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Franklin ships: Canadians resume search for only undiscovered national historic site

Laura Payton, CBC NewsEye on the Arctic

The latest push by Canada to find what's left of Sir John Franklin's Arctic expedition is inspired by politics as much as it is by the desire to discover a piece of history.

Partly to help establish Canada's sovereignty over its Arctic, and partly because paying attention to the North is seen by the government as popular, Parks Canada is undertaking its fourth attempt to find the shipwrecks — Canada's only undiscovered national historic site.

The latest modern-day effort to find the fated ships was announced Thursday, as Stephen Harper continued his seventh visit as prime minister to Canada's North.

HMS Erebus and HMS Terror were abandoned in 1848 after they got stuck in Arctic ice and couldn't break free. The ships had set out from Britain in 1845 and the expedition's failure dealt a blow to Victorian England, which awaited word for more than 10 years before another ship's crew reported all 129 explorers had died.

Before the first attempt by Parks Canada's underwater archeology service in 2008, then-Environment Minister John Baird tied the search to Canadian sovereignty in the North.

"We certainly think that by establishing our long-standing presence in the Arctic, that can enhance issues of sovereignty," Baird said.

Current Environment Minister Peter Kent was quoted in a British newspaper last year saying that the search had nothing to do with sovereignty.

But veteran Conservative pundit Tim Powers disputes that notion.

About 'the import you place on the Arctic'

"Canada acts deliberately in the Arctic," said Powers, who has served as a party strategist.

"I think you'd have to be fairly naive not to recognize that there is broader value when one is trying to establish who controls and is legitimately responsible for different parts of the Arctic."

Powers says every federal government action in the North has the potential to shape future claims.

"It's about demonstrating the import you place on the Arctic, but also that certain parts of the Arctic you feel are strongly within your territorial realm."

The Franklin expedition wrecks are thought to lie to the west of Adelaide Peninsula, off the northern coast of Nunavut. The nearest community is Gjoa Haven, hometown of Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq.

A spokesman for Baird, now the minster of foreign affairs, said there are no competing claims on that water.

"No one disputes Canada's sovereignty in the area described," Rick Roth said in response to a question from CBC News.

A spokesman for Kent now says the work in the North is very much about who has a legitimate claim to it.

"This is certainly about reinforcing Canada's Arctic sovereignty ... [in] establishing the long-standing presence and history. As an additional objective, another primary objective for the search is about finding the only undiscovered [national] historic site," Adam Sweet said, referring to the ships as a crucial part of Canadian history.

Government held focus groups on Arctic sovereignty

Documents show the government may expect Canadians to embrace the search.

Research prepared last year for the Privy Council Office, the department of civil servants who advise the prime minister, shows some small groups of Canadians indicated an interest in Arctic sovereignty and in celebrating "key historical events."

It appears the consultants may have been asked to look at Canadian history: the Dec. 20, 2011, report by Walker Consulting Group says it conducted 12 focus groups — which are usually made up of about six to 12 people — across the country on "a variety of topics including the economy, health care, crime and justice issues, and celebrations of Canada's history."

A list of topics that participants mentioned without prompting included the aging population, health care, consumer issues and the economy. Arctic sovereignty, Canadian history and criminal justice are referred to as "potential government initiatives."

The report says the focus groups "were invited to discuss" popular knowledge about Canada's history and "the importance of government making enhanced effort to celebrate historical events and achievements."

"Participants expressed strong interest in the government making efforts to celebrate and draw attention to key historical events," the report said.

On the topic of Arctic sovereignty, the consultants say "participants universally expressed strong support for Canada's efforts to assert Canadian governance of territories identified as within Canadian boundaries in the Arctic region.'

Yet a recent study by Nanos Research casts doubt on the idea that people have strong feelings about the North.

'Thinking outside the box'

The research polled Canadians on the importance they assigned to issues and their comparative confidence in the federal government's ability to handle them. It found those polled assigned the North a low importance and that they had slightly above average confidence the government could manage the issue.

"[People have] seen that the government believes that the North is a priority in terms of economic development and also in terms of foreign policy and defence of our borders, and I think as a result there's a marginally higher confidence in the North as a public policy issue even though there's a lower level of importance," Nik Nanos, president of Nanos Research, said.

"But I think this is an example of the government thinking outside of the box. Not as easy, not as immediate, not as proximate to most Canadians, but they've decided that it's going to be a priority and hence there's a little more confidence on that front."

'Tenuous' link between Franklin and sovereignty

Ian MacLaren, a University of Alberta professor who's extensively studied Arctic history, says the link between the Franklin expedition and Canadian sovereignty is "tenuous," but that it also represents a "huge imaginative claim."

"We know that the ships went into the passage and didn't come out, so if they're to be found they're still there and in a way to identify that is to identify the link between Canada and England ... but it's pretty tenuous," MacLaren said.

The exploration likely has more to do with Parks Canada's move to develop parks in the North, he added.

Despite Harper's apparent fascination with the North — he made developing the Arctic a major platform plank and has led annual trips to the region with a full complement of journalists — MacLaren says the government hasn't put much money into it.

A deepwater port hasn't materialized and the government has cut scientific programs in the Arctic.

"Harper's delighted and everyone seems delighted that he's delighted, but the government's not spending money on the North and that truth has to be against whatever fascination he alleges he personally has for the North," MacLaren said.

This story is posted on Alaska Dispatch as part of Eye on the Arctic, a collaborative partnership between public and private circumpolar media organizations.