Amy Dempsey of the Toronto Star called this unique federal government and private sector achievement “Canada’s moon shot.” For William Bathersby, a Franklin historian, it was “the greatest archaeological discovery since the opening of King Tut’s tomb.”
Prime Minister Harper labelled it “a truly historic moment for Canada.” When he announced the news on September 9, 2014, the story spread like wildfire across the globe. Parks Canada’s media team compiled an astonishing 500 plus articles written in 33 different languages and originating from 66 countries.
After almost 170 years, one of the long-lost vessels of Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated 1845 expedition sent to discover the Northwest Passage had finally been found!
Although it is difficult, and obviously premature, to gauge how this discovery will go down in history, what is certain is that it was a true Canadian success story. The history buffs who followed the recent search for the ships know that the Eureka moment came after six long years, six grueling field campaigns that saw an increasing constellation of partners from government departments and agencies of various levels, academic institutions and the private sector.
Why did the search captivate so many? It is hard to pin-point the definitive answer. A story of human exploration, hubris and tragedy with the unforgiving beauty of the Arctic as a backdrop, the humbling perspective of the Inuit accounts, and certainly a mystery that many thought would never be solved are all factors that kept people interested in the search.
But to the question of why the discovery is generating such a flow of enthusiasm in Canada, the answer seems a little more obvious. A group of dedicated Canadian organizations and individuals accepted this imposing challenge in the most remote region of our country and delivered a successful result through selfless collaboration.
The search for the Franklin lost ships truly took a “Team Canada” approach, bringing in expertise and resources from a whole spectrum of interests all across the country. The original coalition of federal and territorial government departments assembled in 2008, and a number of other groups started to gravitate toward the project, gradually augmenting the surveying capacity. In 2011, the Arctic Research Foundation, spearheaded by Jim Balsile and Tim MacDonald, jumped in and supplied the research vessel, Martin Bergmann, which, in the end, surveyed the majority of the seafloor in the area where the wreck was found.
In 2012, the Ocean Technology Laboratory of the University of Victoria brought in its autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV). In 2014, the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, with its partners the W. Garfield Weston Foundation and Shell Canada, joined the team to develop a Canada-wide school curriculum to share not only the story of Franklin, but the science around the survey expeditions. In addition, their efforts brought in One Ocean Expeditions, a Canadian polar tourism company. Defence Research and Development Canada’s state-of-the-art AUV was in fact deployed from a One Ocean Expeditions’ vessel, the Arctic Explorer.
As for the federal coalition, it would be easier to list the departments and agencies with operational capacity who did not participate than those who did. The original band of three who took part in the initial 2008 project alongside the Government of Nunavut consisted of Parks Canada, the Canadian Coast Guard and Canadian Hydrographic Service (both of Fisheries and Oceans Canada). Eight other organizations from five different departments joined the survey program, each contributing their unique expertise: the Canadian Ice Service, the Canadian Space Agency, Environment Canada, Defence Research and Development Canada, the Department of National Defence with the Royal Canadian Navy and its Fleet Diving Unit Atlantic, Joint Task Force North, and the Geospatial Intelligence Directorate.
In fact, the involvement was so wide-spread throughout the federal government that in September, when the Clerk of the Privy Council created a special award to underline the outstanding contribution of members of the federal public service who directly participated in the discovery, the tally of the names of all federal employees to receive the award came up to 256. As the ceremony was to take place when most of the members of the search parties were still in the Arctic, one person had to be chosen as the federal coalition’s representative to receive the award at Rideau Hall from the Right Honourable David Johnston, Governor General of Canada.
There was no need to look too far for the appropriate candidate to represent the team. One person stood out as the obvious choice: Andrew Campbell, then Vice-President of External Relations and Visitor Experience at Parks Canada. If this group was Team Canada for the Franklin Search, then Andrew Campbell would certainly be its captain.
As the survey project found its stride and the number of partners increased, what started as a straight logistical challenge to get equipment and researchers “on the ground” became a strategic and political choreography. At the center of this dance was Campbell. Working for the most part in the shadow of the archaeologists, hydrographers and ship captains who ensured the delivery of the square kilometers of surveyed seascape, he managed the sometimes fragile relationships between partners. Campbell worked magic to incorporate new participants in the circle of seasoned collaborators and did his best to facilitate the apprenticeship of the participants of the private sector into the seemingly more rigid parameters of government operations. As for the federal departments, he worked closely with them to ensure that each could fulfill their own objectives within their respective organizational mandate, while navigating toward the common government goal.
In the end, this was about a lot more than just finding the lost ships of Sir John Franklin. An impressive array of achievements were compiled throughout the six seasons of collaborative effort. Over 1,500 square kilometres of bathymetric data was acquired from ships and planes, a new navigation corridor was opened in the Northwest Passage, more than 25 kilometres of shoreline was classified for the Emergency Spatial Pre-Shoreline Cleanup Assessment Project (eSpace), some 50 new archaeological sites were located on land, coastline imaging was created for the production of topographical maps, not to mention the opportunities taken to test state-of-the-art equipment in polar conditions and to train the staff of organizations new to the Arctic.
Above all, this was about Canadians working successfully in the Canadian Arctic, pooling resources, technology and expertise to produce results in our most challenging environment. As Alan Latourelle, CEO of Parks Canada, put it: “This discovery will change how the world sees Canada and the Arctic.”