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From right, Jim Balsillie, John Geiger, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Captain Paul Smith, onboard the HMCS Kingston, off the coast of Pond Inlet, in August.Neve Peric

In 2009, the man who helped ignite the smartphone revolution found himself aboard a ship traversing some of the most remote straits of the Northwest Passage.

When the vessel passed King William Island, a desolate land mass in the central Arctic, Jim Balsillie and a team of polar experts accompanying him noticed other ships nearby. It was clear they were looking for the wrecks of Sir John Franklin's lost ships, the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus.

A veteran officer, Franklin set out to chart the Northwest Passage in 1845 and never returned. The expedition's disappearance was seen as a disaster for Britain's proud navy, and shame turned to scandal when early searchers reported that some of Franklin's crew had survived by eating the corpses of their fellow sailors. While explorers later retrieved many artifacts and bones on King William Island, the ships themselves were never found.

The risk of having another country locate the vessels "was an enormous concern. We needed to be the nation that finds them," Mr. Balsillie recalled Wednesday of that initial eye-opening journey in an interview with The Globe and Mail.

Upon his return, the Research In Motion co-founder began to work behind the scenes to ensure that a Canadian search team would make that discovery – a five-year project that culminated with this week's find.

Since 1997, private and Parks Canada teams had been trying to locate the ships, primarily using clues gleaned from century-old Inuit oral testimony. But those efforts had been hampered by a lack of resources and short search windows due to inclement conditions and nearly year-round sea ice cover.

Through the Arctic Research Foundation, a charity he helped establish with veteran Arctic expert Martin Bergmann, Mr. Balsillie put up funds to buy a dedicated search vessel and state-of-the-art search equipment. (Mr. Bergmann died in a plane crash in 2011.) Mr. Balsillie and other foundation officials also pressed news organizations to pay more attention to the search efforts.

Most crucially, Mr. Balsillie used his contacts with the Prime Minister's Office to persuade Ottawa to commit additional naval and coast guard ships capable of travelling longer distances, as well as technical support from hydrographic and satellite-mapping scientists. "Let's just be professional and take a systematic approach," he told top officials in the Conservative government. "You'd be surprised by how quickly things could happen, even though it's a forbidding environment and hard to get to."

CBC anchor Peter Mansbridge, who sits on the ARF board, says Mr. Balsillie became "totally hooked" on the Arctic after that initial journey in 2009 and decided to focus his philanthropy on the Franklin search efforts as well as Arctic communities. "I've seen him in some of the meetings with all the different partners and he's not shy. But he's not looking for glory. He's just there in the background."

Mr. Balsillie, who recalls learning about the Franklin story as a child in school and then through the lyrics of the famous Stan Rogers song, Northwest Passage, was thrilled with the global headlines touting the Canadian find this week. But his view of the mission goes far beyond the curiosity value of locating a missing shipwreck.

He said that he has long seen "parallel narratives" between the way the British viewed the Arctic in the mid-19th century and the issues facing the region today. Then and now, scientific, commercial and geopolitical questions hover over the fate of the Arctic, which has been deeply affected by global warming, receding sea ice and the race to tap new energy resources on the ocean floor. "It's remarkably similar," observed Mr. Balsillie, whose interest in global governance issues led him to begin thinking about the Arctic in 2007.

Echoing Prime Minister Stephen Harper, he also sees the Franklin find as a "nation-building" exercise, something he feels is lacking in the country these days, apart from projects such as Own the Podium.

"I don't think we do enough of it."

The dramatic discovery of the Franklin ship, in his view, could lead to increased public education about Canada's polar region, more tourism and commerce, and a strengthening of Canada's sovereign claims. "The Arctic narrative is deeply resonant with Canadians," he said. "My goodness, there is a lot to learn."