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Bernier Of The North



From top: Arctic and her crew visit Port Burwell at the mouth of the Hudson Strait in 1907; A dog team is used to explore Baffin Island in 1910; Capt. Joseph-Elzéar Bernier in his cabin on board the Arctic in the 1920s.

The Arctic Archipelago, explored at great cost by Britain, had been virtually presented as a gift to Canada in 1880. Some cabinet ministers would have preferred to decline the gift, but Sir Hector Langevin had argued that Canada’s future lay in the Far North. The settlement of the Alaska Boundary Dispute in 1903 (Canadian Reflections, November/December) made it apparent that sovereignty anywhere could not be taken for granted, and the High Arctic began to look more vulnerable. The most basic expression of such sovereignty is “use it or lose it.” In the first instance of doing just that, the Laurier government turned to Joseph-Elzéar Bernier.Canadians are prone to complaining that “we have no heros” or that “nobody tells us about these people.” In Bernier’s case, books have been written. T.C. Fairlie and C.E. Israel published a biography, The True North: The Story of Captain Joseph Bernier in 1957. Gilberte Tremblay wrote Bernier, capitaine à 17 ans in 1959 and Jack Tremblay’s book, Captain White Bear: The Story of Captain Joseph Bernier, appeared in 1967. Bernier has also had his name on a Canadian ice-breaker and a 1977 commemorative stamp, and the Musée maritime du Québec at L’Islet-sur-Mer has featured his exploits for 30 years. Hopefully, a more recent biography, Joseph-Elzéar Bernier: Capitaine et Coureur des Mers by Marjolaine Saint-Pierre, will prevent him from again falling into the abyss of national amnesia.

Born at L’Islet-sur-Mer on Jan. 1, 1852, Bernier was the son and grandson of seafarers. His father took him to sea at the age of two, trained him as a mariner and appointed him captain of a blue-water vessel at the age of 17. He overcame unruly crewmen and torturous seas while he and his ship carried timber from Quebec City to England. During his long career, he commanded over 100 ships and crossed the Atlantic nearly 270 times.

In 1887, in deference to his wife, he took employment ashore as harbour master at Lauzon. “Thus ends my career as mariner,” he wrote. “I am relinquishing navigation forever.” He kept up his rating as a master mariner, but in 1895 accepted a post that seemed to place him even further from the sea–that of governor of the Quebec jail.

The new job afforded Bernier time to study and plan for a remarkable journey–to be the first man to the North Pole. His intention was to allow a ship to drift through the currents in the Arctic Archipelago until the vessel was proximate to the Pole. He would then make an over-ice dash to the Pole and back. This had been attempted, unsuccessfully, by Fridtjof Nansen, a Norwegian explorer, between 1893 and 1896 using the schooner Fram. It was a dream Bernier would cherish until April 1909 when American Robert Peary reached the Pole.

Bernier collected and read everything he could on Arctic navigation. He employed a convict whose skills at forgery were channeled into preparation of the best charts possible with available information. Most important of all, he began a campaign to raise public awareness of the Arctic and urge the organization of a Canadian polar expedition. He invested $21,000 of his own money in the campaign, which also garnered considerable public support. To those who believe that Canadian nationalism was a product of World War I, the patriotic support for the polar expedition will come as a surprise. Hundreds of people wrote letters to all manner of public figures. Poet William Chapman composed an ode to Bernier and his vision. Numerous groups, such as the Ontario Land Surveyor’s Association and the Literary and Historical Society of Quebec endorsed it.

Bernier’s perpetual lobbying, backed by a vocal public, finally worked. In 1904, the Laurier government voted funds and instructed Bernier to find a ship. He chose the Gauss, a German vessel that had been fitted out for an Antarctic expedition. Renamed the CGS Arctic, it was to become one of the most significant vessels in Canadian history.

Externally the CGS Arctic was an anachronism. She had a wooden hull, three masts and a relatively low-powered steam engine that drove her at no more than seven knots. Inside, however, she was well-nigh state of the art, with a steam-driven generator, radio, and comfortable crew quarters. Above all, she was immensely strong and would survive ice better than Nansen’s Fram.

Bernier did not look particularly like an Arctic explorer. He was 53 years old, five feet four inches tall and weighed 212 pounds. In future years he became even more rotund. Nevertheless, he was a born leader, bilingual, charismatic, and men volunteered repeatedly to serve under him. Ultimately, he would undertake 10 voyages to the Arctic, the last at the age of 74.

The Canadian polar expedition was to sail in 1905, but the government diverted the CGS Arctic to another assignment. Northwest Mounted Police posts at the northern end of Hudson Bay had to be re-provisioned, so Bernier and the CGS Arctic proceeded there late in 1904, wintering at Cape Fullerton and returning to Quebec in October 1905. It was not a happy experience for him. Not only had his polar dream been postponed, but while he commanded the ship, Inspector J.D. Moodie of the North West Mounted Police was in charge of the expedition. The two men did not blend well; Bernier considered Moodie to be a martinet. When opinions were divided over what action to take on a particular issue, the issue would be decided by a committee of personnel–not a good way to operate in the Far North.

Moodie brought back alarming reports of foreign whalers operating unregulated in the area. The Canadian government was probably unconcerned about the whales, but the whalers themselves represented an unauthorized intrusion into Canadian waters, the tip of a potential sovereignty challenge. The polar expedition was again put off; Bernier and the CGS Arctic had a new task, that of establishing and exerting a Canadian presence in the Arctic Archipelago. It was a terrible blow, yet Bernier recognized the significance of the new assignment. “I was persuaded that this mission was of much greater importance to Canada than an expedition to the North Pole,” he wrote.

His first sovereignty cruise in 1906-07 set a pattern for years to come. He sailed from Quebec with some 400 tons of coal and returned a year later with less than 40 tons. In between he had cruised as far west to what is called Melville Island, wintered in Pond Inlet, then explored Jones Sound. To demonstrate Canadian sovereignty, he issued licences and collected permit fees from foreign whalers. Bernier also sent men ashore to build cairns, deposit documents and erect flagpoles. In some places they discovered cairns and caches that had been created decades earlier by British explorers. At other points the crew of the CGS Arctic found evidence that a more recent traveller had preceded them–Otto Sverdrup, a former colleague of Nansen, who was now staking out territorial claims on behalf of Norway. Eventually the Canadian government would pay Sverdrup $67,000, ostensibly to buy his charts and compensate him for expenses; in fact, they were buying Norwegian exploratory rights.

Most of the major Arctic features had been named earlier by British explorers, honouring monarchs (King William Island), scientific figures (Banks Island), even a gin distiller who had financed an expedition (Boothia Peninsula). Bernier sprinkled the North with Canadian names, such as the Brodeur Peninsula, located on the west side of Baffin Island and named after the minister of marine and fisheries.

In the summer of 1908, Quebec City was celebrating its 300th anniversary. On hand for the celebrations was a Royal Navy squadron. Bernier was invited aboard the flagship to show his charts to interested officers, including the future King George V. A few days later, as the CGS Arctic departed on her next cruise, she was herself saluted by the warships. That summer Bernier got as far west as Melville Island, and on July 1, 1909, he erected a tablet which officially claimed the Arctic Archipelago for Canada.

It was during the 1908-09 expedition that Bernier committed a singular act of selfless devotion to duty. On Aug. 27, 1908, south of Melville Island, he found the way clear to sail directly to the Pacific–a complete transit of the Northwest Passage. This feat had been accomplished only once before–by Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen in 1903-06 and never in a single season. Bernier, bent on his mission to confirm Canadian sovereignty in the region, declined to deviate from his instructions. He refused even to radio for permission to force the passage. He confided his disappointment to his journal, and later to his memoirs. When he sailed again to the Arctic in 1910-11 his orders included a paragraph that he could, at his discretion, sail through the Northwest Passage, but the opportunity never again presented itself.

His crews did not hibernate each winter. Whenever possible, his men set out–sometimes with dog teams, sometimes dragging sledges–to explore whatever land they were laid up against, collecting rock samples, checking for coal deposits, taking inventory of the flora and fauna. Bernier was too old to participate in these overland treks, but he recorded the adventures of his subordinates which ranged from solo confrontations with polar bears to nearly running out of rations.

The 1911 election removed Laurier from office. The new Conservative administration regarded Bernier as a Liberal placeman and was disinterested in northern matters. For the next 10 years he was separated from the CGS Arctic, but remained active in the North, operating three fur trading posts and exploring coal deposits that fuelled the smaller steamers he employed. Returning to Quebec in 1917, he learned that his wife of 47 years had died.

By 1922 Bernier was back in government employ. The CGS Arctic was still operational, although her masts had been cut down and she now leaked in heavy weather. That year the ship departed Quebec City on July 18, returning to port Oct. 2 after establishing two Arctic police posts. Bernier was intensely aware that he was “passing the torch” to a new generation of northern agents, briefing young RCMP constables on the Inuit and what could be learned from them. Among those aboard was Squadron Leader Henry Logan of the Royal Canadian Air Force. He was the first air force officer to visit the Far North to assess possible aerial surveys and the problems that aircrews would encounter.

Bernier made three further trips to exercise sovereignty in what was to become known as the Eastern Arctic Patrol. The 1923 voyage marked the first time a Canadian court was transported to the Arctic to try a murder case. The 1924 cruise carried Richard Finnie, who would become a prolific chronicler of the Canadian north. A voyage in 1925 carried Constable Herbert Joy, who became an RCMP legend as a dogsled traveller in the Far North.

When Bernier retired, the CGS Arctic was also laid up. She was moored at Lauzon where, over the years, she was vandalized and cannibalized. Even her oak decks and hull became firewood. Not a scrap of the historic vessel was preserved.

In November 1933, Bernier travelled to Rome where he was installed as a Knight of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulcher, a papal knighthood. The honour entitled him to wear an ornate cape and plumed hat. Other than never smiling for a camera, lest his gold teeth show, Bernier had never exhibited any particular conceits. However, this costume seemed to ignite a suppressed vanity, for he wore it thereafter on every formal occasion that presented itself. That included attendance at the July 1934 celebrations commemorating Jacques Cartier’s landing at Gaspé. There was certainly a bond between Cartier, who had claimed Canada for France, and Bernier, who had asserted Canada’s claim to the Far North. Five months later, on Dec. 26, 1934, Bernier died.

Saint-Pierre’s 2004 biography corrects many facts in his story, but her summation of his career is a fitting tribute to a great Canadian: “Acknowledged as the Great Man of the Canadian North, Joseph-Elzéar Bernier harboured a fabulous dream: to conquer the North Pole.” During his life, “he happened upon an important political mission: that of giving his country an Arctic border.”


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