Stephen Harper and the obsession with Franklin

A fortnight ago, the bridge of HMCS Kingston was the scene of a remarkable event involving Prime Minister Stephen Harper, captains of industry and the captains of vessels searching for the lost Franklin Expedition ships, Erebus and Terror.

Scotch tumblers were raised last month on the bridge of HMCS Kingston to the search for Erebus and Terror

Prime Minister Stephen Harper stands on the bow of HMCS Kingston as it sails in Nunavut's Navy Board Inlet. The bridge of this ship is where the prime minister toasted the search for Sir John Franklin's ships, the Erebus and Terror. They were lost in a 19th century quest to find the Northwest Passage. (The Canadian Press/Adrian Wyld)

It was like a scene out of the naval swashbuckler Master and Commander.

On the evening of Aug. 23, Her Majesty's Canadian Ship Kingston of the Royal Canadian Navy was anchored off the shores of Pond Inlet on the tip of Baffin Island, Nunavut, well inside the Arctic Circle.

Gathered on the bridge was the ship's captain, Lt.-Cmdr. Paul Smith, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his wife, Laureen.

With them stood the who's who of modern Arctic explorers and investors.

They'd been personally invited aboard to meet Harper and to talk about this year's joint expedition to find remains of the 1845 John Franklin expedition that disappeared while searching for the Northwest Passage.

About 20 people stood around two maps of the search area spread out on the ship's table. Everyone signed the maps to mark the event. And then, out came the scotch. 

They raised their glasses.

"I proposed the toast," said John Geiger, president of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society.

"We toasted the memory of Franklin and then toasted the crews and wished them success. People felt excited, exhilarated," Geiger said in an interview with CBC News from on board the vessel One Ocean Voyager, which is now exploring in Victoria Strait.

"It was a very emotional scene."

Out of the public eye

Ice floats past HMCS Kingston west of Pond Inlet on the Eclipse Sound. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

But very few people knew about it. The evening unfolded out of public view and away from members of the media who were accompanying Harper on his annual Arctic trip. 

Conversations with those on board the naval patrol ship reveal it was a remarkable gathering. They say the prime minister, who is often reserved at public events, was at ease, asking animated and detailed questions about the expedition.

The guests included the teams from the four search vessels and investors who are helping to pay for it. 

The search this year is a joint public-private partnership. Two private vessels will accompany the Canadian Coast Guard Ship Sir Wilfrid Laurier and HMCS Kingston. They are searching for the two lost Franklin ships Erebus and Terror, which sank somewhere near King William Island.

The prime minister's staff worked for two years to get all the players together in one place to meet Harper and to talk about the expedition. 

The guests included BlackBerry co-founder Jim Balsillie, who set up the Arctic Research Foundation and whose research vessel the Martin Bergmann joined the search in 2012, Geordie Dalglish from the W. Garfield Weston Foundation that's invested in new underwater search technology and Andrew Prossin, whose company is providing the One Ocean Voyager, the newest ship to join the search. 

Also there were Parks Canada archaeologist Ryan Harris, who's leading the search, and Rear Admiral John Newton, who's the Maritime Commander for ships operating in the Arctic.

Industry Minister James Moore, Environment Minister Leona Aqlukkaq and Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt were also there that evening.

Those on board describe it as an intriguing combination of people who are interested in Franklin.

"I was very proud. It was a nation-building moment," said Jim Balsillie in an interview with CBC. 

"To hold a glass and clink it and drink it with the other guys. I was just happy to be there," he added.

Franklin's ghost

The prime minister talks about the Franklin expedition every time he travels north. This year, the ghost of the British explorer seemed to hang over the entire six-day northern tour. 

It's well known that Harper is a history buff but his intense interest in the Franklin expedition seems to go beyond that. 

"I think he's obsessed with the north," said Balsillie. "And the Franklin search makes coherent sense with the bigger set of issues there." 

Sir John Franklin led an ultimately doomed expedition in the mid-1840s to find the Northwest Passage. The search for his doomed ships continues. (Hutton Archive/Getty Images)

The expedition is using state-of-the-art underwater technology to scan the ocean floor. It's a part of Canada that is largely uncharted — only five to 10 per cent of the Arctic seabed is documented. And mapping helps to enforce sovereignty in this remote part of the country.

The Royal Geographical Society's John Geiger thinks Harper is not so much obsessed as profoundly taken with all things North.

"He has a deep personal interest in Arctic exploration. It's a sincere interest," said Geiger.

Others think the Franklin expedition appeals to the prime minister's desire to leave a legacy. 

University of Calgary Professor Rob Huebert was an observer on the prime minister's northern trip this year and was on the ship's bridge that evening.

"He's trying to integrate the Canadian North into the nation's psyche," he said in an interview.

"He wants to leave serious initiatives that cannot be reversed. He's also creating the expectation that the next PM will also go north," added Huebert.

All this attention has created pretty high-level expectations. 

Sadly, this year's search through Victoria Strait is battling unusually heavy ice. And after 170 years of that kind of ice scouring the ocean bottom there could be little left of the wooden ships.

But on board the HMCS Kingston that August night, not one person mentioned to the prime minister that maybe they'll never find anything.

"There was no one saying, 'We are only going to find a bunch of toothpicks on the ocean bottom,'" one participant told the CBC on background.

And if that isn't complete obsession, then it's pretty close to it.

with files from CBC


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