What we’re (not) talking about when we talk about Franklin

It was beginning to seem like it would never happen. For a sixth year, the Harper government was sending a team into the Arctic to search for the lost Franklin ships. The expeditions were starting to seem as doomed as Franklin’s own: the British explorer famously got stuck in Arctic ice during his 1845 expedition to navigate the Northwest Passage. He never made it. Franklin and all 128 men from his two British navy ships—HMS Erebus and HMS Terror—escaped to land, where one by one they died from a somewhat predictable inability to survive in the Arctic environment, resorting to a bit of cannibalism along the way.

Despite his dismal failure, Franklin’s story has become one of heroics and bravery within an inhospitable land, a story of conquest and adventure. It’s become a foundational story in the mythology of Canada, a sign that we are, indeed, a northern people; a heroic, noble and very British people. The Brits searched for Franklin’s ships for years and decades. Then we did, too—the cumulative effort playing a major role in opening up the Arctic, both to the Canadian imagination and to the Canadian state.

The 2014 search was our biggest yet—including four ships, high-tech sonar equipment, two underwater vehicles, and the backing of a significant public-private partnership. On September 7, 2014, the expense paid off, and the expedition found one of the ships. The nation celebrated.

The nation gushed, actually, and so did its media. We were very excited, and very, very happy with ourselves. And why not? What a cool thing to find a centuries-old missing ship, to solve a great mystery. How fun to brave the frozen Arctic with big ships and expensive gadgets.

But it was never just about solving mysteries, not just about history and archaeology. Our search for the Franklin ships has always had two interrelated objectives. One is Arctic sovereignty—asserting control over the Arctic and its waterways, and all that goes on there, and proving that we have the authority to do so. It’s also been an exercise in nation-building—reinforcing that great, grand story we tell about ourselves, and that informs our priorities today.

These motivations have been central to the Franklin searches. This is no secret; everyone involved has always been very upfront that the Franklin expeditions are about more than just finding two lost ships. What should concern us are not the political layers to the Franklin search, but that Harper’s motivations and objectives in this regard are not receiving the kind of critical analysis that they desperately need.

The “New North”

Let’s look at some of the issues at play. Thanks to climate change, the same ice that trapped Franklin’s ships for two years before they broke free and sank is becoming a hot commodity (pun intended). The pace of change in the Arctic is frightening: scientists expect the Northwest Passage to be completely ice-free in summer within a few decades. This loss of ice is opening up the region to commercial shipping routes, as well as resource exploration and extraction—huge reserves of oil and gas exist beneath the ocean floor.

Harper’s concern, however, lies not with climate change, but with Arctic sovereignty: Canada sees the Northwest Passage is an internal waterway, while much of the rest of the world sees it as an international waterway, thus allowing their ships right of passage. Only by asserting our sovereignty in the region can we claim, and thus control, its waters.

So how do we assert our sovereignty over the region? This is a little fuzzy, but it seems to have a lot to do with simply being up there, and, you know, doing stuff—the kind of stuff that those involved in these matters think is important. Enter Harper’s Northern Strategy, a series of projects and initiatives tailored to our government’s “vision of a new North.” This New North is a busier and more economically productive place, host to increased military presence, infrastructure, resource extraction initiatives, and a deep-sea port. The Franklin expeditions are part of this Northern Strategy, complimenting this robust assertion of our sovereignty. By finding the ships, we are helping cement our claim over the Arctic waters.

Red flags

Ok, here’s where we need to step back for a moment and ask some fundamental questions, such as: Is this the way we want to develop the North? Are we keen on focusing on resource development, or are there other, better ways to develop the region? Does it even need developing? What do the Indigenous people who live there think? Are they offended by the suggestion that their thousands-of-years-old presence is not sufficient for asserting sovereignty?

I challenge any of you to look through the mainstream and corporate media for any articles, radio segments, or television segments asking these sorts of questions. Take all the time you need. If you can scrounge together more than two or three I swear I’ll buy you lunch.

This utter lack of a national conversation worries me. After all, it doesn’t take an investigative research team to notice a few red flags with the government-sponsored Franklin expedition, suggesting there’s a lot more going on, and that the government might not exactly be acting in our best interests.

Consider Parks Canada, which has been leading the expeditions, and doing so with some expensive gadgets. You’d think the Canadian government sees an inherent value in Parks Canada and its archaeologists, and is happy to fund them. But if so, then why has Harper slashed Parks Canada’s budget by $155.9 million since 2011? More to the point, why did he gut Parks Canada’s archaeological department in 2012 (culling 25 of its 32 archaeologist, four labs, all three researchers working on First Nations’ historical and cultural sites at the Historical Research Branch, and half the archaeology policy positions, along with removing their voice from the management table)?

What does all this say about the role Harper thinks Parks Canada should be playing in the shaping of public policy? It’s a good question. Why isn’t anybody asking it?

Consider Shell Canada, one of the private partners of the Franklin expedition, and a resource extraction giant with huge interests in the Arctic. What expertise are they providing? How might the exploratory work being done during the Franklin search benefit them? Is the technology being used applicable to the oil and gas industry? Again, these all seem like worthwhile questions. But who’s asking them?

Shell is also involved in building an educational tool for young students about the importance of the Franklin story. Do we want a resource extraction company teaching our children about the Arctic? Is this a conflict of interest? What value do we want our children to place on the Arctic, and to see in it, and does this match up with Shell’s priorities?

Consider PEARL, the world-class climate research station that Harper tried to shut down. Consider the new research station he’s building to overshadow it, a wholly different kind of research station focused on science and technology research to support development in the North—placing environmental research alongside resource development, “healthy communities” and “exercising sovereignty.” What does this say about our shifting priorities in the Arctic? Are we ok with this?

Nation building

And then there’s the exercise in nation building (a concept that should always raise red flags). To a great extent, the decades and centuries of searching for Franklin have defined our relationship with the North—why we go there, how we interact with it, what value we see in it; how we think it should be used and for what purpose.

Of course, when I say “we,” I am referring exclusively to Canada’s colonial people. This is our historical perspective, our cultural framework. But we cannot talk about the Arctic as if it were divorced from the people who call it home—and who have done so since before recorded history began. If this is a truly national story, what role in it do the Inuit play? Do they even have a role? (And conversely, what role should we be playing in their story?)

This, then, is how the exercise in nation building becomes problematic.

From Canada’s perspective—as with the British Empire before it—the Arctic has always been a place to be exploited, a wild and dangerous place, a place to be braved, conquered and tamed. Indeed, very little has changed since Franklin’s day. Not surprisingly, the Inuit have a strikingly different perspective of the Arctic. For a start, it’s not “Canada’s North,” a remote territory existing on the margins; it is their home—a place Kathleen Winters has called “real unto itself.” Though I can’t assume to speak for them, I’d be surprised to hear them talk about the Arctic using the same language of conquest.

Are the Inuit also seeking heroics in a savage land, and setting out to improve it with an assumed set of values for an assumed objective of economic gain? Or do they seek continued respect for a land that has long sustained them? Do they put more trust in our understanding of the land and its history, or theirs? Do they welcome Western, federalist visions of a New North, or do they prefer to see potential and find solutions in their own communities, their own cultural and legal traditions? I don’t know—perhaps we should ask them.

It is telling that to the Inuit, Franklin’s ships have never been lost, and were never in need of being “discovered.” The Inuit have always known where the ships lay, and the recent expedition would never have succeeded without the guidance of their oral tradition. According to author David Woodman, “All that really happened was it took 200 years for our technology to get good enough to tell us that Inuit were telling us the truth.” We no longer have any excuse to ignore the credibility and authority of their knowledge, and should turn to it wholeheartedly in all other respects—to look for ways of healing, ways of being, for ways of interacting with the land and with each other. Still, don’t expect a new tone to Harper’s Northern Strategy.

Franklin’s failure was the result of the misguided nature of his colonial agenda—he was ill-prepared, stubborn, and impervious to Inuit ways of living. He failed because the North is not something to be conquered and tamed; it is something to learn from and to respect. It is a place where sovereignty already exists. It is a place with a people and a history and a future that doesn’t require our paternalistic, heavy-handed interference.

There is an opportunity here, for both Canada and the Inuit people, but it rests on cooperation and respect. As Aboriginal rights lawyer Lorraine Land writes, “Recognizing the Inuit’s historical ties and use of the arctic would have far greater import, in international law, in legitimizing Canada’s arctic jurisdiction than finding old ships sent by colonial powers two centuries ago. … In other words, by cooperating with the Inuit, Canada could establish its own sovereignty goals.”

It’s fine to get excited about finding sunken ships, but we can’t afford to get distracted from the other factors at play. If we do, we risk letting those parties involved—first and foremost the Harper government—both define the story of our nation’s past and set the agenda for its future.

If this is our national story, then we are telling ourselves the wrong story. Or rather, we are telling the story in the wrong way. As the academic Adriana Craciun says, “Franklin’s legacy is not discovery or sovereignty, it is disaster.” His failure should be instructive. This is a lesson on how not to conceive of the Arctic. And yet, we are continuing in Franklin’s footsteps: completing his quest for a Northwest Passage open to commercial transportation, resource extraction, and imperial and colonial assertions. If we come to the Arctic just as Franklin did, looking to brave, to conquer, to tame, will we not also fail?

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