Manitoba Historical Society
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Manitoba History: Famous Places: Federal Historic Sites in Manitoba

by Sharon Babaian
University of Manitoba

Manitoba History, Number 4, 1982

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Anyone who has travelled in Manitoba has probably seen at least one or two of the many national historic sites in our province. Perhaps one of the most distinctive of these sites is that commemorating Vilhjalmur Stefansson near Arnes, Manitoba. The Stefansson site is marked by an impressive monument to which two bronze plaques are attached and upon which rests a sculpture of Stefansson. The monument is surrounded by two acres of landscaped parkland. This is a very special memorial which was built to pay tribute to one man’s exceptional contribution to Canada.

Stefansson Monument at Arnes, Manitoba (2010)
Source: Gordon Goldsborough

Vilhjalmur Stefansson was born on 3 November 1879 in Arnes, Manitoba and was educated in Dakota Territory in the United States where his family had moved when he was a child. He is best known for his important contributions to Arctic exploration. He took part in his first expeditions while doing graduate work at Harvard after having received his Bachelor’s degree from the University of Iowa in 1903. In 1904 he travelled to Iceland and in 1906 he took part in a second expedition, which he joined as an enthnologist, to the Mackenzie Delta area.

In 1908, under the sponsorship of the American Museum of Natural History and the Canadian Geological Survey, Stefansson led his first major expedition. Not only did the expeditionary group conduct extensive surveys of the Colville, Cape Parry, Coronation Gulf and Victoria Island areas, but it also discovered some new geographical features and gave Stefansson the opportunity to establish contact with a group of Eskimos previously unknown to white men. He spent the better part of one winter living among these people and developed an understanding of their language and their culture.

Stefansson is most noted in Canada, however, for his participation in the Canadian Arctic Expedition of 1913-18. In spite of the great difficulties associated with early Arctic exploration, the expedition accomplished a great deal in two areas—exploration and collection of scientific information. Stefansson, who was in the northern group after 1914 when the expedition divided into two camps, concentrated on exploration and mapping, though his group certainly contributed important biological materials as well. He established that travel on moving sea ice was feasible, contrary to accepted opinion at the time, and he discovered new land north of Prince Patrick Island as well as several large islands west of Axel Heiberg. New, more accurate lines were drawn on the map of Canada because of his work and, perhaps more importantly, a new attitude towards the North began to emerge as a result of Stefansson’s experiences. Having travelled great distances by foot and by dogsled and having lived among the Inuit, he felt compelled to share the wealth of new knowledge he had gained and thus to help change the distorted and mythical image of the Arctic prevalent at that time.

Stefansson received official recognition of his accomplishments from the Canadian government in 1921 when he was formally thanked by Order in Council. Despite the controversy which arose after the expedition, the government acknowledged, among other things, his instrumental role in “turning men’s minds toward the north country.” Stefansson continued to pursue this goal upon returning to the United States in the 1920s. He wrote eloquently and demonstrated “a fine critical mind” in both his writing and his many lectures. His home became a research centre for those interested in the Arctic and he maintained his direct contact with the North through a variety of activities.

In all of his endeavours, Stefansson showed remarkable courage, triumphing over both the harshness of the Arctic and the rigidity of accepted opinion. His life presents us with an important example of effort and achievement in the face of adversity and for this, as much as for his practical scientific contributions, he should be remembered.

Stefánsson Family. From left to right: Jóhannes J. Stefánsson, Rögnvaldur Pétursson, Gretir Jóhannson, Ingibjörg (Stefánsson) Thorlakson, Gudrun Johnson, Vilhjálmur Stefánsson, Asmunder Jóhannson, Thura Olafson and son Allan, Sveinn Thorvaldson.
Source: Parks Canada, Prairie Region.

The monument near Arnes that keeps Stefansson’s memory and achievements alive was unveiled in August.1969, but the process which led to this commemoration began earlier in October of 1964 when the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada decided to recognize Stefansson as an eminent Canadian. Arnes was chosen as the best site for the commemoration and plans were started in cooperation with the provincial government which provided the land. By May 1969, an agreement was reached between the federal and provincial governments on the design of the monument. The design chosen, after an extensive search, was that of Walter Yarwood of Toronto, which was enthusiastically received by the people of Arnes. On 3 August 1969 during the Annual Icelandic Festival the monument was unveiled. In addition to the usual plaques which carry the official inscription in French and English, the monument bears another inscription, “I know what I have experienced and I know what it has meant to me,” in French, English and Icelandic. The most memorable part of the structure, however, is the beautiful sculpture of Stefansson which depicts him as Canadians prefer to remember him, trudging undauntedly across the ice and snow-covered North.

Page revised: 17 September 2010

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