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Vilhjálmur Stefánsson : from Arnes to the Canadian Museum of civilisation


Version française de ce texte.

Last August, during a trip to Manitoba, my attention was caught by one of the items on the map describing the tourist attractions in the Gimli area : the Vilhjálmur Stefánsson Provincial Park and Monument . The description reported that Stefánsson was the last of the great explorers of the Arctic, he had written 24 books and nearly 400 articles on the Canadian Arctic and its people. In 1968, the Canadian government declared him to be a “person of national historic significance.”

Vilhjálmur Stefánsson monument in Arnes, Manitoba.

Being only fifteen kilometers or so from the park, we could not resist the temptation to go and learn more about this explorer. Although his name sounded somewhat familiar, I could not say for sure where I had heard of him.

On site we discovered a three-part monument. On the left side, a white cube with a plaque reading as follows:

Vilhjálmur Stefánsson, noted Arctic explorer and ethnologist, was born at Arnes, Manitoba, in 1879. In major expeditions in 1906-1907, 1908-1912 and 1913-1918 he greatly extended knowledge of the islands and coastlines of the Western Arctic and of its people. Stefánsson was an early exponent of the idea that experienced Arctic travellers could live off the land as the natives did. As author and lecturer he became a persuasive advocate of Arctic development. Stefansson Island perpetuates his memory. He died at Hanover, New Hampshire, in 1962.

Ah! Ah! He participated in an expedition from 1913 to 1918! These dates correspond to those of the Arctic Expedition, the first scientific expedition in the Canadian Arctic which is currently the subject of an exhibit at the Canadian Museum of civilisation in Gatineau. It must have been during my visit of the exhibition that I heard of him. I promised myself to check on the web once I was back at the hotel.

In the central part of the monument, we found a second structure formed of white cubes with the inscription (in three languages : English, French and Icelandic) of the following quote from Stefánsson:

I know what I have experienced and I know what it has meant to me.

Finally, at the right end of the monument, we spotted the statue of Stefansson, warm and cozy in his fur coat.

Vilhjálmur Stefánsson monument in Arnes, Manitoba

While we were taking pictures, a car arrived. Two couples got out and approached the monument. One of the passengers offered to take our picture in front of Stefansson’s statue. We agreed and a conversation ensued.

Overall view of the Vilhjálmur Stefánsson statue in Arnes, Manitoba.

What a surprise to learn that one of the men in the group was related to the explorer (from his father’s side). Irvin Stefansson even showed us his driver’s license to prove that he writes his name in the same way i.e. with two “s”.

One of the anecdotes he told us was the fact that, at university, Vilhjálmur Stefánsson was not always present in class. In fact, for one of his classes he only showed up for the final exam. Despite having scored 99%, his teacher decided to fail him since he had never seen him in class. Stefansson replied “Why would I have attended the course? For only one more point?”.

After verification, Vilhjalmur Stefánsson did indeed participate in the Arctic Expedition. He actually was the team leader of the “North” team whose mission was to discover new lands. What an interesting character and what an extraordinary coincidence to have crossed paths with descendants of his family.

Till next time!
France Rivet

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