Prime Minister Stephen Harper may have been stretching a point when he said that the Franklin expedition "laid the foundations of Canada's Arctic sovereignty," in announcing the discovery of one of Sir John Franklin's two lost ships.
But Mr. Harper's words contained a harshly ironic truth. Of all the British sailors who tried in vain to navigate through the Arctic Archipelago to the Pacific, Franklin and his crew have left the deepest impression, because their ending was so tragic and mysterious.
Claims to territory have usually been based on conquest, purchase or sheer length of time of living somewhere. Often, claims have been made on the basis that that the land is empty – often falsely.
Franklin was not trying to build a settlement. He was trying to find a route to somewhere else – Asia, by way of the Northwest Passage. Instead, this middle-aged man past his prime couldn't leave. He was trapped, as in a bad dream.
It was at least appropriate that his ships were named Terror and Erebus, the latter being an ancient Greek word for an especially dark darkness.
Insofar as Franklin laid foundations, he had no choice. In contrast, the colonial officials who used to draw lines on maps showing vast swaths of territory left something more substantial. Canada obtained its claim to the Arctic Archipelago as tacked-on "islands adjacent," included with Rupert's Land, the Hudson's Bay Company territories, when Britain transferred them to Canada. But Franklin and his men – evidence of cannibalism and all – are still remembered, long after those colonial officials have faded into obscurity.
In the years after Franklin's disappearance, he was far more famous in England than in Canada, but Canadians – Stan Rogers in his song North West Passage, Margaret Atwood in Strange Things: The Malevolent North in Canadian Literature, Mordecai Richler's Solomon Gursky Was Here – have done a reverse takeover. There is or was something about the darkest dark of Franklin's end that resonates with something in the Canadian psyche. Mr. Harper is right after all: The Franklin expedition may not have made the actual Canada, but it shaped and reflected the culture of the place. It was not a story about Canadians, but it became a fundamental Canadian story.