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Franklin ships ownership transfer likely weeks away

The Government of Canada is expected to announce official Canadian possession of the Franklin shipwrecks by the end of April, according to the chair of the Franklin Interim Advisory Committee.

A commemorative plaque for the Franklin ships Erebus and Terror was unveiled in Gjoa Haven last September. The inscription reads, in part: "Inuit knowledge provided clues about the fate of the Franklin expedition and helped search teams locate the wrecks in 2014 and 2016." From left, Parks Canada CEO Daniel Watson, the late Gjoa Haven historian Louie Kamookak, Jacob Keanik of the Franklin Interim Advisory Committee and Gjoa Haven Mayor Joanni Sallerina.
photo courtesy of Parks Canada

"From my understanding it's somewhere just before the end of April there will be an announcement made. Canada and Great Britain have come to an agreement and the announcement will be made at the end of this month," Fred Pedersen said on April 12.

The conclusion of an Inuit Impact Benefit Agreement (IIBA) with Parks Canada for the Franklin national historic sites will likely follow this summer, added Pedersen, one of four Nunavummiut on the seven-person IIBA negotiations committee.

"We were hoping it would be done by now," he said. "Sometimes these things can't be helped and they take a little bit longer than we expected. But I think the KIA (Kitikmeot Inuit Association) is pleased that the negotiation on the ownership of the (Franklin) artifacts is basically done and as soon as the announcement is made then joint ownership between Canada and the Inuit Heritage Trust will happen. We're pleased that Inuit will have joint ownership of all the artifacts."

The British government announced in October that it would transfer ownership of the Franklin wrecks HMS Erebus and HMS Terror to Canada.

Parks Canada spokesperson Meaghan Bradley didn't provide a date for the official transfer of the Franklin ships, but she did acknowledge that the deal should be made official "in the near future."

"Details pertaining to the artifact transfer are currently being finalized," stated Bradley, a communications officer with Parks Canada. "Parks Canada and the Inuit Heritage Trust will jointly make decisions related to the artifacts once transferred from the UK, including where the artifacts are stored and presented."

Thousands more artifacts

Bradley said Parks Canada believes there are potentially thousands of artifacts remaining on the wrecks, which could help further unravel the mysteries surrounding the tragic fate of the Franklin expedition. Parks Canada's plans for summer dives at the wreckage sites are still being decided, she said.

One location where the Erebus and Terror artifacts will be exhibited is the Nattilik Heritage Centre in Gjoa Haven, the community closest to the wrecks. There are plans to expand Gjoa Haven's heritage centre to more than double its current size – part of a $16.9-million, five-year arrangement supported by the Government of Canada – but Bradley said construction of the building's addition won't begin until after the IIBA is completed. Negotiations, design and construction are anticipated to take close to three years, she noted.

In the meantime, "Parks Canada will focus on working with the community of Gjoa Haven to develop and deliver various programs in and around the Nattilik Heritage Centre, such as the second Umiyaqtutt Festival (Sept. 2-10), visits from cruise ships, and opportunities to view artifacts from the wreck of HMS Erebus," said Bradley.

Gjoa Haven Mayor Joanni Sallerina said he and residents of his community are "trying to be patient" in regards to expansion of the Nattalik Heritage Centre.

"I don't think we really have any choice," he said, acknowledging that the funding from Ottawa is essential. "We want this done right because it's going to be here for a long period of time."

Sallerina added that university students have been applying for research permits to look for Franklin artifacts on King William Island as well, including Franklin's remains, which have yet to be discovered.

The Terror was found just off the coast of King William Island in 2016 while the Erebus, detected in 2014, rests in the eastern Queen Maud Gulf, close to the mainland. The vessels became lodged in Arctic ice in 1846 and eventually sank while attempting to traverse the Northwest Passage for Britain. All 129 crew members ultimately perished.