By William Barr, The Globe and Mail, 27 June, 2009, Focus, p. F3
Given its desolate surroundings, Parry’s Rock is hard to miss – a four-metre high block of sandstone dropped by a glacier on the south shore of Melville Island and named for the British sailor who first explored the area an inscribed his name on it.
But Canadian also should know that this is where 34 men gathered on July 1, 1909 for a group photograph in fort of a bronze plaque they had attached to Parry’s Rock to show that they had laid claim to “the whole Arctic archipelago” on behalf of the “Dominion of Canada.”
The expedition was lead by one of this country’s forgotten heroes – a Quebec-born mariner and explorer named Joseph-Elzéar Bernier, whose dedication to the north now serves as the foundation for Canada’s claim to sovereignty in the Arctic.
That sovereignty was a burning issue a century ago and now that the melting ice pack is making Arctic waters ever more navigable, it is back in the headlines. Had Bernier not laid his claim, and made several other voyages as a representative of the federal government, the geopolitical configuration of the North might be quite different today.
On paper, the Arctic islands had been transferred to Canada by an Imperial Order in Council as of Sept. 1, 1880. Wisely, the British kept the wording vague because the full extent of the archipelago was unknown. Still undiscovered were such major islands as Axel Heiberg, Amund Ringnes, Ellef Rignes, King Christian, Brock, Borden, Mackenzie King, Lougheed and Meighen.
For 20 years after being given the region, Canada ignored it. Then, toward the end of the century, alarm bells rang in Ottawa following a series of foreign incursions.
From 1898 to 1902, U.S. polar explorer Robert Peary spent his winters on Ellesmere Island, just north of Baffin Island. He, like Roald Amundsen, the Norwegian who began his historic transit of the Northwest Passage in 1903 and made no territorial claims. But another Norwegian explorer, Otto Sverdrup, discovered and explored four big islands – Axel Heiberg, Amund Ringnes, Ellef Ringnes and King Christian – and claimed them for his homeland.
All this northern traffic spurred Wilfrid Laurier, who had become prime minister in 1896, to action. First, A.P. Low of the Geological Survey of Canada landed at Cape Herschel on Ellesmere and took “formal possession” for Canada. But it was Bernier who mounted the most extensive campaign to reinforce Canada’s dominion over the Arctic.
He had already proved himself a remarkable character. Born to a long line of seafarers in L’Islet-sur-Mer on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River east of Quebec City, he had gone to sea at 14 and become captain just three years later. While employed delivering Quebec-built sailing ships to British owner, he frequently made the transatlantic crossing in record time.
His passion for the Arctic seems to have begun in 1871, when he was 19 and happened to be in Connecticut when U.S. explorer Charles Francis Hall left in search of the North Pole. Hall didn’t survive the voyage, but northern navigation became Bernier’s primary interest and, for many years, he sought Ottawa’s support in his quest to conquer the pole for Canada.
Instead he was enlisted by Laurier to help secure the islands, and in 1906 (the year Amundsen completed his trip through the passage) made the first of three treks aboard C.G.S. Arctic,
He conducted several ceremonies to assert Canadian sovereignty over various parts of the archipelago, with the one in 1909 – just three months after Peary claimed to have reached the pole – designed to sum up all the others in case any islands had slipped through his net.
As well, being an official fisheries officer, Bernier issued licences and exacted fees from any foreign whalers he encountered – tangible evidence of Canadian control of the Arctic.
Later, he made three private expeditions to Baffin Island, where he operated trading posts and purchased land from the Crown. He also obtained a licence to mine coal on Pond Inlet in 1914 and filed a mining claim on Admiralty Inlet. All these activities became powerful demonstrations of Canadian sovereignty.
As a result, sovereignty claims to land areas have, with a few minor exceptions, long been settled. But conflict could arise over the Arctic seas, seabed and continental shelves, and Bernier’s activities again will have considerable bearing because sovereignty over the waters and seabed is determined by sovereignty over the islands.
For example, Canada and the United States are at odds over whether the Northwest Passage should be considered international waters and what should happen to the border between Alaska and the Northwest Territories once it heads out in the hydrocarbon-rich Beaufort Sea.
What’s more, the claims made by Otto Sverdrup could have proved very costly for Canada – predated those of Bernier and he repeatedly pressured Norway to uphold them.
Norway lost its bid for possession of eastern Greenland in 1933, when the International Court of Justice ruled in favour of Denmark. But had it appealed to the court over Sverdrup’s claims, a large chunk of what’s now known as the Queen Elizabeth Islands could very well be Norwegian – and allow Norway to claim a substantial area of the seabed to the north.
Luckily for the Canadians, this dispute was resolved in a “civilized” fashion. Norway formally recognized Canada’s title on Nov. 11, 1930, just weeks before the death of Sverdrup, who had been paid $67,000 by Ottawa for the maps, diaries and documents from his expedition.
By then, Bernier’s days also were numbered. He suffered a fatal heart attack on Christmas Eve, 1934, a week before his 83rd birthday. Forty years later, the Sverdrup Basin underlying the islands was found to contain at least 17.4 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 334 million barrels of oil – another good reason to thank the man who staked that claim at Parry’s Rock.
William Barr is a senior research associate with the Arctic Institute of North America at the University of Calgary. He also translated Joseph-Elzéar Bernier, Champion of Canadian Arctic Sovereignty, a biography by Quebec scholar Marjolaine Saint-Pierre to be published by Baraka Books and the Arctic Institute in September.