Skip to main content

Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced last year that the Canadian search team found the wreck of one of two lost ships from Franklin’s doomed 1845 expedition in search of a Northwest Passage, then again announced weeks later the ship was in fact HMS Erebus.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

It was billed as a moment of triumph for modern Canadian science and a keystone of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Arctic sovereignty legacy.

But less than one year after the discovery of the HMS Erebus in its watery Arctic grave, the public-private partnership formed to locate John Franklin's doomed flagship has descended into a fractious fight over credit for the find.

In late April, philanthropist Jim Balsillie, whose Arctic Research Foundation was instrumental in the search, sent a letter to Leona Aglukkaq, the Minister of the Environment, saying he was "troubled that Canadian history is not being presented accurately" in a documentary that aired on CBC's The Nature of Things that month. He was upset that the program "creates new and exaggerated narratives for the exclusive benefit of the Royal Canadian Geographic Society."

Mr. Balsillie said he was dispirited that the Prime Minister and public agencies seemed to take a back seat. "Government partners, in particular the Government of Nunavut, Canadian Hydrographic Service and the Canadian Coast Guard are shown as supporting players to RCGS and [the Russian vessel] Akademik Sergey Vavilov when the opposite is true."

"Having been involved with the project since 2008 I can attest to the fact that these and many other government agencies and departments have been providing key leadership, expertise and support in the search for Franklin's ship for years," the letter continues.

The partnership comprised eight government agencies including Parks Canada, as well as the privately funded Arctic Research Foundation, the RCGS, the W. Garfield Weston Foundation, Shell Canada and One Ocean Expeditions.

Mr. Balsillie, former co-chief executive of BlackBerry maker Research in Motion, has said he sent a copy of his letter to the Prime Minister's Office but has not received a reply. He declined a request from The Globe and Mail for comment.

On Wednesday, John Geiger, the CEO of the society, was awarded a Polar Medal for what Governor-General David Johnston's office called his "essential role in the success of the 2014 Victoria Strait Expedition." Three others – a Parks Canada archeologist, an Inuit historian and the government of Nunavut's director of heritage – received the same honour.

On Wednesday, a high-profile journalist said he had quit the Toronto Star over editorial interference in his attempts to report on the dispute.

Paul Watson, a Toronto Star journalist based in Vancouver who had been on the lead exploration ship, CCGS Sir Wilfrid Laurier, last September, said that when he attempted to ask Mr. Geiger in May about his involvement in the search, his editors began asking questions and throwing up roadblocks. In an interview with The Globe on Wednesday, Mr. Watson said a Star editor sent him an e-mail in late May that read, in part, "We require you to cease all reporting related to John Geiger."

"I knew I had a story when they ordered me to stop reporting," said Mr. Watson, who won a 1994 Pulitzer Prize for photography.

On Tuesday, Mr. Watson had a brief meeting in Vancouver with The Star's editor-in-chief Michael Cooke, executive editor Paul Woods and one of the paper's human-resources representatives during which he said he told them again about the story he was working on. According to Mr. Watson, Mr. Cooke said the paper was not interested. Mr. Watson resigned and took to his blog to announce that he had quit because the paper refused "to publish a story of significant public interest."

On Wednesday afternoon, a Star spokesperson disputed that notion. "There is no truth whatsoever to the suggestion that the Toronto Star was constraining his reporting or refusing to publish a story of significant public interest," Bob Hepburn said. He would not discuss details, citing company policy on personnel matters.

Mr. Watson told The Globe he and others were disturbed by the way the announcement of the Franklin ship's discovery last September was stage-managed by the Prime Minister's Office. Mr. Geiger, a former editor of The Globe and Mail's editorial board who became CEO of the RCGS in 2013, became a lead media spokesperson for the search in the days after the discovery.

Mr. Watson says he has spoken with many public servants "who are upset with the way that this unfolded allowed distortions and untruths to ruin the historical record."

A former Conservative government official suggested Mr. Geiger may in fact deserve more credit than his critics allow, noting that the RCGS CEO had given advice that shifted the focus of Parks Canada's initial search in the incorrect area. Still, that advice was also inaccurate. "It turns out ... that the actual location wasn't where Parks Canada or Geiger thought it was. It was where the Inuit oral history had said it was. They're the actual heroes here," the former official said.

On Wednesday, Mr. Watson admitted he did not yet know the full story. But he is pursuing it now and expects to publish it in a major Canadian outlet. "Everyone says, I don't really get this," he said in the interview. "I don't get this, either. But if you pull enough threads, it'll start to unravel."

With a report from Steven Chase