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Finding of Franklin ship fuels Harper’s new nationalism

Parks Canada image shows one of two ships from the lost Franklin expedition

Parks Canada

A Parks Canada-led team has found a ship lost in the doomed Franklin expedition to unlock the Arctic nearly 170 years ago, the fruit of a search championed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in his efforts to forge a Conservative brand of Canadian nationalism.

Searchers said they confirmed the authenticity of the antique British naval vessel, which is either HMS Terror or HMS Erebus, on Sunday. The sunken ship lies west of O'Reilly Island and in eastern Queen Maud Gulf in the waters of the Arctic archipelago.

Mr. Harper, whose government has promoted and funded the search for the Franklin wrecks, took it upon himself to personally announce the discovery Tuesday at a photo opportunity in Ottawa. The Prime Minister, who has styled his government a defender of Ottawa's claim to the Arctic, described the expedition as having laid the foundation for Canadian sovereignty in the region.

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He proclaimed the find of the Royal Navy ship a "historic moment for Canada," noting public interest in the fate of vessels that were trying to traverse what is now Canada's prized Northwest Passage has captivated generations.

"For more than a century this has been a great Canadian story, a mystery; it's been the subject of scientists and historians, writers and singers," Mr. Harper said.

Victorian England was enthralled by the story of Sir John Franklin's expedition, which failed after vessels were frozen in ice and crews perished. Successive British recovery missions failed to find the ships but managed to chart significant portions of the Arctic – a legacy that benefited Canadians for years to come.

Since 2008, six searches led by Parks Canada have scoured hundreds of square kilometres of Arctic seabed, a hunt driven by what a senior Tory called Mr. Harper's "genuine, nerdy interest" in the romantic story but also a desire to engage in conservative-minded myth-making that might capture the imagination of Canadians.

Arctic experts say they're not sure they understand Mr. Harper's claim that the Franklin expedition helped lay the basis for Canadian sovereignty in the region. These two British naval ships were lost decades before Confederation and the most relevant sovereignty question today – whether the Northwest Passage is an international waterway – doesn't have much to do with this.

"This myth just had another chapter added," Rob Huebert, associate director of the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary, said on Tuesday of the Franklin discovery.

Mr. Huebert said he's happy the find will help raise Canadian interest in the Arctic, but he advises that every time the government uses the phrase "Canadian sovereignty," listeners should substitute the word "nationalism" instead.

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Like leaders before him, Mr. Harper is trying to put his own stamp on Canadian values – attempting to rework the national myth from one built on Liberal policies to one shaped by Conservatives. He's long been bothered by the fact the rival Liberals owned the flag when it came to Canada's political identity – a land of peacekeepers, generous social programs etc. – and is determined to change that. He's also convinced a country that absorbs immigrants at such a fast rate needs a compelling series of narratives to stay united, sources say.

The Tory Leader's effort to build a new national identity since 2006 has included a heavy emphasis on Canada's military exploits, the bicentennial promotion of the War of 1812 as the "fight for Canada," nine successive summer trips to the country's North and talk of claiming the geographic North Pole for Ottawa.

The Franklin find is a clear victory for Mr. Harper, who's had other notable pledges to champion the Arctic delayed or scaled back due to budget constraints, from Arctic patrol ships to a naval refuelling facility on Baffin Island.

Mr. Harper is not one for grand gestures, but he does like to walk tall in the Arctic for the TV cameras during annual northern tours. He has stood atop a submarine as jets roared overhead, sat in a fighter cockpit and fired a rifle as part of a military exercise.

On the Prime Minister's 2014 trip, he toured the Arctic just shortly before the Franklin ship was discovered, missing by weeks a find that would have made his tour the most dramatic to date.

Those who know Mr. Harper say his fascination with Franklin is authentic. "Sure, it fits the northern narrative and his sense that Canada ought to nurture its myths and legends in order to build our sense of nationhood," a source said. "However, a large part of it is the genuine interest of a student of history."

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According to a 1997 deal between Britain and Canada, Canada is granted custody and control of the Franklin wrecks and their contents and will be granted ownership of much of what is recovered. However any gold found must be shared equally with London aside from coins deemed to be privately owned or claimed by third parties. And Canada must offer to London any items of "outstanding significance to the Royal Navy."

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Steven Chase has covered federal politics in Ottawa for The Globe since mid-2001, arriving there a few months before 9/11. He previously worked in the paper's Vancouver and Calgary bureaus. Prior to that, he reported on Alberta politics for the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun, and on national issues for Alberta Report. More

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