J. E. Bernier and the Assertion of Canadian Sovereignty in the Arctic

Article excerpt

Les Etats-Unis ont Bird et Peary. L'Angleterre posede Franklin et Shackleton. La Norvege chunk Amundsen et Nansen. Ici, au Canada, nous avons Bernier. (1)

Joseph Elzear Bernier does not often rank in the annals of Arctic exploration in the company of Byrd. Shackleton, or Amundsen, but the opening lines of a French-Canadian novel for young people, Bernier: capitaine a 17 ans, made a place for him among the greats. In a profession in which being first was the public measure of success, his achievements were less noteworthy than those of the celebrated explorers he so admired. J. E. Bernier was, however, a highly accomplished Arctic mariner who safely guided his ship on eight Canadian government expeditions to the northernmost reaches of the Western Hemisphere. He captained or commanded official expeditions between 1904 and 1911 and between 1922 and 1925. From the perspective of the governments in Ottawa that dispatched them, the voyages were an essential element in the Canadian strategy to assure that the North American Arctic did not fall into foreign hands. The first decade of the twentieth century marked the climax of a nearly century-long frenzy of non-commercial but immensely costly international activity aimed primarily at achieving two essentially symbolic feats: navigating the Northwest Passage and standing at the North Pole. (2) Bernier's mission was to assert Canadian jurisdiction in waters continuously frequented by American and European whalers and foreign explorers in the feverish race to fill the empty spaces at the top of the globe.

However, "playing a glorified civil servant," as historian Alan MacEachern has characterized Bernier's government service, was not the capstone that the ambitious sea captain had once envisioned for his long career. (3) At the turn of the century, his doggedly publicized plans for a Canadian polar expedition brought him to the attention of both the public and the Canadian government. Bernier had by then established an impressive record at sea. Upon his death in 1934, obituarists made long lists of his accomplishments: he captained his first ship at 17; he was the master of more than 100 vessels; he crossed the Atlantic at least 250 times; he traveled some 500,000 miles; he set a round-trip speed record sailing a ship between Canada and England; and twice he saved his crew from sinking vessels. (4) His undeniable skills as a mariner were matched by a lifelong drive to establish a personal legacy. At the age of 36, he spent a year and three thousand dollars constructing a lavish mausoleum in the Mont-Marie cemetery near his home in Levis, Quebec. Though the structure was built as a family tomb, "Capt. J. E. Bernier" adorned the Italian marble above its iron doors. (5)

Bernier did not reach the North Pole, and despite coming tantalizingly close, he did not navigate the Northwest Passage. It was likely to his great chagrin that others claimed both achievements during the period of his government service. But Bernier's immense ambition, larger-than-life persona, and genuine accomplishments generated considerable publicity for the Canadian Arctic expeditions. The voyages would serve as a successful projection of Canadian sovereignty only insofar as they were visible to foreign powers with an interest in the Arctic Archipelago, and chief among these powers, at least from the standpoint of policy-makers in Ottawa, was the United States. The extensive American press coverage that Bernier and his government expeditions received was a testament to his contribution to Canadian sovereignty.

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That such efforts were thought necessary at all was a result of the complicated nature of sovereignty in the Arctic. The "rules" defining territorial sovereignty evolved over centuries from the so-called right of discovery to the principle of effective occupation, codified in international law by the colonial powers at the 1881 African Conference of Berlin. …