Canada·Point of View

The Franklin search: Peter Mansbridge on why we should care

The search for the vessels of the ill-fated Franklin expedition in Canada's North isn't just a story of looking for old bones and old bits of ship — it's a story about us, about our country and about our history, writes CBC's chief correspondent, Peter Mansbridge.

CBC's chief correspondent says search for vessels reveals a story about Canada and our history

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

First of all, I'm biased. 

I love the mystery of the Franklin story and always have, ever since I was a kid. Then at 20, when I started with the CBC in Canada's North, I continued to be fascinated by the stories I heard of the ships that went missing during Sir John Franklin`s 1845 mission in the Canadian Arctic. ‎

Peter Mansbridge interviews one of the Franklin expedition crew members during the 2012 search.

Today, as I've stated publicly before, I not only cover the story, but I'm kind of involved in the search myself, albeit from a distance.

I'm an advisory board member — along with an astronaut, a research scientist, a philanthropist and a number of private businesspeople — for the non-profit Arctic Research Foundation. To be clear, it is a position for which I receive no money.

Some people have argued the whole search for Franklin is some kind of Conservative Party conspiracy — a pet project for Stephen Harper.

There's no doubt‎ the prime minister is into the mystery and would love to see it solved, but he's hardly the first PM to be interested.

In fact, his two predecessors, Paul Martin and Jean Chrétien, also signed off on government-sponsored searches for the long-lost ships of the expedition, although on a much smaller scale.

There have also been concerns that there's no value to this other than a bunch of old artifacts.

That's just not the case.

Scientific significance

As we've reported many times, the expedition is also doing key scientific work — helping us to better understand the effects of climate change on coastal shorelines, mapping the sea floor where it's never been mapped before and even studying wildlife migration patterns.

Fine. But why else should we care?

When Sir John Franklin led his two grand ships of the Royal Navy, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror‎, from England's shores in 1845, thousands lined the shore to wave goodbye.

A sea floor scan reveals one of the missing ships from the Franklin Expedition in an image released in Ottawa Tuesday. (Parks Canada/Canadian Press)

This was big stuff, the latest and best-equipped expedition to try to discover the Northwest Passage.

If this was successful, it would bring the riches of Asia to Europe far more quickly and less expensively than ever before.

For centuries, the quest had been on. It's why all the great European explorers had first bumped into North America. They weren't looking for a "Canada," they were looking for China.

We were just a stopover on the way, and a cold, icy one to boot. Franklin was going to change all that. 

Desperate prayers

But three years after he and his 128 men left on their voyage, tens of thousands weren't standing on the shore welcoming him back.

Instead, they were attending special services in British churches desperately praying for him to be found. 

Franklin was lost, nothing had been heard from him, and in 1848, the searches started.

There would be more than 40 in the decades that followed in the 19th century alone. It was to be the greatest combined search ever. 

Parts of the story became clearer — Erebus and Terror had been locked in ice, Franklin had died on board and the ships were abandoned as the men tried to walk their way out.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper announces that one of the doomed ships from Sir John Franklin's doomed 1845-46 expedition has been found, as Parks Canada's Ryan Harris looks on Sept. 9. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

What followed was a horrible tale of starvation, cannibalism and death. Not a single sailor lived to tell exactly what had happened. 

And what was never solved was the mystery of Erebus and Terror — what had happened to the pride of the Royal Navy?

What all those years of searching for the two ships accomplished was the mapping, charting and‎ actual opening up of huge parts of Canada's North and West.

Unlocking our story

This isn't just a story of looking for old bones and old bits of ship — it's a story about us, about our country, about our history. 

Are there more important things to be studying, researching and looking for? 

Of course.

But this is a pretty good one, too, and this week's news is exciting — Canadians have found what many others couldn't, and we've unlocked yet another part of our own story.


Peter Mansbridge

Former Chief Correspondent CBC News

Peter Mansbridge is the former chief correspondent of CBC News and Distinguished Fellow, Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy.