Nov. 09, 2010

Royal Canadian Geographical Society 2010 Annual Meeting

by Milbry Polk

Reported by TalkingScience blogger Milbry Polk

Created with flickr slideshow from softsea.
A slideshow of photos from The RCGS Annual Meeting. Click image for caption.

There are but a handful of exploring organizations in America and Britain: The National Geographic Society, The Explorers Club (NY), The Royal Geographical Society (London), The Royal Scottish Geographical Society (Perth), and Wings WorldQuest (NY), the organization I founded and led for ten years.

And there is one more: The Royal Canadian Geographical Society (RCGS), which is well known in Canada but not as well known beyond its borders. However, I believe that as global warming becomes more and more prevalent, we will be hearing a lot more from the scientists and explorers connected with this venerable organization. The RCGS was founded in 1929 to “Make Canada better known to Canadians and to the world”.

The RCGS’s magazines, Canadian Geographic (English) and Geographica (French) -- two magazines because in Canada everything is done simultaneously in both languages -- have a circulation of 250,000 subscribers or members. A readership of that size makes the publication the fourth largest Canadian magazine and one of the most widely read exploring magazines in the world.

In addition to its commitment to informing the public about important geographical, environmental, and biological issues, The RCGS also sponsors expeditions, gives grants for field research, spearheads geography-based educational programs, and sponsors thoughtful lectures featuring scientists and explorers. The heart of the organization is the 400 plus College of Fellows, of which I am an honorary member.

I flew up to Canada’s capitol, Ottawa, a Gothic jewel surrounded by forests, to attend the annual meeting of The RCGS. I was there to both help celebrate the inauguration of my good friend John Geiger as the new President of the Society, and to share the accomplishments of the Canadian Fellows of Wings WorldQuest.

The celebration was held in the fantastic lofty pile, the Chateau Laurier, in the heart of the city right across from the Parliament building. The Chateau is the gathering spot for Ottawa’s politicians and business community as well as a launching place for numerous expeditions headed north, so it was a perfect place for The RCGS’s festivities. During the course of the evening, I had the chance to catch up with old friends and meet some stellar Canadian explorers and scientists.

Geography is an umbrella, embracing diverse disciplines including anthropology, geology, climatology, and biology. We had a truly inspirational evening crowded with Canadian scientists, explorers, geographers, and supporters.

The newly elected President of the RCGS, John Geiger, is also the Editorial Editor of the Toronto Globe and Mail, Senior Fellow at Massey College at the University of Toronto, an explorer, and a well-known author. His books include Frozen in Time, about the fate of Sir John Franklin’s 1854 Arctic Expedition; Dead Silence, about the disappearance of the 1719 Arctic explorations of Sir James Knight; and The Third Man Factor, about people at the very edge of death, often adventurers or explorers, who experience a sense of an incorporeal being beside them that encourages them to make one final effort to survive. John told me the wonderful news that the National Geographic Film based on the Third Man Factor is nearly finished and will be out in the spring.

As the 13th President of the Society, John is brimming with ideas and ready to embark on this new venture. Canada, he explained, is poised to be the bell-ringer for the climate change the earth faces. Canada comprises a substantial part of the earth’s land mass and is a geographically complicated, diverse land of astonishing beauty. Climate change is changing and will continue to change the lives of the Inuit of the Far North as well as most Canadians. It is imperative we explore to understand what is happening and to better prepare for the future. The RCGS is a leader in this effort and has a mandate to reach out and educate the public about the various aspects of climate change.

My good friend Kerry O’Brien, who I met in the Arctic on an Adventure Canada expedition, joined me for the evening. We were together not only to honor John Geiger and Giselle Jacob, new and former presidents of the RCGS, but also the annual Society Medal winners.

Although best known as the long time host of the game show Jeopardy!, Emmy Award winning Canadian Alex Trebek was honored with the Gold Medal of the RCGS for his life-long dedication to promoting geographical learning. Trebek hosts the annual National Geographic Bee and the Great Canadian Geography Challenge.

Raymond Price received the prestigious Massey Medal for outstanding achievement in exploration and geography of Canada for his groundbreaking work on the evolution of the Rocky Mountains and his studies of the sea floor. The Canadian National Committee of the International Polar Year also received a Gold Medal for their stellar contribution to the international effort to assess the state of the Poles

Denis St-Onge, the cheerleader of all things Arctic, who I first met on an icebreaker in the Arctic when we were both lecturing for Adventure Canada, also joined us. Denis is a geoscientist, Arctic explorer, Professor, and among the many organizations he has led is the RCGS. He was president from 1992 to 1998. He has also been decorated with almost every honor Canada has to give, including the prestigious Order of Canada and the Queen Elizabeth II Golden Jubilee Medal. Denis is most noted for his research in the Arctic where he first went in 1959. He now shares his love for the Arctic by giving lectures to organizations. With Denis, was his wife Jeanne, whom he met years ago in Ethiopia when she was a dentist at the Haile Selassie Imperial hospital. Also in attendance was their son Marc St-Onge, who is a noted geologist who works with Oxford University and the Geological Survey of Canada, and Marc's wife, Janet St-Onge, a geologist and senior Canadian civil servant. Janet has the distinction of having discovered the oldest dated rock in the world.

Gil Grosvenor former president of the National Geographic Society, current chairman of the National Geographic Society's Board of Trustees, and chair of its Education Foundation and long time Fellow of the RCGS, joined outgoing RCGS President Giselle Jacob, President John Geiger, former President Denis St-Onge, and myself to talk about the role of our exploration-based organizations in promoting science and informing the public.

Also in attendance at the event, was the indomitable Arctic explorer with over 100 expeditions to the Polar Regions to his credit, Geoff Green. Geoff founded and leads the inspirational educational organization Students on Ice. Nearly 2000 students, teachers and scientists from around the world have been on his expeditions to the Arctic and the Antarctic. Outpost Magazine chose Geoff as one of the “Top 5 Canadian Explorers” to watch.

Matthew Swan, the founder and enthusiastic expedition leader of Adventure Canada was in attendance. It was on one of his expeditions that I met the Canadian explorers who led me to the RCGS. Adventure Canada is perhaps one of the very best small cruise lines in the Arctic, fostering a love for, and adventure in, the land of melting ice.

It was wonderful to see Bill Lishman again. He is an inveterate inventor. One of his designs, for which he is best known, is an ultra-light aircraft. Known as Papa Goose for his feat leading flocks of Canadian geese on their winter migration from Ontario to Virginia. He founded the organization Operation Migration, which became the basis for the film Fly Away Home. Lishman told me that he is working with a micro-medical company to create a flying hospital. The hospital will be transported on a new ultra-light he designed that fits into a suitcase for easy transport. Visit Bill's website to check out his other inventions:

The RCGS is an important organization to follow as Canada is among the first to experience the great changes occurring on our planet. The RCGS supports research and publishes the results for the public. Subscribe to their magazine:
Milbry Polk is a Fellow (Hon) of The Royal Canadian Geographical Society, Founder of WINGS WorldQuest, and author of Women of Discovery.

About Milbry Polk

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