People & Culture

8 awesome things that happened at the 2023 RCGS Geographica Dinner — plus photos!

The Royal Canadian Geographical Society’s 94th annual Geographica Dinner was a celebration of the power of geography, exploration and the accomplishments of the past year

  • Nov 17, 2023
  • 1,449 words
  • 6 minutes
More than 450 people gathered at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa Nov. 15 for the Royal Canadian Geographical Society’s 2023 Geographica dinner. (Photo: Ben Powless/Can Geo)
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It was a night both moving and motivating as hundreds of Fellows and friends of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society gathered at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa for the 94th annual Geographica Dinner (formerly the College of Fellows Annual Dinner) on Nov. 15. 

Notable guests included the Honourable Lois Mitchell, former Lieutenant Governor of Alberta and President of the Society; Ambassadors Alfredo Martínez Serrano of Spain, Hanne Fugl Eskjaer of Denmark and Sylvia Meier-Kajbic of Austria; Nellie Kusugak, former Commissioner of Nunavut and Society Governor; Deputy British High Commissioner David Prodger; Chief Perry Bellegarde, the Society’s Honorary President; Chief Wilton Littlechild; Chief Wilson Bearhead and journalist Evan Solomon, who emceed a portion of the evening’s events. 

Here are eight highlights from geography’s biggest night.

RCGS Honorary President, Chief Perry Bellegarde (second to the left), Honorary Fellow Chief Wilton Littlechild (second to the right) and Honorary Fellow Chief Wilson Bearhead (far right) lead the Grand Entry into the LeBreton Gallery. (Photo: Ben Powless)
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We commenced the evening with a Grand Entry

In a first for the Society, the gala event kicked off with a Grand Entry led by three chiefs: Chief Perry Bellegarde, Chief Wilton Littlechild and Chief Wilson Bearhead. Following the chiefs in the procession were two RCMP flag bearers, both in red serge: Cpl. Anthony Cameron from Waywayseecappo First Nation, who carried the RCGS flag, and Sgt.Charmaine Parenteau, Métis from Duck Lake, who carried the Canadian flag. Algonquin Elder and University of Ottawa Chancellor Claudette Commanda, Society President Lois Mitchell, and CEO John Geiger led the board of governors, ambassadors, and Fellows of the RCGS into the Canadian War Museum’s LeBreton Gallery. As a First Nations cultural protocol, a Grand Entry typically happens at the beginning of a pow wow or another significant gathering, generally led by the Chiefs in headdress. This powerful entrance set the tone for the evening as a night of celebration and friendship.

Chief Wilton Littlechild, centre, was awarded the Society’s Gold Medal in recognition of his lifetime advocacy for the rights of Indigenous Peoples in Canada and globally. The Honourable Lois Mitchell, left, and Chief Perry Bellegarde made the presentation following a fireside chat between Bellegarde and Littlechild. (Photo: Ben Powless/Can Geo)
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We paid tribute to an outstanding leader and advocate for Indigenous rights

Chief Wilton Littlechild has dedicated his life to advancing human rights. In a fireside chat with his longtime friend Chief Perry Bellegarde, Littlechild discussed his work on the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which became the longest-debated declaration in UN history. “If you recognize Indigenous Peoples as people, then you admit they are human beings. And if you admit they are human beings, you admit they have rights,” said Littlechild of the decades-long effort to get Canada to adopt the declaration, which it finally did in 2016. 

Littlechild, a residential school survivor, also served as a Commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He said all Canadians can contribute to reconciliation and a more just society. “Read all the 94 [Calls to Action]. Listen to the one that speaks to you.”

Littlechild was awarded the Society’s Gold Medal in recognition of his lifetime accomplishments.

We learned about a new RCAF partnership and witnessed an incredible performance

Canadian singer-songwriter Loreena McKennitt is known for her stirring vocals and eclectic sound, but she also has a special connection to the Royal Canadian Air Force: since 2006, she has served as an Honorary Colonel with the RCAF, which made her the natural choice to help celebrate a new partnership between the Society and the force. Next year marks the centennial of the RCAF, and the Society will honour and uplift the stories of those who have served and continue to serve Canada through a multi-platform project consisting of a documentary, a giant floor map and associated educational resources, six GeoMinute video vignettes, and a dedicated website. For her part, McKennitt gave a heartfelt speech sharing what she has learned from her 17 years with the RCAF, then held guests spellbound as she performed a song on the harp. In recognition of her commitment to understanding and supporting those who serve, McKennitt was awarded the Society’s Joseph-Elzéar Bernier Medal.

Loreena McKennitt performs. (Photo: Ben Powless/Can Geo)
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The Honourable Lois Mitchell, left, presents RBC President and CEO Dave McKay with the Society’s Lawrence J. Burpee Medal. (Photo: Ben Powless/Can Geo)
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We celebrated a shared commitment to clean water

Rooted in Indigenous knowledges, Biinaagami is an initiative of Canadian Geographic and Swim Drink Fish created to illuminate the lands, languages and life forms of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Watershed and foster a shared responsibility for its long-term sustainability. Biinaagami is one of two Society programs that has received generous financial support from RBC. To say thanks, we presented RBC President and CEO Dave McKay with the Society’s Lawrence J. Burpee Medal.

Paul Nicklen speaks about his work as a photographer and his childhood in Nunavut. (Photo: Lindsay Ralph/Can Geo)
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We marvelled at the natural world with an acclaimed photographer

From coastal sea wolves on the outer islands of the B.C. coast to leopard seals on the Antarctic Peninsula, Paul Nicklen’s photographs depict wildlife and places few will ever see in person. As a photographer, filmmaker, marine biologist, and co-founder of SeaLegacy, Nicklen has a singular goal: create an emotional connection with the natural world so people are moved to protect it. Nicklen, who grew up in the Canadian Arctic, once dreamed of joining the RCAF, but joked that once he realized he was “the best in the world at freezing and being cold,” his true career path became clear: “I can take my misery under the ice and bring it to a global audience,” he said. “You hope to get just a few images that can make a change.” In recognition of his legacy in conservation photography, particularly his commitment to the polar regions, Nicklen was awarded the Society’s Lawrence J. Burpee Medal.

We heard from some talented young geographers

This past summer, Canadian Geographic Challenge alumni Matthew Stasiw, Brayden Zhang, Julian Bal and Xavier Spano represented Canada on the world stage at the 19th International Geography Olympiad in Bandung, Indonesia. The team ultimately brought home one silver and two bronze medals. Zhang, Stasiw and Bal took the stage to share about their experience and thank the Society for sponsoring their participation in the GeoOlympiad. “Taking part in the GeoOlympiad gave us the chance to put the Society’s mandate into practice and make Canada better known to the world while also learning about and experiencing the geography and culture of Indonesia,” said Stasiw.

Left to right: Brayden Zhang, Julian Bal and Matthew Stasiw share their experience competing in the 19th International Geography Olympiad. (Photo: Ben Powless/Can Geo)
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Canadian Space Agency astronaut Jenni Gibbons speaks about her training and explains why space exploration matters for life on Earth. (Photo: Ben Powless/Can Geo)
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We got excited about the future of lunar exploration

In 2021, Canadian Space Agency astronaut Jenni Gibbons was awarded the Society’s Gold Medal, and this year, we finally got to hear her speak in person. We are living in an exciting decade for space exploration, in large part thanks to NASA’s Artemis program, Gibbons said. Canada has a big role to play in Artemis, not least because CSA astronaut Jeremy Hansen will fly past the moon late next year. Gibbons shared photos and insider insights from the specialized geology training NASA and CSA astronauts have been undertaking in northern Labrador with guidance from planetary geologist and RCGS Fellow Gordon Ozinski, and explained why lunar and space exploration matters to Earth. “We are doing this for the Earth,” she said. “We need Earth observation; we need to understand the processes that are changing our Earth, like climate change.”

The Fellows Class of 2023. (Photo: Ben Powless)
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We welcomed 61 new Fellows

This year, the Society was proud to welcome 61 distinguished individuals into the College of Fellows. Fellows are individuals who have demonstrated an interest in supporting the mandate and programs of the Society and who are contributing to its mission of making Canada better known to Canadians and the world. Among the new Fellows this year include Cpt. Ken Burton, a passionate advocate for exploration in Canada who captained the RCMP St. Roch II (RCMP Vessel Nadon) transit of the Northwest Passage and record-setting circumnavigation of North America in 2000; Andrew Budziak, an urban wildlife photographer, filmmaker and scuba diver; Annabel Slaight, founder of Greey de Pencier Books and co-founder of OWL Magazine; Todd Saunders, a Newfoundland-born architect who designed the Fogo Island Inn; Canadian Geographic cartographer Chris Brackley, and Alexandra Pope, the current Editor-in-Chief of Canadian Geographic.

More snapshots from geography’s biggest night

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