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  • Hilde Huus

Gerard Kenney and the Canadian/Nordic Connection

What struck me most about John Gilbert’s March 21 talk on Gerard Kenney, was Kenney’s unusual drive to follow his passions wherever they might lead him. Throughout his life, he seemed to commit himself completely to whatever intrigued him at the time.

John started by explaining how he had first come to know Gerry (as he called him), and to share his passion for the North. When John attended King Alfred School in London, one of his teachers was Frederick Spencer Chapman. Chapman had participated in two expeditions to Greenland in the early 1930s and it was he who inspired John’s early interest in the Arctic. After immigrating to Canada in 1953, John combined his interest in the Arctic with a new interest in radio communications by becoming a radio operator at a small research base called Eureka, on the northern end of North America’s most northerly island, Ellesmere Island. In addition to his work as a radio operator, John was responsible for weather observing and recording. The coldest temperature he recorded was -62F.

During the long, dark winters, John passed the time by reading, and that is how he became familiar with the story of the Norwegian explorer Otto Sverdrup. In 1898, Sverdrup and his crew set out in the Fram (the same ship that had been used by Fridtjof Nansen in his Arctic expedition, and would later be used by Amundsen in his Antarctic expedition), to see if they could circumnavigate Greenland via Baffin Bay. They were unsuccessful and were forced to overwinter on Ellesmere Island. Between 1899 and 1902, they overwintered there three more times. Sverdrup and his crew explored and mapped the area, including the islands to the west of Ellesmere Island which are now known as the Sverdrup Islands. It was Sverdrup who gave “Eureka” its name, because he was so happy to have finally reached that spot in 1901.

Otto Sverdrup

Like John Gilbert, Gerard Kenney had also lived on Ellesmere Island. His early career was spent working for Bell Canada. While posted at Grise Fjord, at the southern tip of Ellesmere Island, an RCMP officer showed him a grave marker he had come across, with the name Ove Bruskerud inscribed on it. Bruskerud was a member of Otto Sverdrup’s crew. He had apprenticed as a smith and signed on to the expedition as a stoker, responsible among other things for tending the fire for the Fram’s steam engine. When he died of pneumonia in 1899, Sverdrup had him buried at sea. The marker found by the RCMP officer had been placed on Ellesmere Island as an act of commemoration.

John Gilbert and Gerard Kenney met for the first time in 1970 at a telecommunications meeting in Greenland. By then, Kenney was working for the Arctic Institute of North America, a research and educational institute based at the University of Calgary. He had started writing about the North and this would be a constant theme in his prolific writings for the rest of his life. (He published a great many articles on a wide variety of other subjects as well.) His reports on the North included recommendations and solutions for the challenges facing its inhabitants with regard to self–government, self-expression, and communications. John noted that many were implemented and are now considered best practices worldwide.

Kenney’s travels to Scandinavia and Western Canada kindled in him an interest in the discovery of the Northwest Passage. This, coupled with his interest in education, led him to write two books about the North - “Ships of Wood and Men of Iron: A Norwegian-Canadian Saga of Exploration in the High Arctic,” and “Dangerous Passages.” The first was about Sverdrup’s expedition and other Arctic expeditions between 1903 and 1948. “Dangerous Passages” was about the navigation of the Northwest Passage by Roald Amundsen from east to west, and by Henry Asbjorn Larsen from west to east, but it also addressed the environmental and sovereignty issues that Gerry could see were in store for the Arctic. John played us a recording of Gerry reading a passage from “Dangerous Passage,” a poignant moment.

Gerry’s final book was called “Lake of the Old Uncles,” which is the name of the isolated place in Québec where he built a cabin. There he reflected and developed his personal philosophy, inspired by that of Henry David Thoreau. After the talk, CNS President Karin Birnbaum recounted how she met Gerry for the first time while walking in the Gatineau Hills. It was Karin who invited Gerry to join the CNS, and he served as its Acting President in 1996.

It was so interesting to hear from John about how the events and interests in Kenney’s life were interconnected , and how they were also connected to John’s own life. Those connections ultimately led to John Gilbert assisting in the documentation of the collection of Gerard Kenney’s papers, which are now deposited at the University of Calgary.

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