Inuit guardians 'happy and proud' to protect Franklin's ships

Parks Canada has hired 17 Inuit guardians to watch over the wrecks of the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror.

Arrangement at historic site of wrecks of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror is a first for Nunavut

Jimmy Pauloosie Jr. (Kate Kyle/CBC)

Jimmy Pauloosie Jr. is used to providing for his family by hunting on the land, but he never expected to be doing it while getting paid to guard a national treasure.

"I find it pretty impressive," beams the 18-year-old from Gjoa Haven, Nunavut, pop. 1,325. "[I'm] happy and proud."

Pauloosie is one of 17 Inuit guardians hired by Parks Canada to watch over the Wrecks of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror National Historic Site this summer. The site marks the remains of the mid-19th-century expedition led by John Franklin to find the elusive Northwest Passage.

Historic partnership

It's a unique arrangement at this historic site — the first in Nunavut to be jointly managed by Parks Canada and Inuit — with the groups getting an equal say in how the site is managed and preserved in the years ahead.

L-R: Mark Ullikataq, Brandon Qirqqut, Raymond Niaqunnuaq, Jimmy Pauloosie Jr. (Kate Kyle/CBC)

This August, four Inuit guardians set up a base camp on Saunitalik Island — "place of bones" in Inuktitut — a five-kilometre-long sandy island a short Zodiac ride from the Erebus. A second group of guardians is camped near the Terror.

Along with keeping an eye out for polar bears while archeologists are at work, the guardians scan the horizon for unauthorized ships and the ground for artifacts. They call in any activity by satellite phone.

Community connection

While Inuit can still hunt and fish at the site, non-locals need a permit to visit or dive there. Community members have already reported receiving calls from southerners looking for guides to Franklin's ships.

Inuit guardians are now exploring the islands near both wrecks to find more suitable base camps that could someday host tourists.

Gjoa Haven, Nunavut (Kate Kyle/CBC)

Gjoa Haven Mayor Joanni Sallerina says his community is eager to be involved.

More than half the community is 24 or younger, according to the 2016 census. Young people are looking for jobs.

Joanni Sallerina, Mayor of Gjoa Haven (Kate Kyle/CBC) (Kate Kyle/CBC)

"It is our land," says Sallerina. "It's located where our hunting area is." He explains how their ancestors travelled to the ships and salvaged material, such as a metal sword they broke up to use as snow knives.

"It's a real honour to be a part of history, and I do feel the whole community feels that way," says Sallerina. "They are looking forward to benefiting from Franklin's ships economically, through tourism."

Inuit knowledge

The idea for the guardians came from the Franklin Interim Advisory Committee, according to Louie Kamookak, who sits on the committee. Inuit organizations, communities and the governments of Canada and Nunavut are represented.

Louie Kamookak (Kate Kyle/CBC) (Kate Kyle/CBC)

Kamookak spent more than 30 years recording oral stories of Inuit encounters with the ships and Franklin's men — stories that were key to resolving the nearly 170-year-old mystery — and says the partnership is further validation of Inuit experience and knowledge.

"A lot of programs are run from the south," says Kamookak. "A lot of times, the Inuit are just watching as people come up and do their thing.

"I think this is opening up that Inuit knowledge and traditional knowledge is just as important as someone with a degree." 

He would eventually like to see Inuit families living at the base camp for longer periods when there's open water.

Parks Canada underwater archaeologists during diving on the wreck of HMS Erebus this summer. (Parks Canada)

Parks Canada is calling the project the "largest and most important underwater archeological undertakings in Canadian history."

And the idea is for Inuit to be involved in every facet, says Marc-André Bernier, manager of underwater archeology. 

"It's being able to having [Inuit] directly part not only the decision making but part of the action."

Marc-André Bernier, Parks Canada (Kate Kyle/CBC)

Expanding the team

A specialized underwater archeology team spent time this summer laying the groundwork for deeper excavation of the wrecks in the coming years.

In 2014, divers identified a number of artifacts on HMS Erebus: brass cannons, a cast bronze bell, and even the handle of a sword. 

Since then, 64 artifacts have been recovered after more than than 250 hours of diving.

A Parks Canada underwater archaeologist recording the wreck of HMS Erebus. (Parks Canada) (Parks Canada)

According to Bernier, six people from Gjoa Haven joined the underwater archaeology team and archeologists from the Nunavut government on the ice near the Terror last April. They used a remotely operated vehicle to capture video and photos of the ship's exterior.

Parks Canada says the guardian program is just the beginning. It wants to get Inuit involved in recovering and documenting artifacts from the lost expeditions.

Much of that work will happen on a converted Coast Guard vessel and barge beginning next summer.

Jimmy Pauloosie Jr. (Kate Kyle/CBC) (Kate Kyle/CBC)

Jimmy Pauloosie is keen to share Franklin's story.

Tourists on board a cruise ship will visit the national historic site this weekend.

"I'm pretty sure they would still be looking for the shipwrecks if they didn't get help from us Inuit," he said. 

"We like for you guys to ... learn what we do and how we keep ourselves alive."

The camp on Saunitalik Island, near the wreck of HMS Erebus. (Parks Canada)