BUSINESS WATCH

One man’s northern obsession

Peter C. Newman October 13 1986
BUSINESS WATCH

One man’s northern obsession

Peter C. Newman October 13 1986

One man’s northern obsession

BUSINESS WATCH

Peter C. Newman

The elusive nature of the neverending quest for a Canadian identity has always had at least one safe point of reference: we are a northern people, and it is this northernness that has shaped our history and character.

Given that starting point, the preservation of our heritage might be assumed to rank as a national priority, with libraries competing for books and documentation. There do exist magnificent collections, of course, such as that of the Boreal Institute at Edmonton’s University of Alberta. But in Eastern Canada, the only documentation centre devoted exclusively to the North is a brave little operation in a rented second-floor room at Montreal’s Atwater Library.

The little-known Hochelaga Research Institute has been operating for about two years on a slim budget that last year amounted to $40,000, yet it has managed to gather an impressive collection of northern materials. Its precarious survival is both a symbol of this country’s shameful neglect of northern research and a monument to its founder and guiding spirit, geographer Alan Cooke.

“It’s outrageous that a nation of Canada’s wealth and northern dimensions does not have adequate control over polar documentation,” he told me, “but you can’t get anybody to talk five minutes about the need for financing anything like this.”

What Cooke has created on his own is the beginning of a new kind of computerized bibliographical database dealing with circumpolar literature. He has financed the miniature institution through private research contracts and editing.

A native Vermonter who spent part of 1953 as a student on a geological expedition into the Ungava region of northern Quebec, Cooke became interested in the work of Canadian-born Arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson, and joined the Stefansson Collection at Dartmouth College Library as an assistant librarian. Before that, he had been enrolled at McGill for graduate work in geography. “But the last thing they wanted,” he said, “was a clever American who had actually been up North and knew Stefansson.”

Cooke left shortly afterward for the more welcoming and less intellectually restrictive climate of the University of

Cambridge’s Scott Polar Research Institute, where he earned his PhD in historical geography. They valued his eccentricity and enthusiasm, turning him over for academic advice to a senior historian named Prof. E. E. Rich.

“I wasn’t sure exactly what historical geography was,” Cooke remembers, “but I had suggested a thesis on the comprehensive history of the exploration and development of Labrador. Prof. Rich looked at me through his

half-glasses and said, ‘This will never do. In history we consider seven years quite long enough, though we might give you a little more, if you promise that nothing happened.’ ” Despite Rich’s advice about the secrets of successful Cambridge theses (“A lot of it should be in handwriting, preferably hard to read .... If some of it were in a foreign language, we’d look with pleasure on that. Above all, it is far from necessary that a thesis contribute to knowledge, only prove that you

can organize information”), Cooke’s next major project was a comprehensive two-volume bibliography of the Quebec-Labrador peninsula, still widely used. He spent most of a decade in Canada’s North as a deckhand on the Mackenzie River boats, as a teacher in Fort Simpson, N.W.T., and doing research in an Indian village near Schefferville, Que. In 1977 he went back to McGill to help in the creation of a library at its Centre for Northern Studies and Research, and a year later (with coauthor Clive Holland) published the definitive Exploration of Northern Canada, 500 to 1920.

After deciding he would rather not work for others, Cooke in 1983 founded his own research library, the Hochelaga Institute. “Librarians laugh at me and consider me a terrible person because I speak with assertiveness on library matters about which they have a professional position,” he says. “As a scholar who has extensively used libraries for professional purposes, I know that librarians make a great mystique out of virtually nothing—and that the bureaucracy we call librarianship is keeping useful information away from people who need it.”

That attitude, plus a personality far too exuberant to warrant anything but academic scorn, has forced Cooke to operate outside his own profession. He loves to make fun of librarians “who are prisoners of the 3-by-5 card,” and instead operates a computerized bibliographical system new to North America that uses numbers instead of words to track and retrieve information.

Alan Cooke is one of those singleminded geniuses who, if he were in Japan, would probably be declared a national treasure, but here has to scratch for a living. In the process, he is helping record and expand Canadians’ consciousness of our birthright.

At the moment, Cooke is planning to publish his own journal dealing with contemporary polar problems and issues. It will be called Arcana Poli, words taken from the inscription over the entrance to the old wing of Cambridge’s Scott Polar Institute. “The full inscription,” he says, “translates to mean ‘He who seeks the secrets of the poles finds God.’ For present purposes, I interpret this memorable phrase to mean that the truth is to be found between extremities of opinion. Only by knowing what are the poles of opposition can one recognize the truth they share.”