Britain hands over Franklin Expedition wreckage to Canada
Former Minister of the Environment Leona Aglukkaq and Royal Canadian Navy Rear Admiral John Newton look at the ship's bell from the discovered Franklin Expedition shipwreck HMS Erebus in Ottawa on Thursday, Nov. 6, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang
LONDON — Britain says it will give Canada the two shipwrecks once commanded by John Franklin that lie at the heart of one of this country’s most compelling Arctic myths.
The Ministry Of Defence says in a statement it will transfer ownership of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror to Parks Canada, but retain a small sample of artifacts.
“This exceptional arrangement will recognize the historical significance of the Franklin expedition to the people of Canada, and will ensure that these wrecks and artifacts are conserved for future generations,” said Defence Secretary Michael Fallon.
Under international law, warships remain the property of the country they sailed under. Before they disappeared beneath the ice in the waters of the Northwest Passage, Franklin’s Erebus and Terror were both commissioned ships in the Royal Navy.
The ships, which were located in 2014 and 2016, are now designated Canadian historic sites under the jurisdiction of Environment Canada.
Sonar picture of the sunken HMS Erebus, abandoned during the Franklin Expedition. Photo by Parks Canada
Caitlin Workman, press secretary to Environment Minister Catherine McKenna, said the ships were part of discussions between Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and British Prime Minister Theresa May in September.
“It’s good that this is happening so quickly after (May) visited here,” Workman said Monday.
Final transfer of ownership is expected to be completed over the coming weeks.
Workman said the British decision will have an impact on the work of the Franklin interim advisory committee. That group of federal, territorial and Inuit officials is considering how the two sites and their artifacts will be conserved and exhibited.
“We’re still talking with them,” said Workman. “We still very much have a goal of co-ownership of these artifacts.”
Nunavut’s land claim gives the territory control over archeological finds on its lands.
After extensive preparatory work this past field season, Parks Canada is preparing to mount a major excavation of the Erebus next summer. Although there are no plans to refloat the wreck, divers expect to carefully document and remove whatever they can of Franklin’s flagship.
The site is largely intact beneath the waves and is expected to be a trove of historical gold.
Franklin set out in 1845 with his two ships and 128 men to try to find the Northwest Passage.
His ships disappeared, but the resulting search helped open the Canadian Arctic. The story of the failed expedition has inspired a generation of Canadian poets, songwriters and novelists.