Talks with British on ownership of Franklin artifacts still unresolved

Canada spent millions of dollars to locate, recover and restore rare relics of the Franklin expedition from the sunken 19th-century ship HMS Erebus. But three years after the discovery, Canada still doesn't have ownership.

U.K. to get 1st major exhibition of Franklin relics from HMS Erebus as talks drag on

The ship's bell from the Franklin Expedition shipwreck HMS Erebus sits in pure water in Ottawa in November 2014 after being recovered. Britain owns the bell and talks to transfer ownership of this and other Franklin relics to Canada are unresolved. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Canada spent millions of dollars to recover artifacts from HMS Erebus, the sunken wreck from the 1845 Franklin expedition to the Arctic that was finally located in 2014 — but it still doesn't own the collection almost three years later.

And most of those objects, now restored at taxpayers' expense, are leaving Canada next month for their first public exhibition — in Britain, which remains the legal owner of the HMS Erebus treasures.

Parks Canada says yearlong negotiations with the British government have yet to produce a deal to transfer ownership rights to Canada.

Buttons recovered at HMS Erebus wreck show a crowned anchor surrounded by a rope edging, a motif that was found on Royal Navy tunic buttons after 1812. Thirty-eight objects such as this are headed to Britain next month for a major exhibition. (Parks Canada)

"Discussions with the government of the United Kingdom on the transfer of the Franklin artifacts are ongoing," Parks Canada spokeswoman Meaghan Bradley said this week.

Ownership talks began in earnest in May 2016 with officials of the National Museum of the Royal Navy, in Portsmouth, England, based on a 1997 Canada-U.K. memorandum of understanding (MOU).

That MOU, signed before HMS Erebus was discovered and before its sunken sister ship, HMS Terror, was located in 2016, says Britain owns everything. But it also stipulates that the British government agrees to transfer ownership to Canada of all recovered objects, except those significant to the Royal Navy, as well as any gold. (No gold has yet been discovered.)

'Unique discussions'

It's unclear why the talks are taking so long. Bradley calls them "relatively unique discussions," adding that Parks Canada "hopes to have the transfer completed as soon as possible."

The delay has left Inuit groups, who also claim ownership rights, in the lurch.

"We're not really kept in the loop," said Ralph Kownak of the Inuit Heritage Trust in Iqaluit, Nunavut. "Who owns it is still a good question. That's still being discussed."

A sword handle recovered from the HMS Erebus wreck this summer poses 'significant conservation challenges,' Parks Canada says, because it is 'delicate and complex.' (Parks Canada)

Bradley says Parks Canada is also negotiating an "interim" memorandum of understanding with the Inuit Heritage Trust that would spell out the management of the Franklin artifacts "while discussions with the government of the United Kingdom continue."

"This agreement will ensure decisions related to the artifacts will be made jointly by Parks Canada and the Inuit Heritage Trust."

Fifty-five objects, including the ship's bell, were recovered from HMS Erebus by divers, and have been undergoing preservation and restoration in Ottawa. No objects have been recovered yet from HMS Terror.

A replica of a plate from HMS Erebus is one of the artifacts on display at the Nunatta Sunakkutaangit Museum in Iqaluit. Parks Canada says there may be a display of actual Franklin artifacts in Nunavut 2018 or 2019. (Mike Salomonie/CBC)

But most of the Erebus objects — 38 items, including the bell and pieces of officer uniforms — will soon be shipped to Greenwich, England, for the first major public showing of the poignant treasures.

Spending $1.2 million

The Canadian Museum of History is spending $1.2 million to support this travelling exhibition, which won't arrive in Canada until 2018, long after Canada's 150th birthday celebrations have concluded.

Instead, the Erebus trove is going on display July 14 through to Jan. 7, 2018, at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, a venerable institution that is providing other elements that draw on its own Franklin relics. The Greenwich exhibition will be in English only.

A glimpse inside the wreck of HMS Terror, captured by a remotely operated underwater vehicle. The wreck was discovered in 2016, but no objects have yet been recovered. Divers are expected to visit in late summer, and retrieve some objects. (Courtesy: Daniel McIsaac)

Canadian taxpayers will cover the costs of shipping the artifacts to Britain, insuring them, and providing a team to set them up, including their hotel and travel costs.

The Canadian Museum of History, which is paying for an English-language souvenir catalogue for sale only in Britain, will itself display the exhibition next year, March 1 to Sept. 30, 2018.

English, French and Inuktitut versions of the catalogue will be available for the Canadian leg. Afterward, the exhibition moves to two other yet-undisclosed venues in Canada, in late 2018 and most of 2019. Parks Canada says some of the components may be shown in Nunavut.

Dives planned

Parks Canada archeologists are currently at the site of HMS Terror, which sits on the seabed underneath about two metres of sea ice. Marine archeologists are using two remotely operated underwater vehicles (ROVs) to photograph and video the exterior.

No diving is planned this spring, but divers are scheduled to visit HMS Erebus and HMS Terror in late summer to recover further artifacts from both ships.

The agency says it has hired local workers from nearby Gjoa Haven, Nunavut, to help with the logistics, specifically creating the ice hole through which the ROVs will operate.

A still from a video produced by the Arctic Research Foundation appears to show the wheel of HMS Terror. (Arctic Research Foundation)

Sir John Franklin's 1845 Arctic expedition was intended to find the last link in the Northwest Passage to the Far East, but his two ships were beset by ice, and were later abandoned and sank. Every crew member perished, and the disappearance of the expedition triggered a series of Victorian-era searches, none of which fully explained the disaster.

Traditional Inuit knowledge, generally ignored by Western searchers for more than a century, was critical in finally locating the wrecks of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror in 2014 and 2016.

HMS Erebus was found off the Adelaide Peninsula, while HMS Terror was located well to the north, in a bay off the southwest coast of King William Island.

Follow @DeanBeeby on Twitter


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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