Stephen Harper and his Conservative government are no closer to solving the mystery of Sir John Franklin's lost ships despite three years and $225,000 worth of searching in frigid Arctic waters.
A rusty musket circa 1842, soles from a pair of 19th-century shoes – whose significance, scientists say, is that they contain rubber for waterproofing (an early version of Wellington boots) – are among a few artifacts Parks Canada has to show for its efforts.
Even then, these items, recovered in July and some still lying in saltwater at a Parks Canada facility in Ottawa, are from the deck of HMS Investigator – the ship that was sent out later to try to find the two missing Franklin ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror. A well-preserved tin can was found on land at "McClure's Cache," named after Robert McClure, the Investigator's captain.
The items, many recovered after more than 100 dives into the cold Arctic waters, still do not provide any real clues to unravelling the Franklin mystery. But Environment Minister Peter Kent claims Canadians are now that much closer to finding the storied ships.
"Unfortunately, we have not yet found those fabled vessels," he told reporters at a news conference Thursday. "But in our search this year we surveyed and mapped a large expanse of uncharted waters of Canada's Arctic, and we now know much more than before of the ocean bed in and around Alexandra Strait, which is an important alternative route in the Northwest Passage."
He added: "And having explored these regions and ruled them out as potential sites of the lost vessels, we are yet another step closer to uncovering the mystery of the lost Franklin expedition."
A step closer, according to his argument, because the government team was able to survey 140 square kilometres this summer, which is in addition to the 150 square kilometres surveyed last year and the 65 square kilometres in 2008, the first year of the government's three-year commitment to finding the lost ships.
But that is hardly a dent, considering the vastness of the region.
The disappearance of the Franklin vessels has fascinated historians, explorers and adventurers for more than a century. Sir John Franklin launched his expedition to search for the passage in May, 1845. He left with the two ships, 129 crew members – and then vanished.
In 2008, the Harper government announced it was committing funds and resources to find the Franklin ships – part of its focus on Canada's history and its defence of Arctic sovereignty and the Northwest Passage. Mr. Kent did not shy away from these themes Thursday, saying the summer expedition had "reinforced Canada's presence in the Arctic waters" and "showing the flag is the fundamental requirement of maintaining sovereignty."
Still, he could not be clear about future commitments. He said finding the ships is an "ongoing project" – but his answer came with a number of qualifications: "It's a matter of again formalizing among the partners when the next specific expedition will be mounted, with what resources and where precisely."
This means that the Harper cabinet has not yet approved funding for the expedition to continue, and there is no commitment as to whether it will be for another three years.
Parks Canada had worked with other government partners, including the Canadian Coast Guard, and academic partners, such as the University of Victoria, on the project.