Talks with Britain drag on over Franklin wreck artifacts

Ottawa and Britain have been in formal talks since May 2016 over transferring ownership of the Franklin expedition wrecks to Canada. A deal seemed imminent in October but an agreement is still being negotiated, with talks partly hung up on the issue of money, an internal document indicates.

Cost issue partly behind delays in deal to transfer ownership to Canada, document says

A Parks Canada diver inspects HMS Erebus, one of two ships that took part in the doomed Franklin Expedition. Britain has said it intends to retain ownership of some artifacts but is still negotiating what to pay to Canada for the recovery and restoration costs. (Parks Canada)

Canada and Britain are still in talks over ownership of the remains of the Franklin Expedition, discovered on the Arctic seabed, almost two months after saying a deal was imminent.

Both sides announced with fanfare on Oct. 23 that ownership of the mid-19th century ships HMS Erebus and HMS Terror and their contents, legally owned by Britain's Royal Navy under international law, would be formally transferred to Canada within weeks.

Officials, who've been in negotiations since May 2016, say only that they continue to work out details of a formal agreement.

HMS Erebus is seen in its entirety from a helicopter, resting in 11 metres of water in Wilmot and Crampton Bay. The 1845 expedition was an effort by the Royal Navy to find a northwest passage. (Parks Canada)

But CBC News has learned that talks have been hampered partly by the sensitive question of what artifacts the British will keep, and how to compensate Canada for their recovery and restoration.

Canada and Britain signed a non-binding deal in 1997, before the historic wrecks were located, that confirmed the Royal Navy's ownership but committed Britain to transfer ownership to Canada eventually.

An exception, though, were any artifacts of "outstanding significance" to the Royal Navy, which Britain would keep after paying Canada compensation.

These costs will be difficult to quantify.— Parks Canada document

"Developing a satisfactory definition of what is meant by 'outstanding significance' will be very difficult and could delay negotiations," said an internal document from Parks Canada, the agency negotiating for Canada.

"The Agency's preferred approach is to negotiate the full transfer of the wrecks and artifacts (found and as yet to be found)… and to explore long-term loan options for the U.K. to display important artifacts in museums in the U.K."

But the Royal Navy has rejected such a full transfer, indicating in its Oct. 23 announcement that the final transfer agreement will include a clause allowing the U.K. "to retain ownership of a small representative sample," of Franklin artifacts.

Rejects full transfer

The Parks Canada document, from August, obtained by CBC News under the Access to Information Act, cites the complexity of calculating the reimbursement Britain must pay. 

"These costs will be difficult to quantify," it says. 

Some of the delays in the talks, which began 20 months ago, were also caused by the National Museum of the Royal Navy, which is negotiating on behalf of the British government. Museum officials inexplicably went silent for eight months, from October 2016 to May 2017, resuming negotiations only in June this year.

Work remains underway between the U.K. and Canada.— Trevor Kerr, British High Commission spokesman

The talks have been so troubled, in fact, that Environment Minister Catherine McKenna, who is in charge of Parks Canada, personally intervened on Aug. 28.

McKenna met in Ottawa with Britain's newly appointed high commissioner, Susan Le Jeune D'Allegeershecque, to ask her help "to advance negotiations."

Further, because the proposed gift of most of the Franklin relics to Canada had a potential value of more than £250,000 (about $430,000 Cdn), the Ministry of Defence was required to go through the British Parliament.

Sir Michael Fallon, secretary of state for defence, informed Parliament about the proposed gift — and the mandatory 14-day period expired in November without any British MPs or Peers raising an objection.

Asked by CBC about the current state of the transfer talks, a spokeswoman for Parks Canada, Audrey Champagne, said only that the agency is "continuing to work with the United Kingdom to finalize details."

A spokesman for the British High Commission in Ottawa, Trevor Kerr, also said: "Work remains underway between the U.K. and Canada to finalize the gifting."

The Liberal government has already committed to eventually sharing ownership, and management, of the Franklin wrecks and artifacts with the Inuit Heritage Trust, which represents Inuit claims to the historic finds.

Resists Nunavut claim

The government of Nunavut has also laid claim to ownership of the Franklin ships and artifacts, but Ottawa has so far resisted.

Until last week, Nunavut was able to exercise some control over the underwater archeological site where HMS Terror was found — in Terror Bay, off King Edward Island — because Parks Canada divers needed permits from the government in Iqaluit to investigate the sunken wreck.

But earlier this month, the federal cabinet declared a 57.8 square-kilometre area around HMS Terror part of a protected National Historic Site, which effectively removed it from Nunavut's jurisdiction and gave the wreck legal protection against souvenir hunters.

The ship's bell from HMS Erebus, the wreck discovered in September 2014 and currently owned by Britain. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

The seabed wreck of HMS Erebus, discovered further south in 2014, was given such federal protected status in 2015.

Meanwhile, a major exhibition of Franklin artifacts — including many from the Arctic wrecks themselves — continues until Jan. 7, 2018, in Greenwich, England. The exhibition moves to the Canadian Museum of History later next year.

The Royal Navy mounted the 1845 expedition to find a northwest passage under Sir John Franklin. All crew members died after the two ships were beset by ice, though their exact fate has remained a mystery.

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About the Author

Dean Beeby

Senior reporter, Parliamentary Bureau

Dean Beeby is a CBC journalist, author and specialist in freedom-of-information laws. Follow him on Twitter: @DeanBeeby


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