With the location by Parks Canada archaeologists of HMS Investigator, an important discovery vessel from the great age of Arctic exploration, and in the context of its support for the current hunt for the real prize, HMS Erebus and/or HMS Terror, of the 1845-48 British Arctic Expedition, the Canadian government is making an eloquent and populist statement about northern sovereignty.
Investigator, commanded by Capt. Robert McClure, a British explorer sometimes credited with discovering the Northwest Passage, was trapped by ice in Mercy Bay off Banks Island, and abandoned in 1853. The ship's location by the government researchers underlines the "essential heritage" of Canada's sovereignty in the High Arctic, inherited from Britain, said Environment Minister Jim Prentice.
Mr. Prentice said it emphasizes the fact that the Passage is a Canadian waterway, integral to Canada's history. "It's an important find in that regard," he said. "This vessel has been discovered here immediately adjacent to a Canadian national park. It's obviously an element of Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic."
Mr. Prentice, and his government, deserve credit for seeking to make Canadian sovereignty more than a legalistic dispute over interpretation of the Law of the Sea, or a question of unsettled boundary issues with the United States and Denmark, to be haggled over by bureaucrats.
By making a direct link between British polar endeavour in the Arctic, and Canada's inheritance of that adventurous legacy, the government is both giving the country a needed history lesson and reasserting sovereignty in a language everyone can understand.
The Franklin expedition vessels, Erebus and Terror, rate among the most important wrecks in the world. There is a real possibility that locating either would represent more than just an underwater trophy, and could cast some light on Sir John Franklin's ill-fated expedition, and the deaths of the 129 officers and crewmen. But more than that, it would excite public interest in Canada's North, and build public support for the government's strenuous assertion of Canadian sovereignty over the Arctic.
The day may yet come that public interest will grow beyond the Franklin era of exploration, too. The exploration of the Canadian Arctic was not confined to British geographical accomplishments and claims, and explorers like the mariner Joseph-Elzéar Bernier, geologist Charles Camsell, ethnologist Vilhjalmur Stefansson and anthropologist Diamond Jenness should be as well-known as Franklin.