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Franklin's errors should inform Canada's map for Northwest Passage

Cautionary tale

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 11/9/2014 (1046 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Now that one of the Franklin expedition ships has been located, the challenging work of making sense of this shipwreck begins. Designated a National Historic Site in 1992, this prize of Arctic exploration history will begin a new journey into the politics of cultural heritage, nation building and possibly hydrocarbon extraction.

Franklin's legacy would be better served if the historic site commemorated a transcultural effort in a UNESCO World Heritage Site, not an Anglocentric "nation building" exercise or a way station along an energy frontier.

Parks Canada says it has found either the Erebus or the Terror, lost in the ill-fated 1845 expedition of Sir John Franklin. Painting by J. Franklin Wright.


Parks Canada says it has found either the Erebus or the Terror, lost in the ill-fated 1845 expedition of Sir John Franklin. Painting by J. Franklin Wright.

From the effusively nationalist statements issuing from Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, one might assume Franklin was the founding father of Canadian nationhood, and the Erebus and Terror had boldly ventured into virgin seas. Franklin's was a British naval expedition not remotely concerned with the anachronisms of Canadian identity, Arctic sovereignty or nation building with which his name is becoming synonymous in official talking points.

To see his ships incorporated into the Canadian government's northern strategy for a particular view of Arctic sovereignty is at once eerily reminiscent of Victorian nationalism and bracingly inventive. Inventive because the Arctic has changed dramatically since Franklin's day, and one new role being tried for Franklin seems to be as a pioneer of energy exploration in our day.

Among the private sponsors joining in Parks Canada's search is Shell, which owns more than 100 oil and gas leases in the Arctic. In 2012, Shell sent 22 ships there to search for oil; it suspended searching, but last month announced plans to try again. What better opportunity than the Franklin expedition to hitch their unpopular plans to a legendary figure of heroic exploration?

Franklin's first overland Arctic command in 1819 (which ended disastrously in cannibalism) had produced one of the earliest geological assessments of the Athabascan tar sands, currently being developed by Shell. And earlier Arctic exploration had been entangled with imperial concerns and commodity extraction, including furs, coal, whale oil and gold. It is one thing to make visible exploration's connections to political and economic interests, and another to use this history in order to drive the particular agendas of present political or private interests.

In other words, the Franklin expedition makes for fascinating history, but bad propaganda.

Harper spoke to the Franklin expedition's value in "mapping together the history of our country." Franklin's ship could do this if this map were a genuinely transcultural one, showing the Arctic places through which the British travelled to be inhabited by Inuit.

We have Inuit oral histories to thank for the most valuable pieces of geographical information regarding the probable locations of these ships. Throughout these searches Parks Canada engaged with Inuit communities and acknowledged the crucial knowledge they provided.

If the Franklin ship is truly to speak to a Canadian Arctic identity, it cannot place Inuit knowledge in a subordinate role to that of British explorers. As some Victorian Britons argued, Franklin's expedition ignored or dismissed Inuit strategies for travelling and surviving in the Arctic. The disastrous outcome of this admiralty policy must be part of the story of this ship, but the policy should not become our own.

In this version of mapping together our histories, the Northwest Passage was not awaiting discovery by Englishmen. The Northwest Passage was part of a network of trails and routes developed over centuries by Inuit. Thanks to researchers at Carleton, Dalhousie, and Cambridge universities, Inuit knowledge of these extensive routes -- "lived, remembered, and celebrated" for centuries as geographer Michael Bravo has shown -- are now visible to everyone thanks to their recently launched Pan Inuit Trails Atlas (paninuittrails.org).

If we want to map together the history of the Northwest Passage in Canadian history, this is a better place to start than Franklin.

To fully appreciate the significance of Franklin's ships, we have to extricate them from the narrowly Canadian, nationalist interest to which they are being limited, and step back to see the larger transcultural connections they make visible. Inscribing this ship as a World Heritage Site would grant this discovery the international standing it deserves and could potentially help Canada in regulating maritime traffic in the Passage.

If the entire Northwest Passage, however defined, were inscribed as a World Heritage Site of mixed natural and historical significance, then this could also protect these waters from oil drilling. Clearly not all of Parks Canada's partners would be happy about that.

There are critical choices to be made in how to commemorate this shipwreck, and one path we don't want to follow is that of the Franklin expedition itself: an over-confident and nationalist reliance on technological solutions as a means of defeating a dangerous, empty wilderness.

We see where that path led Franklin.


Adriana Craciun is a professor at the University of California, Riverside and has published widely on Arctic exploration. Her essay on the geopolitical significance of the Franklin wrecks was the cover story in the May 2012 Literary Review of Canada.


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