Has Political Correctness Sunk the Baffin Island Viking ResearchProject?

The Canadian archaeologist who has successfully drawn together evidence showing that Vikings settled and traded in Canada for nearly 400 years before Columbus, has been fired from her job as curator of Arctic archaeology at the Canadian Museum of Civilization.

According to an article in the Ottawa Citizen, what should have been Pat Sutherland’s “best of times” following amajor spread in the November 2012 issue of National Geographic magazine, and a TV documentary recently just broadcast on CBC’s The Nature of Things, has come to an abrupt end.

Sutherland’s work, which  the article says, could “fundamentally alter our understanding of our [Canadian] early history” has now been put on ice and she has been denied access to all her research material.

In essence, Sutherland amassed evidence that Vikings built an outpost on Baffin Island, now called Nanook, and traded with the the Dorset, the Arctic’s ancient, now-vanished inhabitants, for as many as 400 years.

The article continues:

”That’s incredible,” says Andrew Gregg, who wrote, directed and produced The Norse: An Arctic Mystery, the CBC documentary that recounts Sutherland’s findings. “That rewrites all the history books.”

At the same time, museum officials also stripped her husband, Robert McGhee — himself a legendary Arctic archeologist described as “one of the most eminent scholars that Canada has produced” — of the emeritus status it had granted him after his retirement from the Gatineau museum in 2008.

No one involved will say why the museum severed its relationships with Sutherland and McGhee. When asked, Sutherland responds hesitantly, choosing her words with care. “I can’t really talk about my dismissal,” she says.

Her union, the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, is treating her firing as a wrongful dismissal, but won’t comment because the case is before an arbitrator.

Museum officials also decline to offer an explanation, though Chantal Schryer, the museum’s vice-president of public affairs, says the reasons are well known by Sutherland and her husband.

“They both know exactly why Dr. McGhee lost his emeritus status,” Schryer says. “And she knows why she is no longer an employee of the museum.”

Gregg suggests Sutherland’s dismissal may be linked to the museum’s impending transformation into the Canadian Museum of History.

 “It’s a complete shift in ideology,” he says. “The narrative that’s coming out through this government and our institutions has no room for a new story about the Norse.”

Sutherland — the only female archeologist the museum has ever employed — won’t comment on that. But, she points out, “people have expressed concern that the announced changes are going to lead to a neglect of archeology and ethnology, and my work comes under that heading.”

Schryer says the museum “remains interested in archeology, including in the Arctic.” However, it’s clear the museum is committing fewer resources to that area than it has in the past.

The whole episode has been traumatic for Sutherland, who had been associated with the museum for 28 years and was hired 12 years ago to run the Helluland archeology project. (Helluland was the Norse name for Baffin Island and adjacent part of the Eastern Arctic.)

“It’s had a profound effect,” she says. “This work was important to me, and I thought it was important to look at a new aspect of early Canadian history.”

Until now, the only confirmed Viking settlement in North America was at L’Anse aux Meadows, established around the year 1000 at the northern tip of Newfoundland, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

But archeological evidence suggests the Norse only stayed for a decade or so, and there’s no sign that they traded with the natives. There’s not even any archeological evidence that the Norse at L’Anse aux Meadows had contact with the aboriginal population, though Norse sagas — oral histories written down two or three centuries after the events — tell of the settlers being driven away by fierce and unwelcoming natives.

Current evidence suggests the Nanook site on southern Baffin Island, about 25 kilometres from the village of Kimmirut, was established around 1300 AD, though Sutherland says it could date from a much earlier period. If so, it’s conceivable that Nanook was the place of first contact between native North Americans and Europeans.

The site was originally excavated in the 1960s and at the time, was thought to be a Dorset settlement. But based on evidence she has painstakingly assembled over a dozen years, Sutherland says she’s certain the Nanook site is of European origin.

“I’m very confident that what we have is an indication of a Norse presence in the Canadian Arctic that we weren’t aware of before, that it was over a longer period of time, and that the interactions with the aboriginal people were more complex and extensive than we thought before.”

It’s a “no-brainer” that trade would have been involved, Sutherland says. The Dorset had the goods, including walrus ivory, narwhal tusks and furs, that the Norse were after. And they were only a two-day sail from Norse outposts in Greenland. “One could reasonably argue that the travels to the east coast of Canada, to the Arctic, was over a period of four centuries,” she says.

As Sutherland has accumulated evidence, her conclusions have become more widely accepted within an initially skeptical archeological community.

James Tuck, an emeritus professor of archeology at Memorial University in St. John’s, Nfld., says Sutherland’s evidence “seems to be getting better all the time.” He adds: “She’s created a project that has brought together all kinds of different lines of evidence and experts, and they all are pointing in the same direction.”

Tuck called Sutherland’s dismissal from the museum of civilization a “tremendous setback” for the project. ‘I don’t think it’s a death knell, but it’s damn close to it.”

Some of the artifacts Sutherland had assembled were on loan from other institutions, and within days of her dismissal, they were sent back to museums in Newfoundland and Greenland. Others belong to the government of Nunavut. Negotiations are under way between the museum and Nunavut to determine their fate.

Sutherland intended to co-publish her findings with 15 international collaborators, but her dismissal dashed those plans.

Sutherland’s main objective now is to regain access to her research. But whether that happens hinges on the resolution of her dispute with the museum. “We are in discussions with Dr. Sutherland and her representative, trying to solve issues,” Schryer says. “Dr. Sutherland is not being denied anything. We just need to solve some past employment issues.”

That can’t happen soon enough for Sutherland.“I’m excited about what we found,” she says. “I think it’s significant. I think it’s a project that is of interest to the Canadian public.

“I really want to be able to complete this work. At this stage in my life, this is kind of a legacy, I guess.”

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  1. Except the Dorset culture was already living on Baffin Island before the arrival of the Inuit, so no dibs for the Vikings.

  2. You clearly have no idea what you are talking about.

    1) Baffin Island has never had "Indians".

    2) The Baffin Island site is thought to have been a trading post where Vikings traded with the Inuit, so clearly, this is not about who was there first.

    3) The Harper government doesn't care about indigenous rights.

    What this is really about is Stephen Harper wanting to refocus the what was formerly, the Museum of Civilization to the Museum of Canadian history for propaganda purposes. Vikings in the High Arctic is not a story that is Canadian enough for him.

    There may also be an element of defending Canada's Arctic sovereignty, as was the case with his pet Arctic project, the search for the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus. He doesn't want the Danes to be able to show a historic claim to Arctic waters.

    If it's a case of "Political Correctness" then it is political correctness from the Right, not the Left.

  3. Yes, good point about the Inuit being relatively new to the eastern Arctic. Also, the Dorset disappeared at about the same time frame. There may have been three very new and different cultures competing for resources around 1000 ce. There was another researcher from Canadian academia studying a project on the Ungava Penninsula in the '60s and he stopped abruptly when a European presence was found….? Thomas E. Lee was the anthropologist.

  4. Your neglecting to input the fact that the Inuit are relatively recent arrivals, post 1000 A.D. Hence, the Vikings would have first dibs, so to speak, according to Western squatter rights. This is the same exact reason the Caucasiod fossils in Washington State were ordered to be buried by Native Americans in 1995, as it disrupts the anti-Western narrative of U.S. statehood.
    However, we do know Harper is a financial, resource harvesting sell-out, so maybe he's shutting down the research to prevent Danes seeking oil rights? I doubt it, as Harper represents the usual reptilian, anti-worker brain. It's all about financialization and de-industrializing Canada.

  5. Thanks very much for clearing up so many of the questions I have been wondering about. It still sounds like Pat Sutherland's offense is one of convenience … something like " being brilliant while female".

  6. Well Said! The same can be said for Pat's husband Bob McGhee one of the most significant Arctic Archaeologists in the world. Bob, like Pat, has been been stripped of his Emeritus status for similar seemingly politically motivated reasons.

  7. Robert Long, in answer to your question, this is the same case/situation discussed several years ago. If you scroll back up to the byline of this article, you'll see that it was actually published on November 27, 2012. So, nothing new there. In regard to whether anything new has happened, there have been statements in the press by the Canadian Museum of History in response to criticism of their actions that her dismissal was for harassment of colleagues at the museum, but little more, presumably because the situation is still legally active. Regarding the "rewriting of history", it's worth noting that the Nanook site might offer possibilities for expanding our knowledge of the Norse (Vikings) interaction with the people and resources of the Canadian North but does not rewrite history, as the existence of continued Norse involvement with Canada into the 14th century has been known since the 14th century, when two annals in Iceland noted the arrival in 1347 of a ship from Greenland that had been blown off course on its way back to Greenland for a voyage to Markland (Labrador/Newfoundland). The annual entry unfortunately does not give any more information than that and whether it was noted because this was considered unusual, or whether the lack of detail means it was considered "normal travel except for being off course" is unknown. However, it documents continued Norse involvement with what would become Canada more than 300 years after L'Anse aux Meadows. Does that threaten Canadian sovereignty? A question for others. To "Enraged"'s point, his kind of statement reveals why a solid knowledge of the past is important for the present: documenting the presence of Europeans on Canada's shores in AD 1000 or 1350 does nothing to undermine the present-day claims of First Nations people to having occupied all of Canada long before that time, with the first indigenous people documented as having colonized most of Canada as soon as the ice from the last Ice Age started to melt away, at least 13,000 years ago. The Arctic, the last region to be fully settled by First Nations people, was colonized ca. 4,800 years ago, roughly 3,800 years before the Norse reached L'Anse aux Meadows and 3,500 years before they may have been at the Nanook site. Again, the Norse sagas are very clear about this, that they found the resources of North America valuable, that they tried to establish a colony ca. AD 1000, that they found vast numbers of indigenous people here already, and that they abandoned their attempts to settle because they had neither the numbers nor the ability to overcome them. Pat Sutherland's work at Nanook may add important detail to the story of what came next – trade rather than colonization, but evidence of that trade has also been known for decades through the presence of scattered Norse trade goods and bits of material culture in First Nations sites across half the Canadian Arctic.

  8. I get the impression that arbitration failed and Sutherland and McGhee wrere definetely fired for "harrassment" (go figure that one out) this was in the News sometime in December, 2014.
    Sutherland is currently working fot the University of Aberdeen, if memory serves me right…
    This is so typical of the HarperNeoCons and it will not make one iota's difference to the next election as the terrified masses flock to the protection of a Party and an Agenda promising security, lack of freedom and intelectual stupor….

  9. In the opening paragraph of the original post, it states clearly that the Vikings were settled AND TRADING for almost 400 years before Columbus. Who would they have been trading with if there were no pre-existing native people (probably Inuit, not indian) to trade with?

  10. I believe there has been a recent claim filed by Denmark for rights pertaining to Arctic resources. It wouldn't be a stretch to imagine our government would not wish to support a history of settlement by a Norse presence.

  11. I have just watched The Nature of Things CBC documentary about Pat Sutherland's work in the Arctic. I have learned that she and her husband were dismissed from the Museum of Civilization in 2012. No one will say why. This was three years ago. I have not found any news since. Does anyone have any information about the current state of this legal battle? It is intolerable that this important research in the Arctic is not being continued.

  12. Harper & his cronies are too stupid to understand political correctness. Their greedy eyes are more focused on the coming dispute about sovereignty over the Arctic. So I agree with Robert Long.
    After all there might be oil there and that's what drives this particular bunch of psychopaths…
    At least that used to matter before the price of oil dropped like a toilet seat…

  13. I have been wondering if the big deal isn't the Norse settlement itself. If it could be proven that the Norse settled Baffin Island well before the French or the English, it might be argued that Canada has no real claim of sovereignty over this part of the Arctic. That would explain Harper's behaviour.

    Its also interesting that the response to my post above did not address even one of the questions I raised.

  14. It is an offence because it dares to point out that Europeans were in North America before Indians reached large parts of the continent. In other words, it undermines the "native American" special status given to Indians.

  15. Pat Sutherland her husband Bob McGhee have been at the forefront of Arctic Archaeology for decades. At the time of their dismissal they were both at the cusp of introducing a major paradigm shift in Arctic archaeological research (which I personally find compelling and very significant). The blackballing of their research and the preventing of access to their data is a travesty and an affront to academic freedom.
    James W. Helmer, Ph.D.
    Professor of Archaeology, University of Calgary

  16. Several years ago there was news coverage very similar to this, of a Canadian female arctic archaeologist suddenly dismissed and somehow separated from her research and gagged by the Federal Government. It is important for us to know if Dr. Sutherland is that same victim, or if we are now looking at a completely new offense on the part of government. I don't find a date of the dismissal noted in this article.

    If this is indeed a second event unconnected to the first, it points to an extremely worrying
    sickness in the government … halted field work, seized research results, scatter artifacts to avoid systematic study, fire the only senior female scientist in sight, and somehow, even after the destruction of respected careers, still managing to keep the scientists silent with threats of some greater punishment.

    There really needs to be some media investigation into these events. Something very worrisome is being suppressed. How are these respected scientists selected for punishment. Could it be some thing in their work contradicts Stephen Harper's opinions on arctic settlement, formulated during his many minutes of study during annual photo-ops in the arctic?

  17. Bob McHee and Pat Sutherland are two of the most original scholars in Canada. They both have solid international reputations and have stimulated and challenged our perseptions of Arctic prehistory and research. As a professional Arctic archaeologist I have not always agreed with their ideas but would be the first to argue that it is a basic principle of academic research that one carefully considers the evidence presented and offer plausible alternatives. This the Scientific method – when you 'test' an hypothrsis a positive out come does not mean that the hypothesis is 'right' it only means that the hypothesis is not wrong. Bob and Pat have for decades offered up significant hypotheses, interpretations and critical re-evauations that have contributed significantly to the disciple of Canadian Archaeology. Both have the ability to offer even more. If you agree that academic research is driven by the pursuit of knowledge and not by the pursuit of 'political correctness' and or 'profit, the CMC has done a great disservice to Canadian Archeolgy'
    James W. Helmer, Ph.D.
    Professor of Archaeology, University of Calgary

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