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A sea floor scan reveals one of the missing ships from the Franklin Expedition in an image released in Ottawa on Tuesday September 9, 2014.PARKS CANADA

The federal government has found one of the ill-fated Franklin Expedition ships lost in the Arctic nearly 170 years ago, a discovery Prime Minister Stephen Harper says has solved "one of Canada's greatest mysteries."

Sir John Franklin's effort to map and navigate the Northwest Passage for Britain foundered after his ships became locked in ice.

The Canadian government says the find was confirmed Sunday using a remotely-operated underwater vehicle owned by Parks Canada.

Ottawa says it doesn't know whether the vessel is HMS Erebus or HMS Terror, the two British naval vessels lost in 1846, but they have accumulated enough evidence to confirm the find is authentic.

The failure of the Franklin Expedition in the mid-19th century was a major event in the United Kingdom, perhaps akin to a moon landing gone wrong today.

A series of recovery missions that followed produced a major benefit for future generations: British explorers mapped significant portions of the Arctic during their hunt for the Franklin ships – data that underpinned charts of the region for a long time.

The Harper government has made finding the Franklin ships a top priority and poured millions of dollars into successive hunts for the wrecks.

While it might seem like an esoteric endeavour to some Canadians, Mr. Harper has considered it important for Canada to find the Franklin ships rather than private or foreign expeditions.

"This is truly a historic moment for Canada. Franklin's ships are an important part of Canadian history given that his expeditions, which took place nearly 200 years ago, laid the foundations of Canada's Arctic sovereignty," Mr. Harper said.

"I would like to congratulate and pay tribute to all partners involved in this year's momentous Victoria Strait Expedition, including Parks Canada, the Royal Canadian Geographical Society (RCGS), the Arctic Research Foundation (ARF), the Canadian Coast Guard (CCG), the Royal Canadian Navy and the Government of Nunavut," he said.

"This discovery would not have been possible without their tireless efforts over the years, as well as their commitment, dedication and the perseverance of the many partners and explorers involved."

Canada didn't assume control of the entire Arctic Archipelago at Confederation in 1867. The British government retained some islands and only handed the remaining territories over in 1880. By that time London had lost interest in the Arctic and the British admiralty had been dispirited by the disappearance of the Franklin ships and the failure of extensive hunts to find them.

"Since 2008, there have been six major Parks Canada-led searches for the lost Franklin Expedition ships, covering many hundreds of square kilometres of the Arctic seabed. It is gratifying that the ship's remains were found during the Government-supported 2014 Victoria Strait Expedition," Mr Harper said.

"Finding the first vessel will no doubt provide the momentum – or wind in our sails – necessary to locate its sister ship and find out even more about what happened to the Franklin Expedition's crew."

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