Potential Resources: Operation Franklin (1955) and the Extractive Imagination in the High Arctic

Scroll this

Editor’s Note: This is the seventh post in the Visual Cultures of the Circumpolar North series edited by Isabelle Gapp and Mark A. Cheetham

In 2017, to mark the 175th anniversary of the Geological Survey of Canada (GSC), the Canadian government published a set of brief webpages that marked the Survey’s history “in 175 objects.” Object #77, Operation Franklin (1955), with its unsurprising but notable name, was not an object in one sense but more a collection of objects, along with an objective.

Untitled. Image: Library and Archives Canada.

According to the Arctic obituary of the Operation’s leader, Yves O. Fortier, in the winter of 1953-1954, the GSC “received a request from the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development for a significant effort to substantiate the petroleum potential of the Arctic Islands” (Frisch 2015: 270), in what was then referred to by the Canadian government as the District of Franklin. Fortier himself described this request as a demand to “accelerate geological study” of the region, with an eye to “potential resources in mineral fuel” (Fortier 1955: 83; Fortier et al 1963: 1).

We learn from the GSC’s online capsule that Operation Franklin was substantial and “multidisciplinary”; that Resolute (Qausuittuq), the new settlement on Cornwallis Island named after a ship dispatched a century earlier in search of John Franklin, was the “principal base”; that the use of two Sikorsky S-55 helicopters was crucial and novel in high Arctic fieldwork; that some 260,000 square kilometres of “remote Arctic terrain” were surveyed and mapped; and that the results of and publicity accompanying Franklin “triggered intense industry interest in northern oil and gas exploration.”

All of this is accurate enough, but it certainly invites additional questions. The same is true of the accompanying photograph, which bears no specific date, location, or attribution. It shows three individuals, standing on a rocky shoreline, between a Canadian Helicopters Ltd. S-55 and a tall tripod, with a snow-swept cliff in the background.

Detail of Untitled. Image: Library and Archives Canada.

Indeed, the identical image appears as the frontispiece, without caption, in the GSC’s Geology and Economic Minerals of Canada (1957). In the back of the book, the photograph is dated 1955 and credited to E. F. “Fred” Roots, an Operation geologist who left the GSC three years later to lead the new Polar Continental Shelf Program (see Powell 2017). (Fortier’s contribution to the collection, “The Arctic Archipelago,” alludes only briefly to Operation Franklin.)

The photograph’s position at the beginning of a synoptic text, and then its commemorative reuse sixty years later, reminds us of the persistence of certain southern impressions of the Arctic, whether visual or textual: field scientists and their technological marvels, amid a striking, rugged, ‘inhuman’ landscape. But the image and the moment of its production also reflect a more specific recrafting of these impressions during a crucial decade of GSC fieldwork across that Archipelago. By 1955, older colonial geographies, suggested perfectly by the Operation’s title, were being extended and supplemented by a vision of a hydrocarbon frontier. This vision persists today, particularly in overlapping industry, government, and media circles, and while it may require regular reaffirmation, this need never seems to diminish the Archipelago as (often first and foremost) a realm of potential extraction.

Frontispiece of Geology and economic minerals of Canada. C H Stockwell (ed.). Geological Survey of Canada, Economic Geology Series 1, (ed. 4), 1957, 517 pages (11 sheets), https://doi.org/10.4095/223841

It is surprising, then, that in the recent and extensive scholarship – spanning history, geography, and other subjects – on the consolidation of an ‘official north’ during and after World War II (Farish 2019: 86), little mention is made of geologists and their activities. Even in geological literature, where Operation Franklin is venerated as a significant milestone, figures such as Fortier are largely shadows passing through communities like Resolute, enroute to heroic work on islands whose human histories are only tied to imperial precursors. The role of the GSC in what Megan Black (2018: 6) calls a mid-century “machinery of governance” remains poorly understood.

The GSC’s online summary does mention the crucial role of the Joint Arctic Weather Stations (JAWS). Daniel Heidt and P. Whitney Lackenbauer’s recent survey (2022) adds an avalanche of detail to the understudied history of these stations. While not narrowly military installations, the JAWS facilities at Resolute and elsewhere in the high Arctic should be tied to the broader wave of militarization, from Alaska to Greenland, that began during World War Two, and persisted and deepened during the early years of the Cold War. Starting with Resolute, these stations and associated airstrips made possible the yearly geological fieldwork that led to Operation Franklin and the identification of what another notable synthesis, published by Fortier and co-authors in 1954, termed “petroleum possibilities” (Fortier et al 1954).

Operation Franklin, 1955. Bathurst Island, looking east. RCAF T420L-22. Image: Helicopter Operations of the Geological Survey of Canada, Bulletin 54 (1959).

Fortier himself (1957: 396) recognized what he called the “great impetus” of Cold War militarization, from the cycles of airlifts out of Resolute and the U.S. Air Force Base in Thule, Greenland and the “courtesies rendered” by personnel, to what Andrew Curley (2021) calls the “colonial beachheads” of infrastructure. For the GSC, the most significant of these beachheads was Resolute, the heart of Operation Franklin in 1955. That same year, several Inuit families were moved to Resolute from the Nunavik (northern Quebec) community of Inukjuak – along with others from Mittimatalik, on Qikiqtaaluk (Pond Inlet, Baffin Island) – as part of the second chapter of the infamous High Arctic Relocations.

The first phase of the Relocations took place in 1953, and almost immediately, GSC employees employed and were reliant on relocatees and their dog teams. In Survey reports, this intersection is almost always mentioned in passing, but in Fred Roots’s report on Operation Franklin for the Polar Record (1956: 160), five individuals from Resolute are named: Alec [Alex Patsuaq], Amagooalik [Jaybeddie Amagoalik], Jebeddie [another Jaybeddie Amagoalik], Simeanie [Simeonie Amagoalik] and Sudlavenick [Daniel Salluviniq]. This comprised all of the adult men (over 18) who had been relocated to Resolute in 1953 (Qikiqtani Inuit Association 2013: 24; Marcus 1995: 227-228).

These are difficult histories, very partially conceivable from the south: of inequitable encounters and exploitation, and of distant claims of authority but also inevitable place-bound disruption and nuance (see Payne 2022). The Canadian government’s portrayal of Operation Franklin does little to aid in their understanding; indeed, it obscures them. Meanwhile, geology’s ways of seeing and narrating the north in the 1950s – simultaneously authoritative, extrapolative, and limited – were essential to the solidification of the Archipelago as an extractive frontier. Geology pointed to some geographic futures while forestalling others (Stuhl 2013). As the prominent Canadian civil servant R. G. Robertson put it in a 1960 essay (513), “The future of the North lies underground.”


Black, M. 2018. The Global Interior: Mineral Frontiers and American Power. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Curley, A. 2021. Infrastructures as colonial beachheads: The Central Arizona Project and the taking of Navajo resources. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 39(3): 387-404.

Farish, M. 2019. Making ‘Man in the Arctic’: Academic and military entanglements, 1944-49. In Cold science: Environmental knowledge in the North American Arctic during the Cold War. New York: Routledge, 85-106.

Fortier, Y. O. 1955 Arctic Islands Yield to The March of Science. Northern Miner 8 December: 83, 92.

Fortier, Y. O. 1957. The Arctic Archipelago. In Geology and Economic Minerals of Canada, ed C. H. Stockwell. Ottawa: Queen’s Printer, 393-442.

Fortier, Y. O., A. H. McNair, and R. Thorsteinsson. 1954.  Geology and petroleum possibilities in Canadian Arctic islands. Bulletin of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists 38(10): 2075-2109.

Fortier, Y. O., R. G. Blackadar, B. F. Glenister, H. R. Greiner, D. J. McLaren, N. J. McMillan, A. W. Norris, E. F. Roots, J. G. Souther, R. Thorsteinsson, and E. T. Tozer. 1963. Geology of the North-Central Part of the Arctic Archipelago, Northwest Territories (Operation Franklin), Geological Survey of Canada Memoir 320. Ottawa: Queens Printer.

Frisch, T. 2015. Yves Oscar Fortier (1914-2014). Arctic 68(2): 269-270.

Heidt, D. and P. W. Lackenbauer. 2022. The Joint Arctic Weather Stations: Science and Sovereignty in the High Arctic, 1946-1972. Calgary: University of Calgary Press.  

Marcus, A. R. 1995. Relocating Eden: The Image and Politics of Inuit Exile in the Canadian Arctic. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England.

Qikiqtani Inuit Association. 2013. Qikiqtani Truth Commission Community Histories 1950-1975: Resolute Bay. Iqaluit: Inhabit Media.

Payne, C. 2022. Inuit, the Crown, and racialized visuality: photographs from the 1956 Governor General’s Arctic tour. Photography and Culture. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/17514517.2022.2096280

Powell, R. C. 2017. Studying Arctic Fields: Cultures, Practices, and Environmental Sciences. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queens University Press.

Robertson, R. G. 1960. The material prospects of the North. Queen’s Quarterly 66: 510-518.

Roots, E. F. 1956. Canadian ‘Operation Franklin’, 1955. Polar Record 8.53, 157-160.

Stuhl, A. 2013. The politics of the ‘New North’: Putting history and geography at stake in Arctic futures. The Polar Journal 3(10): 94-119.

Feature image: Untitled. Image: Library and Archives Canada.
The following two tabs change content below.

Matthew Farish

Matthew Farish is an Associate Professor and Associate Chair, Undergraduate in the Department of Geography and Planning at the University of Toronto. He is working on a book about survival schools, climate laboratories, proving grounds, and the U.S. militarization of the planet in the middle of the twentieth century.

NiCHE encourages comments and constructive discussion of our articles. We reserve the right to delete comments that fail to meet our guidelines including comments under aliases, or that contain spam, harassment, or attacks on an individual.