By Lee Carson and K. Joseph Spears

The 21st century search for the Franklin expedition’s missing ships has been described as Canada’s moon shot in a recent newspaper article. After one hundred and sixty years, and countless efforts by various search parties, one of her Majesty’s Royal Naval vessels that sailed as part of the ill-fated Sir John Franklin expedition, has been found upright and intact on the seabed in the waters off Queen Maude Gulf, part of Canada’s fabled Northwest Passage. The wreck was positively identified as HMS Erebus by an underwater survey by scuba-equipped Parks Canada archaeologists and sonar services provided by Canadian Hydrographic Service.

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.

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 and hydrographic surveys of the Northwest passage. Many of the 19th century coastal maps are still being used today on modern hydrographic charts.

Notwithstanding the benefits of utilizing modern technology in the search effort, one cannot overlook luck, as ice conditions in Victoria Strait pushed the search effort south to where HMS Erebus was finally located. However, it still took individuals working together as a team to overcome the challenges, whether those are presented by sea-ice, or weather conditions and the lack of infrastructure. It was a Canadian Coast Guard helicopter pilot assisting Parks Canada archaeologists that recovered a tangible piece of HMS Erebus’ davit. In the Arctic, people matter and truly make the difference.

The team structure of this year’s expedition was a new and unique form of private-public partnership (PPP) of several private donors and companies working with a long list of Federal and Territorial government departments, each bringing a wealth of unique and impressive experience and expertise to the team. Apart from the tangible success of finding Erebus, valuable lessons were learned regarding how to further improve such Arctic PPP team projects in the future.

Experience counts in the Arctic, and Parks Canada working in conjunction with the Canadian Coast Guard using Canadian-developed technology made the difference. Although the search for Terror will continue next season, with Erebus located, one of the world’s longest running searches has come to a successful conclusion, 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 generate greater awareness of Canada’s Arctic. Now, what are the lessons to be learned for Canada as an Arctic nation? What were the keys to the mission’s success?

Leadership coupled with private public partnership was key, and the big story is how a variety of groups united to achieve a common goal. The long-standing work of two federal departments that are often overlooked in the Arctic, Parks Canada and the Canadian Coast Guard, was instrumental to the success of this expedition. The Canadian Coast Guard and its predecessor agencies have been working in this region since the earliest days of Canada. That experience made the difference. The teamwork and perseverance of individuals, both in government service and in the private sector, made this a reality. Peter Mansbridge, Canada’s famed 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. It also showcased Canada’s ability to operate in the Arctic and to achieve the stated mission. What we need now is the political will to raise the funding necessary to address the serious oceanographic information gaps that exist in the region. This work can be undertaken in a uniquely Canadian public-private partnership.

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. This shows that Canada can achieve great things in the Arctic when all parties come together with a common mission and clear goal.

Another important lesson to consider is the need to engage the Inuit people in Arctic governance. The clues with respect to Franklin can be traced back to Inuit elders who passed down the story of a ghost ship as it sailed down Victoria Strait. The Inuit people represent the history of the Arctic: the Arctic has been their home and world for centuries, and because of their deep understanding of the Arctic, and their commitment to their home territory, it is imperative that future development and governance of this area takes place in consultation and cooperation with them.

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

Among the state-of-the-art 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, ran aground in uncharted shoal waters of Simpson Strait. Only ten per cent of the Arctic is charted to modern standards.

The need to create and maintain a fleet of appropriate vessels to operate in the Arctic in support of search and rescue, scientific research, hydrographic charting, pollution response, defence and security, as well as icebreaking is a long-overdue national priority. Finding Franklin highlights the need for vessels to support such important work including specialized Arctic oceanographic research vessels. For example, while the Canadian Coast Guard’s new polar icebreaker 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. CCG Terry Fox, the Coast Guard’s most capable icebreaker, was originally a commercially built and operated vessel, demonstrating that vessel conversions may be a viable option to increase the size and scope of the required Arctic fleet.

While it is important for Canada to showcase its Arctic sovereignty, we need to develop Arctic Ocean governance and infrastructure that will truly make Canada an Arctic nation. The sovereignty issue has not been seriously questioned to any real extent, but other nations want to use these waters for international commercial shipping. The Arctic is becoming a truly 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 critical role in protecting its Arctic shipping future, working in conjunction with the Canadian Coast Guard.

Working together in the Arctic is the way of the future, and is the view the U.S. takes with its new Arctic Policy, recently announced by the State Department’s new Arctic envoy, Admiral Papp. Canada needs to seize that opportunity as we look for the second vessel, HMS Terror. That vessel was engaged in shelling Baltimore and gave rise to the American National anthem” Star-Spangled Banner”.

Canada’s goal for the Arctic must be that this area becomes a well governed ocean space that allows for potential economic development, which requires infrastructure. In addition, it goes without saying that Canada must create and maintain the assets in support of its responsibilities in the Arctic, which lend credibility to its claims of Arctic sovereignty. Canada also needs to develop a formal linkage between traditional aboriginal knowledge and modern governance. John Franklin was in the Arctic 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, and to exercise sovereignty over them.

Lee Carson, 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

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 around Canada’s coasts.