Parks Canada revives effort to protect 'heritage' wrecks

Capt. Paul Bender has been waging a five-year campaign to protect ocean war graves in Canadian waters. It appears his efforts may be paying off. CBC News has learned that Parks Canada is reviving a moribund plan to regulate heritage wrecks, protecting them from looters and souvenir hunters.

After a seven-year hiatus, Parks Canada is resuming an initiative to protect historically important wrecks

A Parks Canada underwater archaeologist studying the wreck of HMS Erebus. Proposed new regulations from Parks Canada would provide automatic legal protection for any newly discovered heritage wrecks. (Parks Canada)

Canada's coastal and inland waters are home to thousands of wrecked, sunken ships. But unlike other countries, Canada's federal government has never passed laws or regulations protecting those of historical importance — and those containing human remains — from looters and tourists.

But CBC News has learned that Parks Canada has been quietly writing new regulations to protect these watery graves, partly inspired by the recent discovery of Sir John Franklin's 19th century ships HMS Erebus and HMS Terror in Arctic waters.

The effort has been driven also by Capt. Paul Bender, who launched a one-man campaign five years ago to protect and preserve so-called "ocean war graves" — wrecks containing the remains of those who sailed on merchant and navy ships during wartime.

"There is currently no federal legislation to protect heritage wrecks," says a May 2018 briefing note, obtained from Parks Canada by CBC News under the Access to Information Act.

"In its role as federal lead for heritage conservation and archaeology, Parks Canada has been invited by Transport Canada to develop a comprehensive federal strategy for heritage wreck[s], which would include the development of regulations."

Actually, Parks Canada is reviving an earlier initiative begun in 2004, which produced a proposed set of heritage wreck regulations by 2011. It was killed by the Conservative government of Stephen Harper.

Agency spokesperson Audrey Champagne did not directly answer a question about why the earlier effort was abandoned, saying only that the issue was complex and required collaboration with other jurisdictions.

Capt. Paul Bender, who has been pressing for legal protection for Canada's ocean war graves, says he has not been consulted by Parks Canada as the agency drafts new regulations. (Courtesy of Alex Bender)

Parks Canada estimates about a dozen Canadian Forces vessels sank in Canadian waters with loss of life during the two world wars, with others lost during earlier conflicts. There are also about 50 military wrecks in Canadian waters belonging to foreign governments, such as Britain, France and the U.S., "and perhaps another 100 remain to be found," said Champagne.

The two Franklin ships, for example, were dispatched on an exploratory mission by the Royal Navy, which owned the wrecks and contents until Britain agreed to transfer ownership to Canada earlier this year.

In the absence of heritage wreck regulations, the federal government had to pass cabinet orders to protect the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror sites from souvenir-hunters and others.

Patchwork legislation

There are also thousands of civilian wrecks believed to be in Canada's waters, though only a few hundred are known and documented. Some provinces and territories have their own patchwork legislation affording various levels of protection to heritage wrecks.

Parks Canada already has consulted on the draft regulations with the Canadian Marine Advisory Council, which advises Transport Canada on shipping issues.

"An engagement strategy is being developed to undertake further consultations with provinces and territories, stakeholders, partners, and the public in 2018," adds the briefing note.

An internal Parks Canada presentation obtained by CBC News indicates the proposed regulations would cover aircraft that have sunk in Canadian waters, as well as vessels.

"Heritage wrecks" will be defined as those underwater for a set number of years – the proposal suggests between 50 and 100 years – and they will get blanket protection. The federal transport minister could also specially designate others, including those with human remains and others with a sensitive legacy.

A diver with Parks Canada's underwater archaeology service inspects the remains of HMS Erebus. The ship is among about 50 military vessels in Canadian waters that belong to foreign governments. Earlier this year, Britain transferred ownership of Erebus to Canada. (Parks Canada)

Public consultations, including online feedback, were planned for this summer and fall, but Champagne said a consultation paper is not yet written and the timing remains under review. The internal presentation says the "target for implementation of regulations is summer 2019."

The briefing note suggests Capt. Bender's dogged five-year campaign to protect ocean war graves is also playing into the Parks Canada initiative. Bender, a former merchant marine member, pressed the House of Commons transport committee in the spring to act quickly to protect these war sites.

But so far, Parks Canada has not consulted him on this summer's round of regulation-making.

"I haven't heard anything from them," Bender said in an interview. "There's been no contact whatsoever from the government side. … I don't see how they can do anything unless they consult me."

Remains of 480 sailors in Canadian waters

The transport committee heard from one expert that there are about 30,000 to 40,000 shipwrecks in and around the Great Lakes, the St. Lawrence River and the coasts of Canada. Bender told the committee he is aware of 19 wrecks with the remains of 480 sailors in Canadian territorial waters.

Bender said he keeps getting the runaround from government whenever he raises the issue.

"Over the past five years, I've written to just about every government department I can think of that might have some jurisdiction over this," he said.

"I do get letters back saying, 'What a jolly good idea' and, 'We will examine it and report back.' But that's the end of it, that's the end of the discussion."

Bender says that, given his age, he'd like to see results soon. "I'm 90 and a half – and I want to keep this thing moving."

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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