The Franklin find: genuine history turned political theatre

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Since 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has authorized Parks Canada to spend millions of dollars on six polar searches for the wrecks of the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus – the two British, Hecla class bomb vessels that ferried the expedition of Captain Sir John Franklin to its watery grave 169 years ago.

On Tuesday, having heard that one of those ships (no word yet on which one)  had been found resting under barely 11 meters of the Victoria Straight, off the coast of King William Island, far from the fabled Northwest Passage it and its sister ship had been commissioned to sail, Mr. Harper might have body-checked his own mother had she been blocking his access to a microphone.

“For more than a century this has been a great Canadian story, a mystery; it’s been the subject of scientists and historians, writers and singers,” he fairly giggled before a hastily arranged press conference in Ottawa. “So, I think we have a really important day in mapping together the history of our country.”

Indeed, as he reminded his fellow Canadians last month at the height of one of Parks Canada’s annual hunts for all things Franklin-rated, this “ultimately isn’t just about the story of discovery and mystery and all these things. It’s also really is laying the basis for what’s, in the longer term, Canadian sovereignty.”

In fact, on the face of it, Mr. Harper’s enthusiasm is both endearing and justified; amateur and professional historians owe him an enormous debt of gratitude. The find does, indeed, solve many mysteries, even as it will almost certainly raise tantalizing questions to vex and titillate scholars for years to come.

But does it really have anything to do with Canadian sovereignty, as Mr, Harper claims? According to at least one authority, that’s stretching the truth almost to breaking.

“The discovery of two historical wrecks from the 1840s that sailed under the authority of Britain before Canada was even a state doesn’t really extend our claims of control over the waters of the Northwest Passage,” Rob Huebert, associate director of the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary, told the National Post. “This myth just had another chapter added,” he further commented for the Globe and Mail.

What it does do, however, is send another message to the international community – notably Russia and the U.S. – that Canada’s claims to Arctic region are historically valid, if that was ever in doubt.

It also ensures, as Mr. Huebert points out, that “the Arctic is going to be one of his (Mr. Harper’s) major legacies when people look back on his leadership period.”

In the broader sense, the Prime Minister’s interest in, and willingness to support, ventures like the search for Franklin repudiates some of the harsher criticism of him as a by-the-books politician with little or no interest in research and science. It all depends on what research and which science we’re talking about.

The Globe and Mail’s lead editorial yesterday congratulated the Harper regime for demonstrating both leadership and collaboration – qualities that, at least, helped searchers find the wreck – even as it castigated certain government members for cracking down on researchers who go off message.

Remember, the piece instructed readers, “The government that allowed journalists open access to the scientists looking for the Franklin ships is the same one that has routinely gagged government scientists since taking power. It is now impossible in Canada for a reporter to speak with a federal scientist without going through media relations officers, a lengthy and often fruitless process. The policy has been condemned  by the British scientific journal Nature and the American Association for the Advancement of Science”

How, one wonders, has that worked out for them?

Nope, unless some crafty spin doctor with a soft spot for unfettered free speech, environmental stewardship, and basic research for the sake of basic research can figure out a way to dramatize all science to good Conservative Party effect, this prime minister’s interest in science, while genuine, will remain politically discriminating.

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