The South Nahanni River is one of the world’s great waterways. At 563 km long it snakes through the Selwyn Mountains and part of the Mackenzie Mountains in Canada’s vast Northwest Territories. Along its storied water path you’ll find all manner of hot springs, glaciers, marshes, desert-like landscapes, incredible hoodoos, and bottomless lakes.
Very few of us have seen it, your friendly neighbourhood blogger included. There’s one Canadian prime minister, though, who has not only canoed the breathtaking Nahanni, but every single river that empties into the Arctic Ocean.
You can be forgiven if Pierre Trudeau immediately springs to mind. While Trudeau was indeed an avid canoeist – and did in fact paddle some of the Nahanni – it is actually John Turner who holds this honour.
That’s why, in a quiet ceremony last week, Turner accepted the Royal Canadian Geographical Society’s ‘Gold Medal’ for his contribution to the advancement of Canadian geography through his extensive Arctic travels.
Canada’s oldest living prime minister is the first Canadian politician to be awarded this honour. While he wasn’t PM for very long – just 79 days – Turner held several leading cabinet posts in his long and distinguished career, including minister of finance and minister of justice. But he began his rise as parliamentary secretary to the minister of northern affairs and national resources.
During his time in northern Canada, Mr. Turner cultivated a friendship with Robert Engle, owner of Northwest Territories Airlines—also an avid canoeist —and Engle would fly the prime minister and his wife out on paddling trips in the Arctic.
Turner told Canadian Geographic:
“Our favourite river was the Burnside River. The second trip down the Burnside, we were held up for a day and a half as 150,000 caribou crossed the river. Nellie Cournoyea was the premier of Northwest Territories and I did a lot of legal work in Yellowknife, appeared before the legislature, with a bill I wanted to get through, and that is when she said, I want you—ladies and gentleman of the legislation—to know this fellow, John Turner, who has walked more of our tundra, and paddled more of our water than anyone sitting in this legislature,” Turner recounted.
When he travelled throughout the Arctic, he could tell the Inuit way of life and southern Canada both suffered from the lack of opportunity for the two to ever meet. It was this famine of connection that weighed heavily on him when he sat down to come up with policy options for Prime Minister Lester Pearson’s government.
This led him to one of his most inspired ideas as a young parliamentarian – one that unfortunately has been lost to history’s pages. However, it was both exciting enough and practical enough for the Pearson government of the day to include it in the 1965 Speech from the Throne. Turner proposed the formation of the Arctic Youth Corps, modelled after the United States’ Peace Corps.
In the US version, the Peace Corps sends Americans abroad to work at the grassroots level, in an effort to create sustainable change in communities. Turner’s vision was to see the potential for young people from southern Canada to get to know the northern realities of their country. He knew that it was sustainability that was needed in the arctic and that such a program might go a long way in building economic and social bridges between north and south.
He also knew that young Canadians who served in the Arctic Youth Corps would carry this knowledge into subsequent generations. It would be a legacy of real value passed on from one generation to the next.
It’s a shame this idea was never actioned. Of course, it’s still not too late for our current prime minister to use a 50-year-old good idea.
I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing Mr. Turner a few times. He once told me he thought this Arctic Youth Corps idea would “open up the eyes of our young people to our great north.”
I think we need to build some bridges to our great northern frontier. Mr. Turner’s idea strikes me as an idea whose time has finally come.

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Roderick Benns

Roderick Benns