Dr. Louis Fortier wasn’t one to let an opportunity slip through his fingers – especially not at the eleventh hour.
In 2001, after decades of underfunded Arctic research, Dr. Fortier, an oceanographer at Laval University, was on the verge of putting Canada back on the map. His ambitious multiyear proposal to send dozens of scientists to the Beaufort Sea to study the impacts of melting sea ice on the Arctic marine ecosystem had been shortlisted for a national competition funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, and the Canadian Coast Guard had agreed to loan him an icebreaker.
But the day before he was to present to the expert review committee in Ottawa, he got a call. There was a problem: The ship was no longer available. Dr. Fortier went to the meeting anyway.
“Louis said, let us present the project to you as if we had the ship and if you like it, we’ll get the damn ship,” said Dr. Martin Fortier (no relation), who did his master’s and doctoral degrees with Dr. Fortier. “And that’s what happened.”
It was the sort of hurdle that might have stopped many researchers, but one that Dr. Louis Fortier sailed over many times during his scientific career. “Whenever he saw a barrier in front of him, it didn’t lead him to quit, but to work harder,” said Dr. David Barber, a sea ice physicist at the University of Manitoba.
“He was always a spark and a vision, and a boldness, whatever the size of the project,” said Dr. Martin Fortier. “We would try to reel him back in, and luckily we didn’t succeed all the time.”
The committee approved the project, and Dr. Louis Fortier arranged to meet with the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI). The organization, it turned out, was about to launch a competition to fund large, national-scale infrastructure. An icebreaker was the perfect ask.
Hull 2000-02, the decommissioned CCGS Sir John Franklin, name and flag erased, was sitting in a boat yard in St. John’s, Nlfd., rusting and ready to be sold for scrap. Dr. Louis Fortier, with the help of the Coast Guard, hauled the hull to Quebec City, and refurbished it into a modern research icebreaker with $27.7-million from CFI and $3-million from Fisheries and Oceans Canada. In August, 2003, it was renamed CCGS Amundsen and set sail for the Beaufort Sea, where it stayed anchored in the icepack over the winter with geologists, microbiologists, ecologists and dozens of other specialists aboard. A decade later, the Royal Canadian Mint featured the Amundsen on the new $50 bill. Dr. Fortier died on Oct. 4 from complications related to leukemia. He was 66.
Dr. Fortier was a specialist in zooplankton – tiny gelatinous animals that live in the ocean – and the survival of fish larvae. He worked to understand the life history of Arctic cod – forecasting how climate change will affect the unique ecology of the Arctic, the lives of Inuit and other residents. Arctic cod are at the centre of the food web, transferring energy from sea ice algae to seals, narwhals and, eventually, humans. Over the course of his career, he witnessed the “borealization” of the Arctic, as species spilled into the Arctic’s warmer – and increasingly ice-free waters – from the northern Pacific and Atlantic oceans.
But he was best known as an “all-rounder” with an ability to bring together people from different academic disciplines, industry, government and communities to study – and find solutions to – the many changes in the Arctic. “He was one of the first to break these silos of research,” marine ecologist Dr. Philippe Archambault said. Dr. Archambault is now one of two scientific directors of ArcticNet, a consortium of researchers in the natural, health and social sciences, partnered with Indigenous organizations, northern communities, industry and government agencies to study the impacts of climate change in the North.
Louis Jacques Fortier was born in Quebec City on Oct. 25, 1953, the middle child in a family of five siblings. His mother, Louise, initially stayed at home to care for the children, but later ran a bookstore and went on to become the president of Quebec’s French-language booksellers association, travelling widely to other francophone countries. His father, Pierre, was a certified public accountant.
Louis grew up in a black, cedar Cape Cod-style house next to the St. Lawrence River in Trois-Rivières, Que., close to the paper mills. There was no backyard, but the river was a worthy substitute. Large pike lived beneath the river’s sunken logs, waiting to be caught and released. He fished in the summer and in the winter, dug holes in the ice. “It was close to paradise,” his brother Robert Fortier said. “We’d have breakfast, go out the door, and wouldn’t come back until dinnertime.”
Boats played a starring role in the Fortier family. Louis’s grandfather was a doctor and a bootlegger who sailed across the St. Lawrence River to the United States to sell alcohol during prohibition. His father spent his childhood summers on the water.
Dr. Fortier credited an uncle, who was an engineer, and a neighbour, who was a metallurgist, for drawing him into science. The neighbour, who was rich and didn’t speak a word of French, would invite young Louis, who spoke no English, to his lab and use gestures to explain how things worked.
He earned undergraduate and master’s degrees from Laval University in 1976 and 1979, respectively, and a PhD from McGill University in 1983. Dr. Fortier studied in Plymouth, England, as a NATO postdoctoral fellow in 1984-85.
His graduate supervisors – Dr. Louis Legendre at Laval and Dr. William C. Leggett at McGill – showed him “all the tricks,” he said in a 2012 interview. Dr. Legendre was always trying to build larger teams from many academic disciplines and Dr. Leggett, whom he called “Business Bill,” knew how to get research funded.
Dr. Fortier’s first taste of the Arctic came after he joined Laval University as a professor in 1989, when his research took him to Hudson Bay and James Bay. It was an ill-timed transition, as Arctic research was poorly funded from the mid-80s to late-90s. The small tightly focused research teams produced good science, but it was clear to Dr. Fortier and others working in the Arctic that to tackle the impacts of climate change and development, they needed bigger, multidisciplinary teams, covering natural science, social sciences and health sciences, and teams that went beyond academia.
“In those days, it looked like Arctic science was coming to an end. There wasn’t enough money to do anything” Dr. Barber said. “I thought I was going to have to stop doing work in the Arctic.”
That began to change in the late 1990s, when a couple of tent camps occupied the same chunk of sea ice in Resolute Bay, in what is now known as Nunavut. Dr. Martin Fortier was a PhD student at the time, looking at how the spring melt affected the transfer of carbon through the under-ice Arctic marine ecosystem – from algae to cod. Dr. Barber, who had set up his camp a few kilometres away was studying how sunlight, clouds, snow and temperature triggered the spring melt in first-year ice.
The two began meeting in the evenings to compare notes and have a drink. Each had a different perspective on the marine system and neither knew much about the other. “We realized we should be working together on these two aspects of the sea ice that were completely different,” said Dr. Martin Fortier, who is now the executive director of Sentinel North, a large-scale transdisciplinary research program at Laval University.
It was the spark for the first of many large international research projects in the Arctic, including ArcticNet.
“[Dr. Louis Fortier] became a supporter and champion for including Indigenous people in the research,” said Duane Smith, chair and CEO and Inuvialuit Regional Corporation, and former co-chair of ArcticNet’s board of directors. Students associated with ArcticNet work directly with Indigenous communities and organizations to develop their research agendas, establish a dialogue and set priorities. “That’s where the change will take place,” Mr. Smith said. “And Louis had a major role to play in that.”
“Often scientists want to be the world’s best,” said Dr. Paul Wassmann, a marine ecologist at the University of Tromsø, in Norway, who spent a sabbatical year at Laval University in 2018-19. “But very often science is dependent on personalities and characters like Louis who can do things on behalf of the many.”
He had a talent for pulling many different threads of research together so that nonspecialists could understand the bigger picture, Dr. Archambault said. And he made the CCGS Amundsen a destination for journalists, politicians and other personalities so they could see climate change up close. In 2007, Dr. Fortier was invested as an officer of the Order of Canada, one of the country’s highest honours.
Aside from his Arctic accomplishments, Dr. Fortier is remembered as a man who loved good food and huge meals with friends and family. “He was famous for his lobster parties. It was never a simple meal. If you were to have hamburgers on a barbecue, they would probably be bison, deer or moose,” his brother said.
He also had high expectations for his students. “He could be a little intimidating,” said Sarah Schembri, a PhD student in his lab. “He expected students to be self-starting and independent. But he was honest, and he was there to help and would always make time if you asked for it.”
“When you popped into his office with some good results, he’d be really fascinated and happy, and then he would send you out with more analysis to do,” said Dr. Caroline Bouchard, an Arctic fish scientist at the Greenland Climate Research Centre in Nuuk, Greenland, who did her master’s and doctoral degrees in Dr. Fortier’s lab. “There was no sloppy science.”
He had scraps with some and antagonized others when he advocated for large-scale interdisciplinary science and encouraged scientists to “leave the Ivory Tower” and engage with the public. “He was never afraid to rock the boat,” Dr. Martin Fortier said.
“He wanted Canada to be a leader in Arctic research and the only way to get there was with an icebreaker,” Dr. Archambault said. “But one was not enough. He always wanted two.”
Dr. Fortier leaves his two children, Benjamin and François, and his partner, Leah Braithwaite.