Why Should We Care About the Erebus (or Terror)?

by Tina Adcock

On the morning of Tuesday, September 9th, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced some unexpected and astounding news: that the wreckage of one of Sir John Franklin’s ships, either the Erebus or the Terror, had been located via sonar on the bottom of Queen Maud Gulf, which lies southwest of King William Island in Nunavut. In 1845, Franklin, a captain of the Royal Navy, led a crew of 128 in search of the Northwest Passage. All later died in circumstances that remain unclear to this day, despite many British, American, and Canadian searches over the last century and a half for evidence regarding the expedition’s fate. Locating one of the ships was a major triumph for the latest band of searchers, a coalition of public and private agencies led by Parks Canada that had travelled north on a near-yearly basis since 2008.

The Prime Minister declared this “a great historic event… a really important day in mapping together the history of our country.” So-called historic events provide good opportunities for historians to observe how our fellow citizens react to the history in question. I study northern exploration, and so I was more than a little interested in the reception of this particular news. Here I’d like to trace and explain one of the principal responses that emerged on conventional and social media websites that day.

My attention was caught by those who saw the announcement, and shrugged. “Who cares?” they said, in tweets and comments underneath articles. This sentiment was apparent even among groups who might be expected to care, for reasons of profession or location. Some historians and archaeologists, for example, were not particularly enthusiastic about the news:

Some seized this moment of public interest in history to suggest other northern or archaeological topics more deserving of people’s attention:

Some northern residents and southerners with northern experience reacted with similar coolness. They, too, redirected the public gaze toward issues they considered more significant:

As the day wore on and the chorus of “so what?” grew louder, certain journalists and popular historians did their best to convince Canadians of the importance of this find. But the very need for these arguments exposed the core issue all the more insistently:

It wasn’t that nobody out there cared. Some people reacted with excitement, and even with patriotic pride. But the disinclination of others to follow the implicit script — or, in critics’ words, to “get over themselves”– deserves some consideration. The finding of the Erebus (or Terror) has become the latest episode in a larger national debate over the Conservative government’s vision of Canada. It exposes the growing public disenchantment and disagreement with that vision, and with the politicians espousing it.

As the historian Janice Cavell has shown, Canada’s history of exploration has long been yoked to narratives of nation-building and patriotic citizenship. Early twentieth-century writers revered brave and hardy English explorers like Franklin as heroic exemplars of Canada’s glorious imperial past. In the 1960s, such narratives began to fall out of favour. Since that time, Canadian authors have tended to privilege explorers like Samuel Hearne or John Rae, whose styles of exploration are more palatable to postcolonial sensibilities. These men learned from and worked with, rather than against aboriginal modes of life and travel, as well as Canada’s unique landscape and climate.

Nation-building was indeed mentioned last Tuesday — not by the Prime Minister, but by Jim Balsillie, the co-CEO of Research in Motion and a lead supporter of the search. Calling the finding of the ship a “tremendous catalyst of nation-building,” Balsillie hoped that it would spur Canadians to learn about and engage with the North.

At first glance, the figure of the explorer is trickier to locate. In the coverage surrounding last Tuesday’s announcement, Franklin himself is scarcely discussed. The real explorer of interest here is a self-styled one: the Prime Minister himself. Those who know Harper well confirm his genuine and deep fascination with the Franklin expedition. This summer, he’s quietly assumed the lead role in an old-fashioned romantic quest narrative, in which masculine explorers conquer the wilderness and are celebrated for their strength and determination. Both he and his fellow Euro-Canadian explorers – all men (of course) – have been photographed in classic exploratory poses: alone at the prow of a ship, or posed in cold-weather gear against icy backdrops. As prime minister, Harper demonstrated the political strength to marshal and redeploy federal resources toward the present long-term search, and the determination to persevere in what seemed like an increasingly futile task.

Last Tuesday, Harper’s ship came in: he emerged triumphantly from this self-imposed quest. He announced the ship’s discovery against the backdrop of a map of Canada with the words “A Strong Canada / Un Canada Fort” stamped all over it. It’s not difficult to grasp the intended message: this latter-day explorer has braved the Arctic, found tangible evidence of the Franklin expedition, and thus secured Canada’s claim to the Northwest Passage against foreign interlopers.

Yet Harper, a deeply polarizing figure in contemporary Canada, did not receive a hero’s welcome. For some, his prominent role in that morning’s press conference politicized the expedition’s findings, such that the achievement was ineluctably partisan. As one commenter on a CBC article observed, “It’s a real shame that one has to feel cynicism and sadness about an otherwise happy historical event such as this one. Unfortunately cynicism has proven to be justified with the Harper government.” The current search for Franklin ticks all the government’s favourite thematic boxes: the military, the monarchy, and the (country’s) nordicity or northernness. It helps further the larger Conservative project of recasting Canadian history so as to emphasize these qualities and de-emphasize others more readily associated with a Liberal worldview, in the service of building what Ian McKay and Jamie Swift have called the “warrior nation.” As Yasmeen Abu-Laban has recently argued, this is nothing less than “a conscious, explicit, and top-down effort to reshape the public symbols and representations of Canadian history, citizenship, and identity.”

This is why many Canadians didn’t respond with unalloyed delight to the Prime Minister’s announcement. Instead, they seized upon the opportunity to expose the government’s hypocrisy, pointing out how the Franklin search differed markedly from the Conservative party’s usual approach to science and history:

Other commentators foregrounded different perspectives, particularly aboriginal ones. Possibly the most common response to the announcement was to pay tribute to the crucial role that Inuit oral histories played in helping searchers locate the vessel:

When seeking to understand the collective reaction to the finding of Franklin’s ship, we must not rush to diagnose Canadians with historical ignorance or civic apathy (or even with parochiality, as one editorial writer charged). Even as they were responding to this news, Canadians were simultaneously debating the merits of this particular nation-building project. As they chimed in with interpretations and suggestions of their own, they were also describing the kind of society in which they wish to live, and the place of the North, aboriginal peoples, science, and history in that as-yet-unrealized country.

In the spirit of continuing this conversation, I’ll give McMaster historian Ian Mosby the final word. Here is his much-shared vision of how another government might have reacted to last Tuesday’s news:

Tina Adcock is an assistant professor of history at Simon Fraser University. She tweets about the North, among other things, at @TinaAdcock.

6 thoughts on “Why Should We Care About the Erebus (or Terror)?

  1. I’m teaching The Practice of History for the first time. It’s a second year course at the University of Calgary. The students are divided into groups (named after historians) to discuss documents and methodology. The groups also give a presentation on an Active History post and explain how the author is (borrowing from Tosh) “thinking with history” to understand the present.

    The Portelli group bravely volunteered to go first and chose this article. After we listened to Stan Rogers (I thought they should know this classic!), the group explained how Adock’s research on Northern exploration informed her interest in the ambivalence of many professional historians compared to the excitement not only the Prime Minister but many Canadians. (This worked well because we also discussed Ranke today). They also discussed Inuit oral histories, social inequality in the North, and funding cuts to Parks Canada and scientific research.

    One presenter asked the class if the discovery mattered or if the politics surrounding the search made the discovery matter. The class had interesting ideas about the use of private and taxpayer money in this expedition. One student said that this article is a good demonstration of how what historians think is important can be quite different from popular historical narratives. On an optimistic note, they hoped that this discovery – and the controversy about its importance – might make more people understand the importance of Inuit oral traditions. One student also hoped that this story would make more people aware of the poor social conditions in indigenous communities and make them care about social issues that too many people ignore.

    Lesson: Active History is inspires great classroom discussions.

  2. Hi Nancy,

    Great to hear of one way in which the content here at ActiveHistory.ca can be used for classroom discussion. The conversation speaks to the great post here by Tina.

    Thanks!

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