his dream reached fruition. Without his dedication there would have been no IPY.

The objection will be raised that his image is unknown and he is therefore unrecognizable as a polar figure. I would suggest that, to most Canadians, the image of Martin Frobisher is similarly unrecognizable.

To recipients of the controversial coin, Frobisher only becomes known through the accompanying printed text. The same result, without the controversy, could have been achieved with a depiction of the over-looked Weyprecht.

Next week, I'll write about the abduction itself.

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


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