Federal government spending $275,000 in fresh hunt for missing Arctic Franklin Expedition

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew

I can disagree with Prime Minister Stephen Harper on a lot of things but I share his fascination with the lost Franklin Expedition, and agree we should spend taxpayer dollars to find it.

Harper used his annual swing through northern Canada to announce Thursday that Ottawa will ante in $275,000, the lion's share of funding for the latest effort led by Parks Canada to find the remains of the two ships from Sir John Franklin's doomed 1845 expedition. The rest of the money will come from private partners.

"Why do we search for the Franklin? The wreckage of the Franklin expedition is a national historic site designated some time ago — it is the only undiscovered national historic site, we feel an obligation to discover it," Harper said in his announcement at Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, according to The Canadian Press.

Some people are bound to say that more than a quarter of a million dollars could be better spent in the North on things such as improved housing, boosting search-and-rescue capability or to defray the enormous cost of food in northern communities.

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But the story of the lost Franklin Expedition is woven deeply into our national fabric, certainly as important to Canada's northern identity as things like the building of the trans-continental railway or the War of 1812 may be to the South.

People have been looking for Franklin and his ships almost since they vanished.

Franklin, a Royal Navy captain and experienced Arctic explorer, set out from England in 1845 with the ships HMS Erebus and HMS Terror in search of a navigable route through the Northwest Passage.

The ships, carrying Franklin and his 128 men, became trapped in the ice. The explorers' health slowly deteriorated due to malnutrition and possibly lead poisoning from primitive canned goods. Franklin himself died in 1847. The following year, survivors set out on foot but were never seen again.

What scanty information exists is thanks to a message left in a cairn on King William Island, including a suggestion where the abandoned ships might be found but no trace has been found.

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Franklin's wife and her supporters pressured the navy to mount a search expedition in 1848. A reward offered by the British Admiralty encouraged others to try and find the famed explorer. They turned up some items from the expedition and the graves of three crewmen on Beechey Island, which yielded information about their health.

Inuit gave explorer John Rae some other relics when in 1854 and told him stories about encounters with some of Franklin's men. One search in 1859 turned up the note on King William Island.

Efforts to discover the expedition's remains have gone on throughout the 19th, 20th and early 21st centuries but the location of the ships is still a mystery. Despite their unknown location, they were declared a national historic site in 1992, though CP notes they're still officially owned by the Royal Navy.

The ongoing effort, especially modern expeditions, have helped build knowledge about the Arctic.

In a story last year, the National Post noted the Canadian government for years was content to let foreigners lead the hunt for Franklin's ships. But Harper's focus on the North bumped it to the top of the government's agenda.

"It will reinforce Canada's sovereign claims on not just the passage, but on all of the Arctic lands and waters in the North," Environment Minister Peter Kent said at the time.

In 2010, an underwater search turned up the remains of the HMS Investigator, which sank while searching for Franklin in 1853. But its general location was known previously.

This year's expedition is a continuation of underwater surveys done by Parks Canada's Underwater Archaeology Service in 2008, 2010 and 2011.

Plans call for the search to be conducted around O'Reilly Island, west of the Adelaide Peninsula, where Inuit oral tradition puts one of the wrecks, and north to Victoria Strait and Alexandra where the other vessel is thought to have sunk.

"Locating these shipwrecks, or their contents, offers unprecedented information on the search for the Northwest Passage, the exploration of Canada's North and the fate of Sir John Franklin," Parks Canada said in its news release.