On the eastern edge of Queen Maud Gulf, in the middle of Nunavut, there is a big chunk of rock, tundra and lakes called O'Reilly Island. Somewhere near its many coves and inlets is the final resting place of one of the Franklin expedition ships, HMS Erebus or HMS Terror. 

The 169-year-old mystery as to the whereabouts of one of those ships was finally solved this week. 

What's the big deal? Why is a doomed 19th century search for a Northwest Passage through the Arctic relevant to anything going on in the 21st century?

Prime Minister Stephen Harper touched on several reasons earlier today, in just two sentences. 

"For more than a century, this has been a great Canadian story and mystery," Harper said of the Franklin expedition. "It's been the subject of scientists and historians and writers and singers. So I think we have a really important day in mapping together the history of our country." 

History

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The two ships of the Franklin expedition disappeared during an 1845 search for the Northwest Passage. (Archives)

On its Franklin expedition web site, Parks Canada claims Canadians are "northern people" — even though 85 per cent of us live within 100 kilometres of the American border. We are, perhaps, more of a "northy" people. 

That doesn't mean winters in southern Canada aren't cold. They're just not "Queen Maud Gulf cold." And they are certainly not "O'Reilly Island long."

Still, as Parks Canada goes on to say, "our history is intrinsically tied to being part of a northern country," and there's no doubt the Arctic holds a particularly strong grip on the stories that we tell about our home and native land. 

When it comes to drama, the Franklin story has it all: the desire to explore, agonizing months spent entrapped in ice, frostbite, starvation, a desperate trek across the tundra — even cannibalism — along with a noble dose of daring rescue attempts. .

Science

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This AUV — Autonomous Underwater Vehicle — will travel on its own, systematically mapping the ocean floor, no matter what surface conditions plague the scientists. (Curt Petrovich/CBC News)

To solve the mystery of the Franklin ships' watery graves, the government of Canada deployed the skills and technology of dozens of Canadian scientists and partnered with a number of private investors with an interest in the ill-fated expedition. 

The team included Parks Canada, the Arctic Research Foundation, the Royal Canadian Geographic Society, One Ocean Expeditions and the Royal Canadian Navy among others.

This latest round of searching has been going on every summer since 2008. This year, four ships were involved.

Parks Canada deployed a whole host of whiz-bangy technologies in this year's search. They included:

  • Two high-end sonar units, that are towed behind ships
  • An autonomous torpedo-like underwater vehicle, the Iver3, equipped with side-scan sonar.
  • A deep-water, remotely operated probe.

Arctic sovereignty

Harper North

Ice floats past HMCS Kingston west of Pond Inlet in the Arctic. The bridge of this ship is where the prime minister toasted the search for Sir John Franklin's ships HMS Erebus and HMS Terror. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

So you say you own a vast and sparsely populated Arctic archipelago. How do you prove that?

Well, yearly scientific missions to the area help. If those missions also happen to do some ocean-floor mapping, that can't hurt. If those same missions also prove an ability to manoeuvre through treacherous and icy waters and to come out the other side relatively intact, you are definitely making a strong case. 

Canada is in the middle of building a scientific case to claim the seabed at the North Pole. Russia regularly buzzes our northern frontier with long-range bombers just to test our ability to protect ourselves. Most countries in the world — including the U.S. — don't recognize our sovereignty over the Northwest Passage. They claim it is an international waterway.

Perhaps the only way to convince the world that Canada is in control is to prove that we are up there, and have been for some time. That way, if the world wants to pass through, it has to get our permission.

The Franklin discovery is one way to support that claim.

Inuit oral history

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Inuit oral history was instrumental in finding artifacts from the Franklin expedition and the ship. (Fred Bruemmer)

Mapping and maritime skill aside, presence is the most important part of a claim to the Arctic. And the ones who have been there for time immemorial are the Inuit.

The Inuit in the area of, at least, this Franklin wreck have been telling searchers where to look for decades.

Inuit stories spoke of a ship trapped in ice near the site where this week's discovery was made. Search parties in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries would regularly interview the locals hoping for directions to the long-lost ships.

Now we know, the directions were generally pretty good. It's just that winter usually got in the way.