Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Franklin ... still dead

A Hallowe'en costume for the PM
Kat Long in the American online magazine Slate has a perceptive piece about the renewed "search" for the Franklin expedition in the Arctic channels, and how much it is a political rather than a scientific or historical project.
Americans may think it strange that Harper sees a key way to increase support for tough northern defenses in finding missing ships or their captain, confirmed dead 167 years ago. Why not just send a military unit up there, maybe a few drones to keep an eye on things? But then we’d be missing the meaningful link between the ill-starred disaster and the birth of Canada itself.
 “Conservatives want to rewrite Canada’s national myths,” says political journalist John Ibbitson, a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation. They look to the far North as a place where the Conservative Party values of patriotism, heroism, toughness, and adaptation to the land and sea all come together—and Franklin fits in with that narrative perfectly.
The whole thing is worth reading, but this association between Franklin and "the birth of Canada itself" is the place where the Slate story seems to have been misled by what it is criticizing. Surely in any serious reading of Canadian history, Franklin has no real place whatsoever. John Franklin was a Brit, leading an expedition starting from and planning to return to Britain, operating from purely British imperial and national-glory motives, paying absolutely no attention to the Canada that existed then and largely unknown and irrelevant to the Canadians of that day, who were far from thinking of annexing Arctic islands or opening a northwest passage.

If there is any  analogy between Franklin and the current search for remains of his ships, it is creepy territorial imperialism rooted in the abuse of science.

The search for the lost Franklin ships has the cool factor of mystery, extreme location, and the lure of pulling treasure (including treasures of knowledge) from the depths rather than from, say, "dusty" libraries or archives. And, other things being equal, I'd be happy enough to follow a genuine Parks Canada investigation of Franklin wreck sites for those reasons. But when the historical and archaeological services of Canada are being constantly silenced, cut back, and turned into an ideological toy to entertain hacks in the prime minister's office, I think we need to keep a critical distance from this travesty and keep trying to find real Canadian history to engage with.

Slate recommends a new-to-me Franklin blog Visions of the North  Some of my own previous dyspeptic Franklin commentary here.

(Image: Library and Archives Canada C-001352)
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