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Arctic Navigator

Arctic “Bells” at Fullerton Harbour, Hudson Bay, 1904-05.

January/February 2012 by Joseph Elzéar Bernier

On the 12 of August 1869, Captain Joseph Elzéar Bernier, aboard the brigantine Saint- Joseph, weighed anchor in Quebec City’s harbour, bound for England. The builder and owner of the ship was Bernier’s father, Thomas, but Thomas was not on board. Twenty-seven days later his son Joseph dropped anchor in the port of Teignmouth, Devon, England. The ocean crossing had been without incident.

After unloading his cargo, Captain Bernier took on ballast and set a return course for Sydney, Nova Scotia. The return crossing was faster, taking only 19 days, and again it was without incident.

There was nothing particularly special about these crossings, except for one outstanding feature: Bernier, the captain, was only 17 years old, and these were his first two ocean crossings as a ship’s captain. Bernier was recognized as being the youngest fully licensed sea captain in the world. The captain was young, but he was blessed with a powerful build. It was important for the captain of a seagoing vessel to have a well-developed physique in those days. This was well illustrated by an incident that occurred on board ship when Captain Bernier was 21 years old. In his book, Master Mariner and Arctic Explorer, the captain described a potentially dangerous incident he faced on the Atlantic high seas when a mutinous member of his crew refused to carry out a task assigned to him:

“The man was brought to me in my cabin, and before the second officer I noted his insubordination in the ship’s log as well as his punishment: he was to be handcuffed and locked up, and fed bread and water until he agreed to return to work. On hearing the sentence meted out to him, the man was beside himself with rage. Breaking loose from the men who held him he attacked me savagely. I secured a firm hold on him, pinioning his arms; but he tried to bite my arm and I was forced to strangle him into submission.

“But this man was truly stubborn. He did not consider himself beaten by this punishment. During the night… he would begin hammering and kicking the door, renewing the noise often enough to keep anyone from sleeping. So I had him taken out, had a hole bored in the deck in the centre of the room and had a ringbolt fitted into it and the man was chained to this ring. Here he was locked up again and given his ration once a day of bread and water. The second day he told the sailor who brought him his ration that he wanted to see the captain. So the mate and I went in with the logbook and his statement that he was ready to do his work was duly entered. He was then released with the warning that if he made any further attempts to arouse the men to mutiny he would be put in irons for the remainder of the trip and handed over to the police on arrival in port. In this way was incipient mutiny checked in those days of “wooden ships and iron men”.

Sailor of the Seven Seas

In 1852, Joseph Elzéar Bernier was born in L’Islet, Quebec, a village on the south shore of the mighty Saint-Laurence River. His was a family of seafaring sailors who were said to have salt in their veins. Young Joseph Bernier would not disappoint them.

At the tender age of two years and three months, the babe began his apprentice under his father Thomas, the captain of the brigantine Zillah, on an extended trip with his wife. In the following months, the Zillah dropped anchor in the following places: Cuba, Boston, the Dardanelles, Bosphore, the Black Sea, Boston (again), Lévis (Quebec) and back home to L’Islet. Not a bad start for a young lad destined to sail the seven seas.

Early on, young Bernier became a sailor, first as a hand on his father’s vessels, eventually as captain of his father’s ships and the vessels of other ship owners as well. In 1887, after 16 years of ploughing the furrowed sea in all corners of the globe, Bernier was offered a job ashore as port manager in Lauzon, near Quebec City. He accepted, writing in his log, “And so ended my career as a seaman”. Time proved him wrong. On land, he was like a fish out of water. During his time ashore, which included a period as Governor of the Quebec City Prison, Bernier read all he could about the Arctic and he became impassioned with that part of Canada. At the end of the winter of 1898, he wrote, “I came to the conclusion that the time had come to mount a polar expedition.”

1904 – 1905 Bernier’s first expedition

Bernier’s reputation as an excellent marine navigator was spreading widely in government circles in Quebec, Ottawa and even Europe. In 1904, he convinced the Canadian Government to finance him to the tune of $200,000 for an arctic expedition to be commanded by himself. Bernier had ideas about eventually reaching the North Pole, and this expedition would be an important first step toward that goal. In Germany the Captain found a suitable, full-rigged motor vessel for the expedition. The Gauss had been built especially for polar service so, Bernier bought her in Canada’s name. She had proven herself in south polar service and now in the service of Canada she became the Arctic.

Over many years of sailing in arctic waters, mariners had come to the conclusion that ships for polar service had to have hulls shaped like a bowl. The straight up-and-down sides of conventional hulls could not withstand the crushing, horizontal pressures that build up in ice fields. With a rounded hull, the tremendous pressures exerted by arctic ice on the sloping sides of a bowl-shaped hull would merely squeeze a ship upward, thus relieving the great crushing horizontal pressures without damage. The Arctic had such a hull.

When Bernier arrived in Quebec City in May of 1904 with the Arctic, he set about fitting her and provisioning her for a three-year arctic expedition with a goal of eventually reaching the North Pole. Finally he would be testing his ideas about reaching the Pole that were so close to his heart. Then, in Parliament, on July 29, 1904, Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier dropped a bombshell. He announced that, “…the Arctic…is to sail on August 15. This boat will carry an officer and ten men of the mounted police, apart from the crew of the ship…Their instructions are to patrol the waters, to find suitable locations for posts, to establish those posts and to assert the jurisdiction … of Canada…”

It was understood that the officer of the mounted police would be the Commander of the expedition while Bernier would only be the Captain of the ship who took his orders from the Commander. In simplified terms, the Commander of a marine expedition decides where the expedition is to go and what it is to accomplish, while the Captain decides how to sail the expedition to achieve the Commander’s goals, taking into account the safety of the ship, the crew and the members of the expedition and, most importantly, the weather.

Bernier’s orders, as laid down by Laurier, were far from the orders to go to the North Pole he expected. Bernier was furious. A local newspaper reported that Bernier resigned in a huff from undertaking the expedition under such conditions. After a short cooling off period though, Bernier did finally acquiesce and he grimly accepted his orders as laid down by Laurier, although with great disappointment. He then ordered the ship to be refitted and re-provisioned with food and equipment more in line with a relatively simple trip to Hudson Bay.

The expedition, under the leadership of Major J. D. Moodie of the RCMP, spent the winter of 1904-05 frozen in the ice of Fullerton Harbour in the far north-western reaches of Hudson Bay. Moodie’s task was to ensure that whalers, sealers and fishermen, both Canadian and foreign, respected Canadian laws and regulations, and that they paid the required fees for licences and for quantities of animals harvested.

In July, the Arctic was finally released from her icy prison and Bernier sailed his ship south to Quebec City, dropping anchor in several places along the way.

1906 – 1911 Three expeditions to Solidify Canada’s Sovereignty

In the beginning of the twentieth century, there was an increasing presence of foreign ships sailing Canada’s Arctic for a number of reasons, such as whaling, sealing, fishing, and exploration, among others. Concern was increasing in the Canadian Government that the country was not exercising sufficient presence and control over her northern waters, and that Canada’s sovereignty there could be challenged by a number of countries. To prevent that happening, over the period of 1906 to 1911, Canada sent the Arctic, with Bernier as both Commander and Captain this time, to land on various islands of Canada’s northern archipelago, and with the proper pomp and circumstance, raise the British flag, leaving the required documentation and photographs to claim these lands for the British Crown.

In the first of the three expeditions, 1906 to 1907, 17 arctic islands were thus taken into the British fold. In the second expedition of the three, on the first of July 1909, with the support in Ottawa of Senator Pascal Poirier, Bernier decided to invoke the so-called sector principle that would allow a country to claim a pie-shaped wedge north of its mainland and extending all the way to the North Pole. There was no more need to land on each island individually. However, the sector principle has never been legally challenged nor affirmed. The third and last of these government sovereignty expeditions took place in 1910 to 1911.

1912 – 1917 Three Private Expeditions

In the fall of 1911, a new Borden Conservative Government took over in Ottawa and put an end to the Arctic’s yearly expeditions under Bernier. During previous years, the Captain had put in place a private enterprise in Pond Inlet based on trapping and trading with the local Inuit. If he wanted to carry on with this business, he would now have to reach the Arctic by his own means.

In 1912, he was particularly anxious to go North as there had been rumours of gold being found near the Salmon River on Baffin Island. The Captain could only afford the Minnie Maud, a sailing vessel with no motor, to reach the Arctic that year. The Minnie Maud was certainly no Arctic, but she served Bernier’s purpose of getting to Baffin Island to manage his trading enterprise.

Bernier established two trading posts on Baffin Island and operated a satisfactory business trading with the Inuit for their pelts. The “gold rush,” however, did not live up to expectations.

After three expeditions to Baffin Island on his own resources, the Canadian Government again got worried about sovereignty, especially in her lightly populated arctic reaches. To show her presence in the North, Canada instituted annual Eastern Arctic Patrols. Based on his experience and his knowledge of the aging Arctic, Captain Bernier was a natural choice for commanding these marine expeditions from 1922 to 1925.

In particular, the 1925 trip demonstrated the wisdom of executing these sovereignty expeditions. In that year, the Americans were preparing an aerial expedition that would violate parts of the Arctic belonging to Canada. They were planning to land aircraft on Ellesmere and Axel Heiberg in the Sverdrup group of islands. The Americans were considering building supply bases on those islands to service the planes that they planned to fly over the North Polar region.

A marine/air expedition led by the famed American explorer Richard E. Byrd and Donald B. MacMillan was already launched to explore those islands before Captain Bernier in the Arctic sailed for the North that year. He caught up with the American expedition in the Etah harbour of Northern Greenland. Byrd tried to bluff by saying that he had received permission from the Canadian Government to proceed with his exploration, which was patently false. Captain Bernier informed Byrd in diplomatic, but no uncertain terms, that it would not be to his advantage to carry on with an expedition to the Canadian islands. These American plans were abandoned and Canadian sovereignty over her northern Archipelago remained intact. Byrd stopped flying over Ellesmere and he soon departed for the United States. So ended the American Byrd – MacMillan episode of 1925.

The 1925 arctic expedition turned out to be the last for both Bernier and the Arctic. This did not mean that Bernier retreated to his rocking chair. Far from it. In fact, he still sailed to foreign ports, finally racking up a life total of over 250 crossings of the Atlantic including ten arctic expeditions in the name of the Canadian Government. Bernier had served his country well.

Joseph Elzéar Bernier died at home of a stroke on December 26, 1934, just five days shy of his 83rd birthday.

Author Notes: Captain Joseph Elzéar Bernier is a true hero of Canadian history, but one who has yet to receive the accolades that are rightly his due for the important work he accomplished in protecting Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic.

* Arctic refers to the geographical area (except in the title); Arctic means the ship; arctic is an adjective.