It’s early June in the Nunavut hamlet of Gjoa Haven, and at a time when many of the town’s 1,300 residents venture out onto the still-frozen sea ice to hunt, Betty Kogvik and a half-dozen other locals are receiving their latest certificates inside the town’s community college, following two weeks of intensive training.
They may be missing out on the hunting, but Kogvik and her classmates will journey out “on-the-land” soon enough, combining their new skills with tried-and-true local knowledge to protect two of the most important shipwrecks in Canada, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror: the two vessels famously commanded by Sir John Franklin on his tragic trip through the Arctic to find the Northwest Passage in the mid-1800s.
Following the discovery of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror in 2014 and 2016, Parks Canada has prioritized working with Inuit to conserve the wrecks and invested in new programs and initiatives allowing Gjoa Haven and Inuit to benefit economically from its proximity to the Franklin vessels.
It is a core goal of the Franklin Interim Advisory Committee to incorporate Inuit Traditional Knowledge into the operations and management of the Wrecks of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror National Historic Site. The Franklin Interim Advisory Committee, or “FIAC,” includes Inuit community members and representatives from Inuit Heritage Trust, the Kitikmeot Inuit Association, the Government of Nunavut, the Nattilik Heritage Society, the tourism industry, and the communities of Gjoa Haven and Cambridge Bay. The FIAC advises on the management of the wrecks until an Inuit Impact and Benefit Agreement is finalized between Parks Canada and the Kitikmeot Inuit Association.
“For our community it’s good, it’s more opportunity for people who have no [summer] jobs,” Kogvik says, during a short break in her training. Kogvik also serves as a Canadian Ranger.
The Inuit Guardian program was established in 2017 to monitor and protect the ships and has been expanded in 2018 to meet growing demands for research, conservation and tourism in the area. Guardian season begins once the sea ice melts, usually around the end of July, and continues until the next freeze-up.
Guardians spend the open-ice season camped near the two wreck sites, each about 100-kilometres from Gjoa Haven: HMS Terror is to the west of the community in the deep waters of Terror Bay, while HMS Erebus is to the south, nestled between a group of small islands in the Queen Maud Gulf.
Guardian duties at both camps include environmental and ship monitoring. Parks Canada’s Law Enforcement Branch has established a rigorous approach to monitoring both wreck sites in collaboration with numerous partners and has protocols in place to respond to any incidents. The Inuit Guardians are an important part of site monitoring and conservation, and have protocol and ability to report incidents to the Law Enforcement Branch 24-7. No unauthorized vessels are allowed to approach the wreck sites, and the Guardians will be on hand to implement their monitoring protocol, including notifying vessels that venture too close to the protected waters.
But the Guardians rely on their traditional harvesting skills as well to supplement life at the base camps, including hunting caribou, trapping fox or fishing for Arctic Char.
“Inuit elders have told us that the Guardian program has enormous potential for sharing knowledge between Inuit,” says Tamara Tarasoff, project manager for the Wrecks of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror National Historic Site.
Whenever possible, the program will pair young Guardians with older mentors to facilitate the transfer of Inuit Qauijimajatuqangit (Inuit Knowledge) in a practical setting.
Joining Kogvik this year as a Guardian is her husband Sammy. And like many families that have lived for generations in the Gjoa Haven region, the Kogvik’s ties to King William Island, the greater Netsilik area, Sir John Franklin, and HMS Terror run deep.
Sammy was one of many Gjoa Haven residents who had reported seeing a shipwreck in Terror Bay; it was his tip to Franklin researchers in 2016 that ultimately led to the discovery of HMS Terror.
Terror Bay was given its name by later British explorers searching for signs of the Franklin Expedition and in honour of its crew, so the eventual discovery of HMS Terror in Terror Bay was a historical coincidence.
Several years ago, Sammy and a friend travelled by snowmobile across the flat, gravelly landscape of King William Island when they spotted what they believed to be a ship mast sticking out of the ice in Terror Bay.
Sammy’s fateful tip was only the latest contribution by Inuit towards understanding what happened to the Franklin Expedition. For over 173 years, Inuit Traditional Knowledge has preserved stories of encounters by Inuit with the Expedition’s crew, and it was this wealth of Inuit knowledge that directly led to discovering the final resting places of both ships.
“I like the land and I want to go back to see everything again,” Sammy says about finding HMS Terror, and the land surrounding Terror Bay.
“When I get home [from Guardian camp] I’m going to tell my kids,” he says, “so they understand why I keep going to that area, and they will pass it on to their kids.”
Inuit knowledge is fundamental to the Guardian program, and will shape the program even more in the years to come as participating Guardians contribute to the program.
“Inuit knowledge has been central to the Guardian project from its inception,” Tarasoff says.
“Inuit, through the Franklin Interim Advisory Committee, came up with the idea of the Guardian program, because it would build on Inuit land-based skills and knowledge of the Franklin expedition.”
Travelling to the isolated Guardian base camps each year is dependent on local knowledge of weather conditions and access routes. Much of Canada’s Arctic waters have yet to be surveyed with modern technology. Living on the land requires knowledge of water sources, hunting grounds and appropriate shelter and equipment needs.
“It takes a lifetime learning from others and from your own experiences on the land to be able to survive in the demanding Arctic environment, which is something most southerners are normally not equipped to do,” Tarasoff adds.
As Gjoa Haven’s Guardian program grows in the coming years, eventually the Guardians will play a key role in hosting visitors to the wreck site – sharing knowledge and Inuit culture as well as presenting the Franklin story and the compelling story of encounters between Inuit in Nunavut and European explorers.
“We look forward to working collaboratively with Inuit to grow the program for years to come,” Tarasoff says. Parks Canada collaborates with Indigenous communities and organizations in various on-the-ground conservation activities, such as species recovery and habitat restoration, often through the use of traditional knowledge.
“The Franklin Interim Advisory Committee, of which Parks Canada is a member, and the Guardians themselves are delighted with how the Guardian program has evolved. Parks Canada greatly appreciates how the Guardians are assisting with protection of the wreck sites.
“Inuit are proud of how they have been able to make use of their knowledge and skills, and everyone is happy with the economic and cultural benefits this program is bringing to Inuit in Gjoa Haven.”
To learn more about Sir John Franklin’s Expedition, the Inuit Guardian program and other exciting projects at the Wrecks of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror National Historic Site, visit www.pc.gc.ca/en/culture/franklin.