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Uncovering Canada's Arctic sea battle

Foundation heads to Hudson Bay to document 1697 fight

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Johann Sigurdson III (from left) Johann Sigurdson IV, Mackenzie Collette and David Collette of the Fara Heim Foundation  stand at the approximate location of the Battle of Hudson Bay in 1697.

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Johann Sigurdson III (from left) Johann Sigurdson IV, Mackenzie Collette and David Collette of the Fara Heim Foundation stand at the approximate location of the Battle of Hudson Bay in 1697.

In 1697, a single French ship sank a British warship, captured a second ship and chased off a third ship.

It was an audacious act of war that nearly turned into a suicide mission, but the Battle of Hudson Bay is a forgotten chapter in Canada's history.

That could change with an intrepid group's plan to film an educational video in Churchill this summer for a curriculum kit aimed at high school students. And if they can find the ship that sank, it would be a bonus.

Three hundred years ago, an imperious colonial aristocrat pointed his sails north from New France (modern Quebec), departing with a fleet of wooden sailing ships.

In the end, Pierre Le Moyne D'Iberville and a single warship did what no one could have imagined: won a pitched battle that almost changed Canadian history.

'Our core team grew up in the province of Manitoba and we'd never heard of this historical event'

-- Johann Sigurdson III, Fara Heim Canada

The Fara Heim Foundation, a non-profit group of modern adventurers inspired by ancient Icelandic sagas, sailed last summer into the bay to hunt for a viking presence and heard about the history of the battle.

Fara Heim hopes to raise $23,000 through the social media crowd sourcing website Kickstarter, a sum that would let the group launch its proposed expedition at the end of August.

A core team of researchers and assistants wants to return to the scene of the battle that ended in the surrender of York Factory to the French. "There is a real need for teaching aids for use in teaching early Canadian and North American history," said Winnipegger Johann Sigurdson III, Fara Heim's Canada team leader.

The purpose of the expedition is to chronicle the Battle of Hudson Bay in a presentation that could easily be given at high schools, with an instructional kit for teachers and a 45-minute video that would feature the expedition and its forgotten history.

It was 1697 and the Arctic had nearly scuttled D'Iberville and his fleet before the enemy force ever reached their battlefield. He lost his squadron in thick fog and, when it lifted, found himself alone facing three bristling British warships on guard in the bay near York Factory.

In the pitched battle that followed, against ships from the most powerful navy in the world, it was the scion of the powerful New France family who shook victory out of defeat.

But it cost him. His ship was wrecked and he barely beached it before a blizzard closed in on the bay. Then the fort pinned captain and crew under a barrage of cannon fire.

The rest of the squadron arrived to rescue D'Iberville in the morning. In an anticlimax, York Factory surrendered and for 16 years New France held the monopoly over the lucrative Arctic fur trade.

Eventually, the stunning British defeat would be forgotten.

"I'd never heard anything about it," said Sigurdson. "Our core team grew up in the province of Manitoba and we'd never heard of this historical event."

Later, Sigurdson would find the Battle of Hudson Bay had re-emerged on historians' lists as the only Arctic naval battle in Canadian history and an important military engagement.

"It was right up there with the Plains of Abraham," he said, amazed.

The Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 led to France give up parts of Acadia and all of what is now western and northern Canada to Britain. Rupertsland was then handed back to the Hudson Bay Company. The Plains of Abraham battle, fought almost a half century later in 1759, led to the complete French withdrawal from what is now primarily Quebec.

Speaking of the roles of York Factory and the Prince of Wales Fort, Cam Elliott, Parks Canada superintendent for northern Manitoba national historic sites, said he's not familiar with the proposed expedition to chronicle the battle of the bay but he said there's no doubt Hudson Bay played a role in the world events of the era.

"What's interesting is we've got this location with these important events that are a small piece within a much larger scope of world events. The world was small, even in the 1700s," said Elliott.

alexandra.paul@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 6, 2013 A6

History

Updated on Tuesday, August 6, 2013 at 9:25 AM CDT: Edited subhead.

10:46 AM: Clarifies reference to Plains of Abraham (1759) and Treaty of Utrecht (1713).

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