|September 10, 2014|
Canada Chases Down an Arctic Mystery, and Some See a Political Strategy
|Some Canadians, particularly Prime Minister Stephen Harper, have long been taken with the story of the disastrous attempt by the British explorer Sir John Franklin to sail and map the Northwest Passage. So it was not surprising that Mr. Harper took it upon himself to announce on Tuesday that the sixth attempt by Canada's government to locate wreckage from Franklin's doomed voyage had been successful.|
Researchers from Parks Canada, the national parks agency, found one of the two ships abandoned in 1848 by Franklin's 129 crew members, all of whom ultimately died. The discovery, made on Sunday by a remotely controlled underwater vehicle, was also a confirmation of sorts. The ship's wreckage was found near King William Island in the territory of Nunavut, the place where the Inuit, the region's aboriginal people, have long said the ships were crushed by sea ice.
"For more than a century, this has been a great Canadian story and mystery," an unusually animated Mr. Harper said. "I'd say it's been the subject of scientists and historians and writers and singers. So I think we have a really important day in mapping together the history of our country."
While the disappearance of the expedition's crew became almost an obsession of Victorian England, prompting 32 unsuccessful search missions between 1848 and 1859, it has not loomed large in modern Canadian life. But Robert Huebert, a political scientist the University of Calgary in Alberta who studies circumpolar issues, said that Arctic nationalism is, along with hockey and the War of 1812, a topic of particular interest to Mr. Harper.
"This is one of the three things that really gets him going," Mr. Huebert said. "This is a tremendous find for Canadian Arctic nationalism. It acts as an element of nation building. It's who we are, we see ourselves as a northern people."
Mr. Harper has made of point of traveling to the Arctic each summer, and this year he briefly participated in the quest for the lost ships. But both the annual Arctic excursions and the search, which was partly financed and aided by a variety of private groups, are driven by political strategy as much as the prime minister's personal passions.
The thinning of Arctic ice as a result of climate change has opened the possibility that the Northwest Passage, which doomed Franklin and his men, will become a major shipping route between Europe and Asia. Mr. Harper has vigorously asserted Canada's claim that the route lies within Canadian waters. The United States, however, contends that the route is an "international strait."
The loss of ice in the Arctic may also make mining and oil and gas development in the area feasible, leading Canada and other nations to begin an extensive effort to map the extended continental shelf in the area.
The highly publicized effort to find the ships coincided with budget cuts that forced Parks Canada to reduce some services and access to some national historic sites, leading to criticism from Mr. Harper's political opponents. Similarly, environmentalists and native groups have accused the prime minister of ignoring the sometimes-profound negative effects of climate change on the north during his annual visits.
In 1858, a search party found two brief notes left by the crew describing how the ships had become trapped in ice, Franklin's death and the survivors' plans to find a path to a trading post on Hudson's Bay. More recent archaeological work on the remains of the crew suggests that lead poisoning from food cans as well as scurvy and tuberculosis killed many of them. Other researchers, however, dispute the lead-poisoning theory.
It is unclear which vessel the recently discovered wreckage was from: H.M.S. Erebus or H.M.S. Terror. Yet John Geiger, the chief executive of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, one of the groups that participated in the search, said that images showed that the ship appeared to be very well preserved. He said he expected that divers would eventually recover artifacts that further detail the expedition's ordeal.
"It's not just that the ships are interesting historical artifacts," he said. "They hold answers to questions that have long been unanswered."