Bernier and Arctic Sovereignty

Joseph-Elzéar Bernier was Canada’s greatest seaman, a man of strong will and extraordinary ingenuity.

It is largely due to him that the Canadian flag now flies over the Arctic Archipelago.
Bernier was born into a seafaring family at L’Islet, Quebec, in 1852. He went to sea with his father at age 2 and by the age of only 17 he was master of the brigantine St. Joseph – the youngest skipper in the world. By 1895 he had made over 100 voyages across the Atlantic. But it was the Arctic that captured his imagination.

Ownership of the Arctic Islands was still an open question in the early 20th century. In July 1880 the British government had transferred its possessions in the Arctic to Canada, including “all Islands adjacent to any such Territories” whether discovered or not – a feeble claim, since the British had a dubious right to give Canada islands which had not yet been discovered, or which had been discovered by foreigners, or for that matter were inhabited by the Inuit.

Meanwhile, the Americans Adolphus Greely and Robert Peary (who in 1909 would claim to have reached the Pole) were particularly active around Ellesmere Island. Between 1898 and 1902 Otto Sverdrup discovered Axel Heiberg, Ellef Ringnes and Amund Ringnes islands – the first person (including the Inuit) to set foot on them. All his discoveries, he claimed for Norway.

Bernier's ship Arctic

Bernier tried unsuccessfully for many years to persuade a reluctant Canadian government to support an expedition to secure Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic. In 1903 a dispute over the Alaskan/Canadian boundary, in which a long strip of land naturally belonging to the coast of British Columbia was awarded to the US, seemed to raise sensitivities in Ottawa.

Finally, Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier agreed to fund an expedition to the North Pole. Bernier purchased a German ship, renamed it the Arctic and made meticulous preparations. At the last minute the expedition was diverted to a minor policing expedition to Hudson Bay. A disappointed Bernier persisted and at last on July 28, 1908 the Arctic slipped from its wharf in Quebec City and began its historic voyage.

In many of the most remote locations on earth, Bernier and his crew repeated the same ritual. They would anchor the Arctic as close to shore as possible and then make their way ashore in a longboat. They would find a high point on a hill or rise, and under a cairn of stone bury a metal box containing a proclamation claiming the land for Canada. Finally, they would centre a pole and raise the Union Jack.

By the end of the summer Bernier had claimed most of the remaining Arctic islands, except for Banks and Victoria. From his base on Winter Harbour, Melville Island, in April 1909 he sent Jules Morin and 16 others across the treacherous ice to Banks Island. Tortured by extreme cold, snow blindness and starvation, and blocked by impassable ice and blizzards, Morin returned to tell Bernier that he had left an affirmation on Banks Island but not on Victoria. With a heavy heart, Bernier sent him back, for his mandate was to claim every island.

During his career Bernier commanded over 100 ships. He knew more about navigating the difficult arctic waters than any contemporary mariner.

As his crowning touch, on July 1, 1909 Bernier and the entire ship’s company trooped up to Parry’s Rock, on Melville Island. The chief engineer carried a bronze plaque which he had spent the winter engraving. Bernier read solemnly from the plaque: “This memorial is erected today to commemorate the taking possession for the Dominion of Canada of the whole Arctic Archipelago.” Now, Canada claimed the entire territory from Yukon to Baffin Land, all the way to the North Pole.

But flag waving and plaques were not enough. The Canadian government established North West Mounted Police posts at Herschel Island, Craig Harbour, Pangnirtung and Dundas Harbour. In 1931 Norway formally abandoned its claim to the Arctic islands. The US has not, however. In 1969 it sent the tanker Manhattan through northern waters without seeking permission and in 1985 the Polar Sea. While Canadians sing that they stand on guard for the “True North, strong and free,” they have yet to show real commitment to doing so.

James H. Marsh is the editor in chief of The Canadian Encyclopedia.

The Canadian Encyclopedia Copyright © James H Marsh

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