Dr. William Wakeham

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Dr. William Wakeham (1844-1915) Photo taken by William Topley at his Sparks Street studio in Ottawa, circa 1898.

As a prelude to Day 3 and our stop in Kangiqsujuaq, previously known as Wakeham Bay, I thought it would be a good opportunity to introduce the very dapper William Wakeham himself.

In 1897, the Dominion Government of Canada wanted to assess the navigability of Hudson Strait in order to ship grain from the Prairies to European markets. Shipping wheat from a port on Hudson Bay’s west coast, across Hudson Bay and through Hudson Strait to the Atlantic Ocean, seemed the most direct route. But how feasible shipping via this Hudson Bay Route was, and for how long, needed to be determined.

Fifty-three-year-old Dr. William Wakeham, who was in charge of the Fisheries Protection Service on Canada’s east coast, was chosen to command the expedition.

Wakeham, with an expedition company of 43 men, left Halifax aboard the wooden sailing steamship Diana on June 3, 1897.  His orders were to go through Hudson Strait as many times as conditions permitted. The Diana had an extremely difficult first passage west through the Strait. The ship was caught in ice and roughed up a bit. At one point, Wakeham and his men contemplated abandoning ship. The Diana however, managed to survive the ordeal and carried on its mission.

After the first trip through the Strait and back, Wakeham headed up to Cumberland Sound to check in at the Scottish whaling stations. On August 17, at Kekerten Island whaling station he had a flag raising ceremony to claim the Arctic for Canada.  This was the Dominion government’s first sovereignty mission in the Arctic.

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Dr.William Wakeham’s August 17 official ceremony of claiming the Arctic for Canada. He and his men built a cairn and raised the red ensign (Canada’s flag) on a hill behind the Kekerten Island whaling station before a few Scottish whalers and Inuit employed there. Wakeham is standing in profile to the right of the flag wearing his jaunty hat.

The expedition then headed back to Hudson Strait to continue assessing its navigability. Altogether, the Diana traversed the Strait six times, with the last harrowing trip in late October through constant snow squalls. The ship arrived back at the dock in Nova Scotia on November 7, 1897.

Wakeham’s official report, suggested the first safe passage through the Strait should be between the first and 10th of July, with the latest passage being no later than October 20th. This was not a solid endorsement of the Hudson Bay Route, and his report was shelved for another 20 years. Eventually, grain was shipped through Hudson Strait from Hudson Bay’s only port at Churchill in 1929.


About Season Osborne

I am a writer with a love of Arctic history. After finding a photo of Capt. Joseph-Elzéar Bernier, who claimed the Arctic for Canada in 1909, I was inspired to write my master’s thesis on Bernier’s contribution to Arctic sovereignty. This ultimately led to extensive research into Canadian and ‘foreign’ expeditions to the North, which morphed into my recent book, In the Shadow of the Pole: An Early History of Arctic Expeditions, 1871-1912.
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