NORTHWEST PASSAGE—The push to find the remains of the Franklin expedition is not simply a matter of historical interest, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Sunday — it’s about the pre-Canadian claim to sovereignty in the Arctic. Surveying some of the technology researchers will use to search for Franklin’s lost ships, Harper called the story of Captain John Franklin and his crew an “iconic” Canadian tale.
“Ultimately it isn’t just a story of discovery and history and all those things, but it’s also really laying the basis for what’s in the longer term Canadian sovereignty,” Harper told reporters aboard the HMCS Kingston, which is participating in the 2014 search.
“You’ve heard what I’ve said before about that, eh? That one day we’re going to come around the bend, and there’s going to be the ship, and Franklin’s skeleton slumped over the helm. We’re going to find it.”
Prime Minister Stephen Harper helps launch a Parks Canada automated underwater vehicle during a test Sunday, days before the search for the Franklin expedition's remains begins.
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Harper was speaking after an overnight sail aboard the Kingston up to the Northwest Passage, travelling from the remote Pond Inlet to the even more remote Arctic Bay. He’s scheduled to arrive in Arctic Bay, a community of around 750 people, early Monday morning.
Researchers from Parks Canada, the Royal Canadian Geographic Society, the navy and private partners are set to begin this year’s search for the Erebus and Terror on Tuesday. Efforts will be focused in the Victoria Straight west of King William Island, where a note found in a cairn detailed the tragic end to the mission to find the Northwest Passage for Great Britain.
Franklin and his crew set out to chart a safe route through the Northwest Passage, stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans, in 1845. Their ships abandoned to the ice, their crew believed to be suffering from lead poisoning and ultimately resorting to cannibalism, the expedition ended in horror some time later in what is known as “Starvation Bay.”
Despite Harper’s confidence, the explorers remain concerned about unfavourable ice conditions. Satellite images reveal the Victoria Straight is largely covered in ice flowing up against the western coast of the island. “Since 2008, we certainly haven’t seen ice anything approaching the coverage that we see this year . . . This is the worst that we’ve seen,” said Ryan Harris, a senior underwater archeologist heading up Parks Canada’s efforts.
Still, the team is trying to remain optimistic. Rear Admiral John Newton, the commander of Joint Task Force Atlantic, noted the weather can change pretty rapidly in the far north. “One good low pressure system could change that whole ice dynamic in a hurry,” Newton said. “We’re not negative. One day could go by . . . and everything changes as the ice moves.”
Newton, who is in the north for the Canadian Forces’ annual northern exercise, said the navy stands to gain much from joining the hunt for Franklin’s ships. Not only does scanning the bottom of as-yet uncharted waters improve the chances of safe passage in northern waters, but ships’ crews gain needed experience in operating in the remote north.
If they should also help to find Franklin, well, all the better. “These are all coexisting goals which converge on Franklin. In a sense, we’re finishing the Franklin voyage,” Newton said. “Just by doing it, we are. We are ruling out the areas he is not (in), but in doing it we get so many other goals.”
Harper and his wife, Laureen, spent the afternoon Sunday boating around a massive iceberg the Kingston encountered in Echo Sound. Harper is on his ninth annual trip to the northern territories, continuing from Arctic Bay to Iqaluit on Monday.
Harper, along with Industry Minister James Moore, is expected to make an announcement concerning improving telecommunications infrastructure in Nunavut. Harper will also observe part of Operation Nanook, the Forces’ northern exercise, on Tuesday before returning to Ottawa.
The search for Franklin will continue for approximately two weeks from Tuesday, depending on weather and ice conditions.