Nunatsiaq News
NEWS: Around the Arctic January 13, 2017 - 8:28 am

There were no communication rules, says private org that found HMS Terror

“Parks Canada never shared the communications protocol with the ARF”

The double-wheeled helm of HMS Terror, from The Guardian. (PHOTO COURTESY ARCTIC RESEARCH FOUNDATION)
The double-wheeled helm of HMS Terror, from The Guardian. (PHOTO COURTESY ARCTIC RESEARCH FOUNDATION)

The absence of a communications agreement contributed to a confusing communications blackout that followed the Arctic Research Foundation’s surprise discovery of HMS Terror in September 2016, the foundation’s lawyer, William McDowell, told Nunatsiaq News Jan. 11.

The privately-owned Arctic Research Foundation discovered the 169-year-old wreck of the Terror Sept. 3, 2016.

Parks Canada, the nominal leader of the search, didn’t find out about that discovery until Sept. 12, at the same time everyone else in the world found about it—through an exclusive article published in The Guardian, a U.K.-based online news service.

But that happened because there were no clear ground rules covering how to communicate the news in the event of a discovery, McDowell said.

“I think one of the misunderstandings in all of this is that somehow there is this communications protocol and the ARF was offside and that’s just not true—there wasn’t one,” McDowell said Jan. 11.

“Parks Canada never shared the communications protocol with the ARF.”

McDowell’s comments follow an article published by Postmedia Inc, Jan. 10, citing emails obtained from Parks Canada during the lead-up to the Terror’s discovery that show Parks Canada was unaware of the movements of the ARF’s vessel Martin Bergmann in the week leading up to the surprise announcement.

McDowell, a lawyer with the firm Lenczner Slaght, speaking on behalf of the ARF, said no agreement on communications was reached before the 2016 Franklin Expedition partners—including the Royal Canadian Navy, Parks Canada, the Canadian Coast Guard and the ARF—began searching for the Terror in Victoria Strait last August.

According to the emails obtained by Postmedia, the ARF said the Martin Bergmann was supposed to rendezvous with other Franklin Expedition ships in the Victoria Strait, northwest of King William Island, Sept. 8, but failed to do so.

That’s because the Bergmann had already discovered the Terror on the southern end of King William Island Sept. 3, after ARF’s director of operations, Adrian Schimnowski, followed a tip from crewman and Gjoa Haven resident Sammy Kogvik.

McDowell said mechanical problems prevented the Bergmann from confirming the identity of the wreck in the early days of its discovery, explaining “they didn’t really know that they found the ship, they knew they found something.”

“They didn’t know what it was until they could process the images on the 9th of September.”

By Sept. 11—or one day before The Guardian news story appeared—the ARF informed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s chief of staff about the discovery, McDowell said.

But news of the find apparently never reached Parks Canada—according to the Postmedia article—and the organization was caught flat-footed when media flooded its phone lines Sept. 12 following the news story.

As for the ARF’s original decision to detour away from its planned rendezvous with Parks Canada in Victoria Strait, McDowell believes that call was made by the Bergmann crew.

“My understanding is that these are all the judgment calls taken by the crew of the Bergmann. It’s not Jim Balsillie saying ‘go here or go there.’ These are judgment calls taken by the experts,” he said.

Balsillie, a Canadian multi-millionaire, philanthropist and former co-owner of Blackberry-maker Research in Motion, established the ARF as a charitable foundation in 2011.

“I think he was aware of where they were in a general sense but I don’t know hour to hour, day to day, how much he was involved,” McDowell said of Balsillie’s influence on the Bergmann crew’s decision to search Terror Bay.

By searching Terror Bay, the ARF also put itself at odds with the Government of Nunavut, which issued archaeological permits to the expedition team—after protracted bartering for territorial rights to Franklin artifact that did not include the waters of Terror Bay.

McDowell said the exact details of the 2016 permits were never shared with the ARF, but the organization already obtained a separate scientific research license from the GN with “a pretty expansive geographical area.”

“Part of the problem is that Parks Canada, as far as we know, didn’t share its 2016 permit with the ARF,” he said.

McDowell confirmed that the GN is taking no legal steps regarding the ARF’s actions, but the future is unclear.

“There’s no outstanding litigation or regulatory action against ARF. We know that Nunavut is looking into the question,” he said.

As for the ARF’s continued partnership with Parks Canada, McDowell said the organization’s status with the expedition is “under review.”

“One of the lessons that has to come out of this is there has to be clearer, finalized lines of authority and communication,” he said.

“There has to be a real attempt to ensure that the Inuit people of the region are participating in all of this and are being listened to.”

Parks Canada and other partners will resume exploration of both the Erebus and Terror wrecks during the summer of 2017.

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