The Doctor Goes North – John McCrae and the Earl Grey Expedition

Eight men standing staggered by a lake. John McCrae is sitting on the ground in the foreground smoking.

John McCrae with the Early Grey Party in front of the cabin, 1910 | M1968X.365.1

Lord Earl Grey, Governor General of Canada from 1904 to 1911, travelled extensively throughout Canada and in 1910 became the first governor general to visit Hudson Bay. The expedition he mounted aimed to investigate a possible site for a port in Hudson Bay at the terminus of the recently surveyed route for a railway to the prairies.

Earl Grey wrote to Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier that the trip was not a pleasure trip “but a trip undertaken in the hope that it may expedite the realization of your desires to transport the wheat of the NW [North West] via Hudson Bay to England”.

Traveling by canoe, the party was led by 23 Cree guides along the Nelson River route from Norway House, Lake Winnipeg to York Factory on Hudson Bay. The party, which numbered 38 in total, consisted of Earl Grey, his cousin George Grey, Major Trotter, aid-de-camp, L.S. Amery of the London Times, R.W. Brock, director of the Geological Society of Canada and Prof. John MacNaughton of McGill University. John McCrae was the expedition doctor. A cook, two servants and a number of Royal Northwest Mounted Police constables rounded out the party. McCrae shared a canoe and tent with Amery.

Amery later wrote about McCrae’s storytelling talent,” I have never met his equal, and every night in our mess tent or around the camp-fire he would pour out his anecdotes – and never repeat himself.”

Two canoeists paddling up stream.

Canoeists on Earl Grey Trip,1910 | M1968X.367.1.3

The trip took over a month to complete as many rivers, lakes and portages were made. The journey continued as the party sailed down the coasts of Labrador and Newfoundland with stops at St. Anthony and the Grenfell Mission and Prince Edward Island. The party was entertained by Sir Andrew Macphail at his home on PEI and there they had the pleasure of meeting Lucy Maud Montgomery, author of Anne of Green Gables. Lord Grey was an enthusiastic admirer. The party continued to sail down the St. Lawrence River and the journey was completed in Quebec City. John McCrae documented the journey through photographs, sketches, and his diary.

In a letter of thanks to John McCrae, dated September 26, 1910, Lord Earl Grey said, “It was a real pleasure to me to have you as one of my party, and I am very grateful to you for the very real contribution you made to my individual and to the general enjoyment of the trip. You were able to beat the record of the Arabian nights, for I believe the 3000 miles of our travels were illuminated by as many stories.”

Posted by Sarah Ball on May 16, 2019

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