Finding Franklin

In 1845, after serving on three previous Arctic expeditions, Royal Naval officer John Franklin was tasked to find an Arctic route through the Northwest Passage to China. With determination, he departed England with Her Majesty’s Ships Terror and Erebus, both state-of-the-art warships. However, the entire expedition, including Franklin and 128 men, was lost.

Parks Canada Photo (2014)

The rescue mission of 1846 was championed by Franklin’s wife, who brought political pressure to commence a search. This effort led to much of the mapping of Canada’s Arctic archipelago in the 19th century and the detailed mapping of hydrographic surveys of the Northwest passage. Many of those 19th century soundings are still being used today on modern hydrographic charts.

The clues with respect to Franklin’s fate can be traced back to Inuit elders who passed down the story of the ghost ship as it sailed down Victoria Strait. An important lesson to consider is the need to engage the Inuit people, in a meaningful way, in how we govern our Arctic.     

Searches over the years have utilized the latest technologies of the times, and was no different in the most recent searches initiated by Parks Canada. However, one cannot overlook luck in the find as the ice conditions in Victoria Strait pushed the search effort south to where Erebus was finally located.

In a true whole of government response, working in partnership with Canadian companies and academia on a common goal, the search expedition pushed the limits and practice of working together and highlighted gaps that need to be addressed.
The 21st century search for Franklin’s missing ships was called Canada’s “moon shot” in a recent newspaper article. After 160 years and countless efforts by various parties, the remnant of HMS Erebus has been found, intact and upright, on the seabed of the waters of Queen Maude Gulf, part of Canada’s fabled Northwest Passage. The wreck was subsequently ­positively identified by scuba-equipped archaeologists of Parks Canada. The original finding and confirmation by visual examination was announced personally by Prime Minister Harper on 1 October 2014.

Other than to close a chapter in Canada’s Arctic history, what is the  significance of the 2014 Victoria Strait Expedition that was put together to achieve this national goal? There are many, and we will touch on a few. The significance of this search, and how this public-private partnership, or P3 effort, came to its successful outcome can be examined under the broad context of Canada’s evolving and dynamic Arctic future. One of the world’s longest running searches is now at an end and a mystery has been solved.
The high level of press coverage as well as the involvement of non-government players, such as the Arctic Research Foundation, has helped capture the magic by generating awareness of Canada’s Arctic. Now, what are the lessons to be learned for Canada as an Arctic nation? What were the keys to success?

Leadership was key, and the big story is how a variety of groups united to achieve a common national goal. The teamwork and perseverance of individuals making this a reality cannot be overlooked. Peter Mansbridge, Canada’s famous newscaster, is a board member of the Arctic Research Foundation, which is developing educational materials for young Canadians and which assisted in funding this search. As Mansbridge commented, the use of the latest technologies has unlocked part of Canada’s history while contributing to the scientific knowledge and hydrographic charting of the Northwest Passage.

The championship of the Prime Minister, whose support and encouragement meant so much to the team, particularly since he was convinced they would “find Franklin” this year, was also key to the success of this mission. What this shows, is that Canada can achieve great things in the Arctic when all parties come together with a common purpose. For many years, the Arctic was inaccessible due to the sea-ice barrier, but that has changed. During the 2014 Victoria Strait Expedition, three pleasure yachts were spotted transiting the Northwest Passage as well as large passenger vessels in these waters.

And so, using Canadian-built high-tech, underwater, robotic systems and sonar, mixed with dogged determination and the critical political support from the office of the Prime Minister, HMS Erebus was found.

 The search also validated the Jenkins Report that one of Canada’s key industrial strategies is development of a ­Maritime and Arctic security cluster. The technology used in the search, including submersible systems and synthetic aperture sonar, are all Canadian designed and built.

Parks Canada divers confirmed assessments that the wreck was indeed HMS Erebus. (Parks Canada Photo (2014)

Among the world-leading capabilities showcased during this search, were prototypes of technologies that can cost-effectively complete the charting of the Northwest Passage to modern standards. Not only was this lack of charting recently the subject matter of the Auditor General’s fall report, it came into play during the search when the R/V Martin Bergman research vessel, owned and operated by the Arctic Research Foundation, grounded in uncharted shoal waters of the Simpson Strait. Only 10% of the Arctic is charted to modern standards.

 The need for a robust Canadian-flag oceanographic Arctic research capability for enhanced planning and operational effectiveness has also been identified. Since the retirement of the DRDC research vessel CFAV Quest, Canada does not have the necessary vessel capability for this mission. While much was made of the chartering of the Russian oceanographic vessel, the reality is, a solution to this capability gap was found and solved.
Canada needs to inventory such capabilities for future needs. Working together with public and private sector groups to achieve Arctic goals needs to be a persistent and consistent policy. People and personal relationships make the difference. We saw that in the generous commitment of private donors including Jim Balsille, the Arctic Research Foundation, the W. Garfield Weston Foundation, OneOcean Expeditions, and others who stepped up to the plate to ensure the necessary incentives were in place.

We shouldn’t be afraid to talk about the need for a robust Arctic marine capability, including vessels for a wide range of purposes including: SAR, scientific research, hydrographic charting, pollution response, defense and security and icebreaking. Finding Franklin highlights the need for vessels to support this important work. We need a truth to power discussion about Canadian requirements as they relate to constructing or chartering vessels. For instance, while the Canadian Coast Guard’s new polar icebreaker the John D Diefenbaker won’t be floating until 2020, we need capability today. Chartered vessels can close that capability gap until Canadian vessels are ready. Keep in mind that Terry Fox, the Coast Guard’s most capable icebreaker, was originally a commercially built and operated vessel.

Akademik Sergey Vavilov, a Russian vessel chartered and operated by Canadian ­company OneOcean, played a key role in the search. (PHOTO: Lee Carson, NORSTRAT)

While it is important for Canada to showcase Arctic sovereignty, there remains a need to develop Arctic Ocean governance and infrastructure that will truly justify sovereign claims. The sovereignty issue has not been seriously questioned in any real extent, but other nations want to use these waters for international commercial shipping. Fednav’s M/V Nunavik just transited the Northwest passage without icebreaker support on a voyage from northern Québec (Nunavik) to China.
What finding Franklin really highlights, is Canada’s ability to achieve goals when there is a clear national focus and determined and united approach. Canada’s long history of using traditional knowledge and the latest in technology to overcome our geography and climate, has been one of undertaking great challenges in a big vast land – and now, our ocean frontier and climate change are going to require immediate, national action.

The Arctic is truly becoming an international preoccupation. Finding Franklin proves the importance of working together – government agencies, private sector and non-government organizations, and academic institutions – to achieve national goals. Canada’s Department of National Defence and the Royal Canadian Navy need to play a key in critical role in protecting Canada’s Arctic shipping future.

Working together in the Arctic is the way of the future – that is the view the U.S. takes with its new Arctic Policy, recently announced by the State Department’s new Arctic envoy, Admiral Robert Papp.

Canada’s Arctic goal needs to be a well governed ocean space that allows for potential economic development – and this requires infrastructure (if not robust, at least basic). John Franklin was there to find a new shipping route at the request of the British Admiralty. Canada needs to use that same initiative and daring as it seeks to govern the challenging Arctic waters in the 21st century.
Vancouver Maritime Museum to add Franklin artifacts to Arctic exhibits
The Board of Trustees of the Vancouver Maritime Museum has received the donation of a significant library of Sir John Franklin material. The donation comes at an exciting time for maritime enthusiasts and historians, as the recent discovery of Franklin’s ship HMS Erebus in the Canadian Arctic is considered the most significant maritime historical find of the century. The Franklin library donation includes, among other items:1829 Presentation volumes of Sir John Franklin’s “Journey to the Shores of the Polar Sea”; Six Franklin Search Charts (1852-1855) with the first known chart showing the location and details of the Northwest Passage route as discovered by Captain McClure and the HMS Investigator (1853); Volumes of official correspondence, reports, books, fonds, and related material; An 1852 Broadside (red ink on linen-above left) that describes Captain Austin’s expedition in search of Sir John Franklin on HMS Intrepid, Resolute and Assistance.
    Donated by Mr. Anthony Sessions and family, the material will build on the expansive Arctic material already held by the Vancouver Maritime Museum. “We are ecstatic about receiving this material,” says Ken Burton, Executive Director of the Vancouver Maritime Museum. “And we’re anxious to weave it into our already impressive collection of arctic research material.” A permanent Franklin Exhibit is in the planning stages for the Vancouver Maritime Museum.
Lee Carson, the president of NORSTRAT Consulting Inc., and Senior Associate of H+K Strategies, was privileged to be part of the 2014 Franklin search expedition. He can be reached at lee.carson@norstrat.ca.

Joe Spears is a principal of the Horseshoe Bay Marine Group and a maritime barrister. He has worked for Parks Canada and has a longstanding interest in shipwrecks that started with receiving brass nails from the wreck of HMS Tribune which sank in 1793 near his home port of Ketch Harbour.
© Frontline Magazines 2014