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Canada, Britain, and the Inuit Are Fighting Over Sunken Treasure in the Arctic

A jurisdictional nightmare has plagued efforts to recover 19th century ships that are resting off the coast of Canada's most remote territory. Mystery, gold, and cannibalism are all at play.

by Hilary Beaumont
Mar 15 2016, 6:33pm

Photo via Parks Canada

Under the icy waters of Canada's arctic, a hoard of treasures from two sunken ships that vanished 170 years ago are waiting to surface.

Divers have recovered a trove of artifacts from HMS Erebus, one of two ships that took part in the fabled Franklin Expedition, but the Canadian government, a provincial territory, the local Inuit and the British are all battling for jurisdiction over the items.

The HMS Erebus was discovered in September 2014, and since then officials from the federal Parks Canada, the territorial Nunavut government and the Kitikmeot Inuit have been fighting for control of the drowned national treasures on board, according to the CBC. The wreck of a second ship, the HMS Terror, is still missing, but the jurisdictional quarrel includes that ship, too.

A diver heads to the surface, through a hole in the ice. Photo via Parks Canada

Sent from England to cross the Northwest Passage to the far east, the two ships were trapped in ice in 1846, forcing the crew to abandon the boats and trek across the tundra in desperation, with some resorting to cannibalism. None of the 129 crew survived, and their story is still shrouded in mystery. Research suggests that the stranded crew resorted to cannibalism in a failed attempt to stay alive.

Initially, Parks Canada insisted that it didn't need the Nunavut government's permission to dive for the ships. The territory saw things differently, and worked to pressure the federal agency into deferring to Nunavut before recovering the treasures it finds on HMS Terror, according to CBC.

In an emailed statement to VICE News, Parks Canada spokesperson Kassandra Dazé said the government agency has a "positive relationship" with Nunavut "and have worked in collaboration on Franklin related activities in Nunavut for many years."

If Parks Canada wants to remove anything from HMS Terror, which hasn't been found yet, Nunavut would have to approve it first, Dazé confirmed, but she wouldn't say whether the agency had given up any rights.

According to the CBC, Parks Canada reluctantly backed down in June 2015, and began coordinating with the Nunavut government on its dives for the ship. Its divers, the agency later realized, could face arrest by federal police if they dove without permission.

While an agreement was found about recovering artifacts form the HMS Terror, Parks Canada still argues it can dive on the other ship at its leisure, without dealing with the government of Nunavut.

"No consultation is necessary with Nunavut to recover artifacts from the wreck of HMS Erebus," Dazé said.

A spokesperson with Nunavut's Department of Culture and Heritage declined to comment.

A diver investigates the central part of the wreck. Photo via Parks Canada

The two government agencies aren't the only ones reportedly fighting over the discovery — both the Kitikmeot Inuit and the British think they too should have a say in the fate of the artifacts from the ships.

According to Article 33 of the Nunavut Lands Claim Agreement, archaeological treasures found in the Nunavut Settlement Area are co-owned by the Inuit and the government — though it's not clear which government — as long as the area isn't administered by the Parks Canada.

Fred Pedersen, spokesperson for the Kitikmeot Inuit Association, told VICE News the items on board the ships have historical significance to the Inuit because it was the Inuit who guided the sailors from the Franklin expedition, and helped them winter in the north.

Pedersen wants the artifacts, which are currently in Ottawa, to be housed in Nunavut as a tourist attraction, but said the territory doesn't yet have a museum or appropriate place to display the treasures.

Meanwhile, the British have a 1997 agreement with Canada stating the Brits own the wrecks and their contents. The Brits have agreed to give up everything to Canada — except any gold that might be discovered. According to the MOU, any gold would be split between the two countries. The British can also pick and choose artifacts of "outstanding importance," according to the memorandum of understanding.

A diver inspects the wreck. Photo via Parks Canada

Pedersen said Article 33 should trump the 1997 MOU, but it remains to be seen which agreement will win out.

Meanwhile, members of the team that discovered HMS Erebus are reportedly pissed they weren't given proper credit for the find, which was announced by former Prime Minister Stephen Harper in September 2014.

In the backdrop to the jurisdictional fight over the ships is a quiet battle over who owns the Arctic. In 2008, the Conservative government started to fund expeditions to find the two lost ships at the same time that Canada, Russia and other nations began to squabble over Arctic sovereignty, with Canada arguing its territories extend to the North Pole.

Since the 2014 discovery, divers have recovered part of HMS Erebus' wheel, a sword hilt, a canon, a bell and a crew member's boot, among more than 50 other items, from the ocean depths off Nunavut's coast.

The HMS Terror, which was deployed in the War of 1812, and HMS Erebus, which gets its name from a region of hell in Greek mythology, left England on May 19, 1845. Their mission was to chart the Northwest Passage for the first time.

Six-pounder cannon hanging under the ice. Photo via Parks Canada.

British Royal Navy officer Sir John Franklin was in charge of the expedition and 129 crew aboard the two ships.

In September 1846, the ships were trapped in the shifting Arctic ice. They spent two winters on King William Island, and in 1848, after 24 of them had died, the remaining crew abandoned the ships. The rest died walking across the icy tundra in search of help.

Causes of death include exposure, hypothermia, starvation, scurvy, tuberculosis, and lead poisoning. Cut marks on bones and reports from local Inuit confirmed some of the crew resorted to cannibalism in the harsh and desperate conditions.

A spokesperson from the British High Commission tells CBC there is "no protocol for determining ownership" of the items.

At least the Inuit, Nunavut and Parks Canada can agree on one thing: Parks Canada will eventually display the treasures in Nunavut.

Follow Hilary Beaumont on Twitter: @HilaryBeaumont