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Yves Fortier during Operation Franklin, in the summer of 1955.

Claire Fortier

When the astronauts walked on the moon in July, 1969, their main mission was to collect rocks and dust from the Sea of Tranquility. They were test pilots first and narrowly trained field geologists second.

When Yves Oscar Fortier explored Canada's remote northern reaches in the 1940s and 1950s, he was also breaking new ground in a hostile environment. But he was a geologist through and through.

Dr. Fortier, who died peacefully in Ottawa on Aug. 19, two days after his 100th birthday, conducted milestone work in the Arctic for the Geological Survey of Canada (GSC) that was, in many ways, like a months-long moon mission.

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His most ambitious project, Operation Franklin, in 1955, mustered 28 scientists to systematically study and map the cold, barren sedimentary rock of a polar region larger than Britain.

This included the Queen Elizabeth Islands and many of the other islands in the triangle at the northern end of the country. (The name Operation Franklin was a nod to the ill-fated 1845 expedition led by Sir John Franklin to search for a Northwest Passage through the Canadian Arctic. One of the long-lost ships from that expedition was recently discovered.)

Dr. Fortier and his team used long-range Sikorsky S-55 helicopters to deposit 600-kilogram payloads of food and fuel at intervals across the tundra. He then launched research groups from bases on Melville, Bathurst and southern Ellesmere islands. Mission control was in Resolute on Cornwallis Island and Eureka on Ellesmere. Bad weather scrubbed more than half the planned flights but, despite this, ground-truthing geological investigations were completed across 260,000 square kilometres.

"It was the most ambitious Arctic expedition in Canada," says Denis St-Onge, a geologist and emeritus scientist at the GSC. "They determined the great geological zones of that region."

The resulting rock samples, maps and reports were an extraordinary revelation, describing thick layers of sedimentary rock and structures similar to those found in oil fields. They became a standard reference for oil and gas exploration in the Arctic islands, and brought Dr. Fortier and his assistants, Raymond Thorsteinsson and Timothy Tozer, international renown.

"[Dr.] Fortier's work in the Arctic changed our understanding of the geology and the economic potential of various parts of the region," Dr. St-Onge says. "And not just oil and gas. There are many other minerals there."

Born in Quebec City on Aug. 17, 1914, Yves Oscar Fortier was four when his mother became a widow at the age of 25, with five children, the youngest only six months old. She found work with the provincial government and eventually wrote and produced radio plays. Dr. Fortier was fiercely proud of his mother.

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He was a dedicated student, receiving arts and sciences degrees from Laval, Queen's, McGill and Stanford universities. His McGill thesis was on the geology of chromite, an important industrial mineral used to make chromium metal, an ingredient of stainless steel. By 1942, then 28, he was teaching mineralogy at Stanford.

The Second World War and its aftermath ushered an intense and unabated interest in Canada's mineral and energy resources. The oil boom in Western Canada and the uranium rush across the Canadian Shield created a huge demand for reliable geological information about a vast land.

In 1943, Dr. Fortier joined the GSC, the national agency for geoscientific information and research.

Romance was in the air, too. Dr. Fortier was an avid skier, and on one mild Saturday in March, 1945, he hit the slopes.

"Mom was living in Montreal, Dad was at the GSC," recounts their daughter Claire Fortier. "Mom took a bus with friends up to the Laurentians to ski, and Dad and a friend went from Ottawa up there too. Mom was playing the piano in the lodge lobby when they met.

"They chatted at the piano, then as they parted, Mom went to the desk to ask about a Catholic church, because the next day was Sunday and she had to go to mass. Dad 'overheard' this and said he'd see her in church the next day. Mom waits on the church steps and he doesn't come. She thinks, 'oh, the so-and-so,' and goes in. There, inside, is Dad. He sat right beside her, and love was born."

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Yves Fortier and Gertrude (Trudy) Biermann were married on May 25, 1945. The first of their four children, Georges, was born in 1949, followed by Marc, Mimi and Claire.

Dr. Fortier kept a healthy balance between home and work, despite the demands of – and his enthusiasm for – his career.

"He really tried hard not to work on the weekends," Ms. Fortier says of her father, "but the odd time he did, especially when he was head of the GSC, he would take Mimi and me to work with him. We'd play in his office while he worked. He really liked having his family around him. He hated not to be with us."

Through this period, Dr. Fortier was playing a key role in the systematic search for domestic sources of strategic minerals, metals and hydrocarbons, first as a prolific field geologist and then as the director of the GSC.

From 1945 to 1963, Dr. Fortier's geological fieldwork focused on Quebec's Mont Orford, then covered wide swaths of the mineral-rich Northwest Territories, including Great Slave Lake, Ross Lake and the Yellowknife region.

In 1950, he led a three-man party conducting a coastal survey in a canoe with an outboard motor while circumnavigating Cornwallis Island (the first since Sir John Franklin).

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But his biggest scientific undertaking was Operation Franklin in 1955, after which the fieldwork phase of his career tapered and the leadership phase broadened.

Over several years, as author and editor, he reviewed, assembled and published the data from Operation Franklin. Then, from 1964 to 1973, he led the GSC through its great expansion.

"He proved his capacity in Operation Franklin," Dr. St-Onge says, "and he demonstrated this further by being the leader of the GSC and making it Canada's prime research institute, by far, for decades. He put it on the world stage. The International Geological Congress was held in Montreal in 1972 when he was director, in large part because of him. He pushed very hard to have it. And he was invited to congresses around the world for years."

Dr. Fortier received many honours for his life's work. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 1953 and received the Massey Medal of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society in 1964 and the Logan Medal of the Geological Association of Canada in 1974. He was also named an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1980 and Companion of the Royal Society of Canada in 1991.

And, as any great geoscientist would be, Dr. Fortier was fascinated by the Apollo project and its collection of moon rocks.

"Like so many people, we watched it together at the cottage on a little black-and-white TV with fuzzy reception," Ms. Fortier says. "The GSC got a moon rock sample to put on display, and since Dad was director, we got to see it first. Dad expressed absolute curiosity but, typically, was most interested in what was in it and where it fit in the whole story of geology."

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Dr. Fortier was highly accomplished, energetic, philosophical and fair-minded, but even he had imperfections. As they say, all geologists have their faults.

"He could be quite impatient," Ms. Fortier says. "We all felt that every once in a while. He had been top dog, so he liked to have his orders followed, which certainly became more trying for him as we got older, because we would do things differently and it wasn't the way he would do them."

In retirement, Dr. Fortier was an avid sailor, piloting increasingly complex boats, from a GP14 dinghy and a Tanzer 28 sloop to a Cabot 36 yacht. With his wife, he sailed on Lac Deschênes in Ottawa, down to Chesapeake Bay, and around the Caribbean. And he enjoyed his cottage life, especially the water skiing, on Otter Lake, west of Ottawa.

One long-standing tradition among geologists is naming a new mineral in honour of a prominent person or scientist.

By the end of their 21/2-hour moonwalk, the Apollo 11 astronauts had collected 21.5 kilograms of geological samples and discovered three minerals, one of which, in 1970, was named for Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Mike Collins: armalcolite.

Five years later, the International Mineralogical Association approved a name for another new-found mineral. It had been discovered on Mont Saint-Hilaire, a subsurface magma intrusion also known as a volcanic plug. Thanks to eons of erosion of the surrounding sedimentary rock, that plug today is an isolated hill a half-hour drive east of Montreal. The mineral takes the form of transparent, needle-like radiating crystals in colours that range through pink, purple, violet, beige, dark brown and bronze. Its name: yofortierite.

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Dr. Fortier leaves Trudy Fortier, his wife of 69 years, and his four children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

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