Hakai Magazine

Sir John Franklin and his crew set sail to find the Northwest Passage in 1845. Franklin died on that expedition in June 1847. Photo by Interfoto/Alamy Stock Photo

New CCGS Sir John Franklin Gets Frosty Reception

A new Canadian research ship will be named after John Franklin—but is that really a good idea?

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by Larry Pynn

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Few people would choose to name a new ship the Titanic. So critics are asking why the Canadian federal government is naming—for the second time—a Canadian Coast Guard vessel after explorer Sir John Franklin, who led 128 officers and crew members to their deaths.

“Don’t celebrate a failed British expedition,” urges Ken Burton, executive director of the Vancouver Maritime Museum. “The entire structure and execution of that mission was rife with hubris. It’s a tragic story that deserves to be told and remembered, but I’d feel much better if we named a Canadian vessel after a Canadian who’d been successful.”

The ill-fated Franklin expedition regained international attention in September 2014 with the discovery of the wreck of the flagship HMS Erebus in Canada’s Arctic. (The Erebus’s sister ship, HMS Terror, was found in 2016.) Ottawa seized the moment in June 2015 to announce that a 63-meter science research vessel currently under construction at Seaspan’s Vancouver shipyards—the first of a new CAN $687-million fleet of ships being built for Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) scientists—will have its bow graced by Franklin’s name.

Robie Macdonald, a federal scientist emeritus who has worked with Fisheries and Oceans Canada for 38 years, disagrees with the decision to emblazon the ship with Franklin’s name. “This was an incompetent expedition that froze itself to death in a land where natives had been living for years, raising their families and surviving.”

The Canadian Coast Guard, which will operate the ship for DFO, has established rules for naming new ships. In particular, the agency requires that ship names promote “Canadian culture, history, geography and sovereignty by honoring people and places of importance to Canadians.” The choice should also reflect the “relevance and acceptability of the name to clients, stakeholders, and the general public.”

Franklin is a contentious character. The government describes Franklin as a “respected naval officer” and “distinguished explorer” who disappeared with his crew on his third and last expedition to sail the Northwest Passage. But researchers with vast experience in Canadian ocean sciences don’t see Franklin that way, and vigorously denounce the decision.

“Would the Americans do that?” asks Macdonald, who conducted Arctic research for much of his career. “No. Name it after a remarkable Canadian who was successful and did great things.”

Burton also notes that mariners can be superstitious, and naming a ship after a major disaster could prove unsettling. “Let’s not tempt fate,” he says.

Franklin’s skeletons extend beyond the Northwest Passage. Eleven of 20 men died, amid tales of murder, cannibalism, and eating shoe leather to survive, during his overland Coppermine Expedition of 1819-22 to map the coast as far as northwest Hudson Bay.

Muddying the waters is the fact that the Canadian Coast Guard already named a ship after Franklin. In 1979, a 98-meter icebreaker was named the CCGS Sir John Franklin, but that ship was later renamed the Amundsen during a scientific oceanographic retrofit in 2003 in cooperation with ArcticNet, a consortium of academic and government researchers studying climate change.

Roald Amundsen is the Norwegian explorer who first navigated the Northwest Passage in 1906, and then became the first to reach the South Pole in 1911. ArcticNet’s scientific director, Louis Fortier, a professor at Université Laval, refuses to comment on why the ship was renamed. The same goes with Ottawa.

One insider who served 30 years as an ocean scientist with federal fisheries has an explanation.

“ArcticNet wanted the ship renamed for a great Arctic explorer, not a failure,” says Robin Brown, executive secretary of the North Pacific Marine Science Organization. “People who knew about ships thought it was pretty interesting and pretty funny. They were surprised the coast guard went along with it.”

Is all this handwringing moot? Franklin’s name has already been welded onto the new ship. Yet the truth is, the federal government is already having second thoughts. This past September, DFO regional science director Carmel Lowe emailed staff for alternative ship names, writing: “whereas a tentative name for the new vessel (‘Franklin’) has been announced, in a recent development we have been asked for our naming suggestions too to inform the final selection.”

Among the suggestions received from federal scientists: Bob Kabata, a marine parasitologist and Order of Canada recipient; Edith Berkeley, a global authority on marine polychaete worms who taught at the University of British Columbia; Michael Bigg, a pioneer in killer whale research on the BC coast; Helen Irene Battle, a University of Western Ontario zoologist honored by the National Museum of Natural Sciences in Ottawa as an outstanding female scientist; and Daniel Ware, a Pacific Biological Station scientist in Nanaimo whose specialties included herring research.

Macdonald would like the government to cast an even wider net when soliciting names for ships, although he cautions against outright crowdsourcing. In a well-known case, the British public voted to name a new polar research ship RRS Boaty McBoatface—a decision overturned by the government in 2016 in favor of naming it after nature documentarian Sir David Attenborough.

Burton believes the name should be taken in a different direction, instead honoring the role of Inuit* in Arctic exploration. He serves up Joseph Panipakoocho who, accompanied by his family and sled dogs, guided the RCMPV St. Roch during its journey through the Northwest Passage in 1944. “He’s one of dozens of Inuit people who have never been recognized for their efforts in the Far North.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government is busy undoing all sorts of major decisions of his Conservative predecessor Stephen Harper. Taking a second look—even for a second time—at the Franklin name is not an unrealistic outcome.

Correction: “First Nations” was changed to “Inuit”