The Wreck Of HMS Erebus: How A Landmark Discovery Triggered A Fight For Canada's History
The HMS Erebus and a sister ship left England in 1845 to find the Northwest Passage. They were never seen again — until a team of Canadian searchers discovered the wreckage in the Arctic last year. What followed was a dispute over the facts of, and credit for, the historic find.
The curt notice from the Canadian prime minister's press secretary gave no hint that history had been made.
“Prime Minister Stephen Harper will participate in a photo opportunity,” read the one-sentence advisory from his spokesperson Carl Vallée, on Sept. 9, 2014. The event was scheduled for 10 a.m.
There wasn’t a word about the topic. It also included a now-standard restriction from the Prime Minister’s Office: “Photo opportunity only (cameras and photographers only).”
Nearly nine years into his tenure as prime minister, Harper rarely took questions from the press. Pictures only; reporters were not welcome. On this morning, his message management machine was quietly shifting into high gear.
As expected, few reporters from the Parliamentary Press Gallery made the trip to the Parks Canada building in Ottawa. Those who got there in time saw a room decorated with a large map of the country, with the phrase “A STRONG CANADA” repeated across it in both official languages.
Harper sat in front of the banner at the head of the table. On his right was Ryan Harris, a senior underwater archaeologist with Parks Canada. Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq, whose portfolio includes oversight of Parks Canada, was to the prime minister's left. Next to her, in a prominent spot, sat John Geiger, CEO of the charitable Royal Canadian Geographical Society.
“This is truly a historic moment for Canada,” an elated Harper said.
To the shock of those gathered, the prime minister announced they had found the wreck of one of Sir John Franklin’s ships. Six years of searching in the Arctic and the investment of millions of dollars of public money had paid off.
A year after his two ships sailed down the Thames River in 1845 on their way to look for a Northwest Passage, Franklin’s vessels were beset in ice in the High Arctic. All 129 men aboard died, most in an excruciating battle against frostbite, hunger, and other ailments. Over the past 160-plus years, dozens of expeditions have looked for the lost crews and their ships. The most successful found sailors’ bodies, unearthing bones with blade cuts that betrayed the cannibalism of the desperate survivors. But the ships, where archaeologists hoped to find preserved logbooks or other records that could help explain why all 129 sailors and officers died, remained elusive.
“Franklin’s ships are an important part of Canadian history given that his expeditions, which took place nearly 200 years ago, laid the foundations of Canada’s Arctic sovereignty,” Harper said.
The discovery of a wreck was a personal and political triumph for Harper. As part of his Arctic sovereignty initiative, his government began funding expeditions in 2008 to find Franklin’s ships. Harper also made annual visits to the Far North. Aglukkaq, who joined him that day, is from Nunavut and is the minister responsible for developing Canada’s north, which Harper has called “a great treasure house.” Geiger, another important ally at the table, had joined them and a cadre of other PMO staffers, dignitaries, and insiders on the prime minister’s 2013 northern trip.
Now they were together to share a discovery steeped in historical and political import.
As designed, the press was caught off guard. News of the major find began to spread in the moments after Harper’s statement. Reporters rushed to the Parks Canada building. They were desperate for someone to interview.
Into the spotlight stepped Geiger, a former journalist and the co-author, with anthropologist Owen Beattie, of a modern classic of the Arctic exploration genre, Frozen in Time: The Fate of the Franklin Expedition.
Geiger and the RCGS had joined the search for Franklin’s ships just a few months before the discovery. Parks Canada and others, including the nonprofit Arctic Research Foundation, had been on the hunt for years. They were also at the table, but it was Geiger’s voice that would dominate the early media coverage. As the Globe and Mail later reported, Geiger “became a lead media spokesperson for the search in the days after the discovery.”
Geiger began by painting a picture of the moment of discovery, placing himself in it. The Canadian Press, the national news service, reported:
The moment the ship was discovered this past weekend, said Geiger, “we were surrounded by ice — we were in a noose of ice — and so it was a real sense of connection, of immediate connection to Franklin and the men on those two ships.
"A few of us said a prayer to sailors lost at sea at that moment because we felt a real personal bond."
Except Geiger was not there. He was on a different ship roughly 65 nautical miles away from the vessel that discovered the wreck.
Geiger’s role as a prominent spokesperson continued at a “technical briefing” for reporters following the announcement. None of the experts directly involved in discovering the shipwreck, or the artefacts that led to the find, were made available to media as part of that briefing.
In one of his answers, Geiger connected the discovery to a central Harper government theme: the importance of government cooperating with the private sector to make big things happen.
“Last fall, the government announced they were expanding the participation in this search,” Geiger said. “It was not just government partners and, of course, [the Arctic Research Foundation] had already been involved. But they invited other partners to join in and came to us, the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. This is what we do. Exploration is part of our business.”
The tightly scripted media rollout would see Geiger give interview after interview about the find, talking freely about the moment of discovery, and about the prime minister’s deep passion for the north. It would culminate months later with Geiger and Harper being awarded medals in separate ceremonies to mark their important roles in finding HMS Erebus, the ship that Sir John himself had sailed on.
Meanwhile, those who actually found the wreck, along with others who spent years on the search, seethed in anger as they watched what they saw as a historic moment being misrepresented to the public.
The Franklin shipwreck is one of the biggest, most celebrated discoveries in 21st-century marine archaeology. It also cleaved open a nasty dispute over the facts of — and credit for — the historic find. As the news went public, the civil servants, researchers, and others who played major roles in the discovery said they found themselves elbowed to the sidelines as the political messaging machine kicked into gear.
Geiger, who has close ties to the prime minister and is a financial contributor to the Conservative Party of Canada, was placed front and centre over others who were directly involved in the discovery and subsequent exploration of the wreck.
More than 10 sources with direct knowledge of the discovery tell BuzzFeed Canada that they felt Geiger's comments to the press often created the impression that he was there for the moment of discovery and had been involved in the find. Documents obtained from these sources, as well as from access to information requests, show Geiger was not present when Parks Canada marine archaeologists found the shipwreck. He and his corporate partners were roughly 65 nautical miles away on a different ship, oblivious to the news. A high-level federal source involved in the expedition also said that Geiger likely could not have learned of the find until six days after it was made.
In fact, emails between Geiger and the Parks Canada official in charge of the expedition show that as searchers aboard a Coast Guard icebreaker zeroed in on Erebus, Geiger, who was unaware of their progress, was demanding that the icebreaker be diverted to free his vessel from ice floes. Had Parks Canada officials complied, Erebus might still be sitting undiscovered at the bottom of the ocean.
These and other facts caused those who had spent years looking for Franklin’s ships to express surprise and then frustration at the prominent role given to Geiger and the RCGS.
BuzzFeed Canada conveyed these concerns in a list of questions submitted to Geiger and the RCGS. He initially replied with a general written statement from RCGS that said, "No reasonable person would take any of the remarks made a year ago to suggest that RCGS or its representatives were responsible for the find."
It concluded: "RCGS has no intention of parsing past statements or looking at individual statements out of context but suffice to say that we have always intended our statements to properly credit all project participants."
Asked to describe where he was when he first learned a Franklin wreck had been discovered, including the date and approximate time, Geiger did not answer the question fully.
“I was on One Ocean Voyager,” he said, citing the name of the expedition vessel he was aboard. He did not respond to a follow-up request for the specific date.
Geiger also said his statements to the press were never meant to imply that he was part of the team that found Erebus.
"I was not near the Erebus site at the moment of discovery and I don’t believe I have ever represented that I was," he said. "I was on another ship involved in the search, in the ice somewhere north of the Royal Geographical Society Islands at the time."
The initial RCGS statement also emphasized that it was not trying to imply that Geiger or the organization “were responsible for the find.” Yet in July, Geiger was one of just four people awarded the highest honour bestowed upon those involved in the expedition. At a ceremony in Whitehorse, the governor general presented him and three others with the newly created Polar Medal. The citation recognized their "essential roles" and commended them for how they had "contributed directly to the discovery of the wreck of Sir John Franklin’s HMS Erebus."
Robert Park, an archaeological anthropologist and professor at the University of Waterloo, has been part of the government's hunt for the Franklin ship since the beginning. He said that Geiger's award stood out for the wrong reasons. (Park's field partner, Doug Stenton, was one of the other recipients.)
"Having been involved in the execution of the search since 2008, I know very well what the three other recipients honoured for the Erebus find did to deserve such an award," Park said, "but I'm quite unaware of any role played by John Geiger in the design or execution of the search that would warrant his receiving the Polar Medal."
In interviews, those involved in the discovery said they concluded that Geiger’s relationship with the prime minister must have led to him being given the most important role in communicating the find and its significance to the public. They also cite his connections as the reason they believe he was given a medal for the find, even though he did not directly contribute to the actual discovery of the Erebus.
Geiger said that at the ceremony "the presenters mentioned my Arctic books, my service as a past volunteer (governor and president) of the RCGS, as well as my role on the 2014 expedition."
Expedition partner Jim Balsillie, who founded and was the major funder of the Arctic Research Foundation, became so frustrated with what he saw as a misrepresentation of the RCGS' role in the find that he sent a letter of objection to Aglukkaq and copied it to the Prime Minister’s Office.
"I am troubled that Canadian history is not being presented accurately and I have expressed my concerns to the [RCGS's] CEO in the past," he wrote.
The letter focused on a documentary that aired on CBC's The Nature of Things.
"The narrative, as currently presented, attempts to minimize the role of the Government and its respective agencies and private partners," he wrote, referring to Parks Canada and other key players. "It also creates new and exaggerated narratives for the exclusive benefit of the Royal Canadian Geographic Society and its own partners."
Among other concerns, he objected to a statement made by Geiger that suggested he and the RCGS had been part of the search effort for years, rather than months.
"The CEO of RCGS makes a claim that his organization has been doing the search 'for years, catching a break this year' when in fact they joined the Victoria Strait partnership in April of 2014 as a support partner to help with communication and outreach activities."
In an email reply, Geiger said that "RCGS had no editorial control over the film. In fact, I wrote to the British and Canadian co-producers before broadcast asking for changes similar to those raised by Mr. Balsillie, albeit with limited success."
Balsillie says he was warned by civil servants involved in the expedition that his decision to go public with his concerns could lead the Prime Minister’s Office to try to “destroy” him and his friends.
“There’s been a level of control around this project that strikes me as odd,” Balsillie told BuzzFeed Canada.
From the beginning, the 2014 Victoria Strait Expedition to find Franklin’s ships had a strong political component. Harper prominently linked his government with the mission in the 2013 speech from the throne. That speech begins each session of Canadian Parliament, and sets out the government’s priorities.
“The story of the north is the story of Canada,” Governor General David Johnston told the assembled dignitaries in October 2013. “In order to tell that story for Canada’s 150th year, our government will continue efforts to solve one of the most enduring mysteries of our past. We will work … to discover the fate of Sir John Franklin’s lost Arctic expedition.” (The speech also mentioned a plan to work with new partners on the search, which Geiger took note of on Twitter.)
The June 2014 press release announcing the Victoria Strait Expedition quoted Aglukkaq saying that the effort would “contribute significantly to our Government’s Northern strategy.”
And so in August 2014 the best-equipped flotilla in the history of expeditions to find Franklin’s ships made its way north. The marine archaeology unit of Parks Canada led the effort. The expedition planned to bring four ships together in the High Arctic: the CCGS Sir Wilfrid Laurier icebreaker; the Royal Canadian Navy’s coastal defence vessel HMCS Kingston; the Arctic Research Foundation’s research vessel Martin Bergmann; and a cruise ship, the Akademik Sergey Vavilov, that was dubbed One Ocean Voyager on the expedition.
What follows is the story of what really happened in the days before and after the discovery of Erebus, and how those who helped make a historic find were angered by what they say are attempts to rewrite history to suit personal and political ends.
“Patience is the key up here,” wrote Captain Bill Noon in his captain’s log on Sept. 1, 2014, “so we will go hard wherever the ice and weather let us work.”
Up on the icebreaker’s bridge that morning, there was no radio squawk. No crew banter. Not a tremble from the three huge diesel electric engines that sit deep in the CCGS Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s boiling belly.
Just after breakfast, the Canadian Hydrographic Service, which surveys Canada’s waterways to produce navigation charts, went to work scanning the seabed of the High Arctic with its high resolution multi-beam sonar. Some 90% of Canada’s Arctic is still not charted to modern standards. The service's thankless but crucial job is to chart it. As crews on two boats, the Gannet and the Kinglett, churned up and down sea lanes, scanning the ice-scarred bottom with sonar devices, they kept an eye out for shipwrecks.
Marine archaeologists from Parks Canada launched their 10-meter aluminum boat, Investigator, to work the approach to O’Reilly Island. They watched a seabed crisscrossed with scours and gouges carved by ancient ice fields scroll slowly past on a laptop screen.
To improve the accuracy of their work, the hydrographers needed a portable global positioning station set up nearby on land. Scott Youngblut, the hydrographer-in-charge, climbed into the Laurier’s helicopter with Captain Andrew Stirling, a veteran pilot with more than three decades’ experience flying in some of the toughest places on earth. Youngblut gave the extra seats behind them to two passengers. They were land-based archaeologists Doug Stenton, head of heritage in Nunavut’s territorial government, and his longtime field partner Robert Park, an archaeological anthropologist from Waterloo.
Stirling set the chopper down on a small, unnamed island in eastern Queen Maud Gulf.
Youngblut set up his GPS. Stenton and Park studied tent circles, the rocks that Inuit placed to hold down the animal skins that form their Arctic hunting shelters. Stirling walked the island’s perimeter with a shotgun slung over his shoulder, on the lookout for predatory polar bears. He also scanned the ground, hoping to find artefacts. The chopper pilot inherited an amateur interest in archaeology from his father, a veteran of the same Royal Navy that sent Franklin and his men to the High Arctic.
Stirling spotted an unusual shape lying against a rock. He called Stenton and Park over for a look.
Stenton examined the object, a hairpin-shaped fixture of rusting iron slightly longer than his forearm. He moved his hand to reveal a fading number 12 and a double broad arrow stamped in the metal. It was part of a davit, used to lower boats from the side of a ship. Stenton knew the markings certified that the ship belonged to the Royal Navy.
The group got back into the helicopter and headed to the icebreaker with the davit piece and another tantalizing artefact they found: two half-moon–shaped pieces of wood, weathered grey, that made up a plug for a deck hawse. A hawse is an iron pipe that a ship’s anchor chain slips through into a locker below deck.
Noon waited on the flight deck to meet the helicopter, just as he did every time Stenton and Park returned from fieldwork. It was the captain’s ritual. He liked to have first look at whatever the archaeologists brought back.
“I’ve got something cool to show you,” Stenton whispered to Noon once they got off the flight deck.
They brought the artefacts to the ship’s bridge for a private showing, “where they caused a lot of immediate excitement,” Noon wrote in his log.
A Franklin ship was close. They could feel it.
Roughly 65 nautical miles north-northwest of Noon and those aboard the Laurier sat the Vavilov. It was surrounded by heavy ice floes as far as the eye could see.
The ship is 117 meters long and equipped with amenities such as a gift shop, fitness room, hot-water spa, and pool. It was scheduled for a 10-day role in the mission.
On board was a piece of Canada’s most cutting-edge marine technology in the form of a yellow robotic sub called Arctic Explorer. The Russian ship also carried a retinue of well-heeled passengers, including people from oil giant Shell Canada and the W. Garfield Weston Foundation. The foundation was created with shares from the family that started George Weston Limited, a publicly traded company that is Canada’s largest retailer and its biggest private employer.
They were expedition partners of Geiger’s Royal Canadian Geographical Society, which publicly announced its role in the Parks Canada–led search mission just two months before the search began.
The chartered cruise ship and the Laurier had briefly rendezvoused in late August. Then the Laurier steamed off into Queen Maud Gulf while the Vavilov made a turn for the north, where Franklin’s ships had first been abandoned.
Geiger soon became frustrated with the situation aboard the Vavilov. They were surrounded by ice and unable to make progress. Emails show he pressed Andrew Campbell, the Parks Canada vice president overseeing the search operation, for permission to deploy the 7.4-meter-long, torpedo-shaped Arctic Explorer robot sub.
“It is our best shot,” Geiger wrote to Campbell, “collectively, at a find, and we have a hard stop on Sept. 8 when we need to be in Cambridge Bay. Time is passing very quickly.”
Campbell pushed back in an email sent Aug. 30, two days before the artefacts’ discovery far to the southeast. “As you know we are using the ice delay as much as possible to re-align the equipment to the most effective vessels,” he wrote. (The emails, which were sent over five days, were obtained from a source who was not directly involved in the exchange. Their content was later verified using documents obtained in an Access to Information Request. Read the emails here.)
In their email exchange, Campbell also expressed concern with the lack of communications with the cruise ship, adding: “The Nunavut government is also concerned with the coordination and lack of permit authorization [the cruise operator] has requested.”
That set Geiger off. “This is not a tourist cruise,” he replied, “and no one has outlined the need for us to apply for a tourist permit. Perhaps you refer to some other authorization, in which case I would appreciate hearing.”
Campbell’s decision to let field experts make the call that the Laurier not move to help the Vavilov ensured that Captain Noon and his crew could stay focused in their search for Franklin’s ships in an area of high interest, and without delay.
“Now off to work with all our toys to find those ships,” Noon wrote Aug. 30. “I think I have Franklin fever.”
Captain Stirling found the davit part two days later, on Sept. 1.
On Sept. 2, Parks Canada marine archaeologists loaded up Investigator and zeroed in on the seabed near where the davit piece was found. They hauled a “tow-fish” sonar device behind the boat on a long cable. It provided the grainy images that slowly cascaded down the divers’ laptop as they motored slowly up one search lane, then turned and came back along another.
Their sonar pings quickly began to bounce off a large object standing upright on the bottom, in just 11 meters of ocean.
“That’s it!” shouted senior archaeologist Ryan Harris, as the distinct lines of a large wreck appeared on the team’s computer screen.
Jonathan Moore, Harris’ frequent dive partner, recalled the eureka moment: “It wasn’t quite a primal scream, but it was close.”
The small group of marine archaeologists aboard Investigator had given years of their professional lives for this moment. They’d suffered under intense pressure from doubters who thought they were wasting time and taxpayers’ money. Now, after six years of searching in the harsh Arctic and surviving a litany of bureaucratic wrangling, they had succeeded where dozens of other search expeditions had failed.
But they couldn’t tell anybody.
A detailed protocol outlined that marine archaeologists weren’t allowed to reveal that they had struck pay dirt until the head of their unit, Marc-André Bernier, confirmed the wreck was a Franklin ship.
The problem was that days earlier Bernier had transferred to the cruise ship. He was sent to lead seminars for tourists who had paid for the privilege of watching the search. He also spent time responding to requests from RCGS and its partners for permission to deploy the sophisticated robotic sub.
“We were having issues at that point because they’re saying, ‘We’re going to go and try to find open water. We know [a Franklin ship is] in the northern search area,'” a senior federal source said. “There was a lot of shit going on at that time.”
The ship crept through ice at a speed of often less than 1 knot. Geiger was frustrated that they were unable to reach the prime northern search area.
The day of the discovery, Sept. 2, saw him send another email to Campbell aimed at getting the Laurier to move out of its southern location to help clear his ship’s progress. (At the time he sent the email, Geiger was unaware that the davit piece had been found.)
“We are in a very frustrating situation as you can imagine,” Geiger wrote. “There is open water as you can see on the satellite image, but we have no way of getting there without [an icebreaker] escort.”
Campbell had already declined to change the plan.
“As all logistics and planning for the operation has been managed effectively by the professional teams, I trust they are still doing so with the full knowledge of the situation,” he replied.
Geiger told Campbell his ship had a real opportunity to make a find.
“I still think we have a shot,” Geiger pleaded, “but not if the Laurier is mowing the lawn down in the southern search area.” ("Mowing the lawn" is the term for navigating
slowly up and down search lanes.)
That email had reached Campbell just after midnight on Sept. 2 — hours before the Parks Canada team aboard the Laurier found the wreck.
Geiger told BuzzFeed Canada he does not recall the email exchange with Campbell. He added that if the Laurier had come north to clear a path for his vessel, then perhaps "HMS Terror would have been discovered. Or perhaps not. I was not in possession of a crystal ball."
He added: "I don’t regret making the suggestion, but I am forever grateful that it wasn’t followed."
Later that day, around the time a small group of searchers on the Laurier celebrated the historic find, Geiger sent a series of tweets announcing the first deployment of the robotic sub from the Vavilov.
The AUV was also featured in the documentary that later aired on The Nature of Things, and which was the impetus for Balsillie to raise objections in a letter to the government. Balsillie and the Canadian Coast Guard both objected to what they saw as an attempt to imply that the AUV had played a role in the finding of Erebus.
The Coast Guard raised objections through Theresa Nichols, a communications adviser with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, who was aboard the Laurier throughout the search expedition and who participated in daily meetings on the bridge.
The list of concerns she outlined in an April 22 email to Ben Finney, the film’s British director at Lion Television, included the documentary’s portrayal of how the defence research agency’s robotic sub was used.
“As much as the yellow DRDC Autonomous Underwater Vehicle is visually alluring, it played no role in the discovery of HMS Erebus,” she wrote.
Balsillie also told BuzzFeed Canada that contrary to the tweets sent by Geiger, the AUV deployment was a test run rather than part of the search effort.
"That AUV was not configured, when it was shipped, for under-ice operations, and because the ice in Victoria Strait never cleared it was unable to be used in the search areas,” Balsillie said. "It was only used for test runs in ice free-waters.”
A spokesperson for Defence Research and Development Canada, the agency that owns the AUV, said the first deployment, which Geiger tweeted about, was in fact a test. But DRDC also said the AUV was deployed another five times during the Victoria Strait Expedition.
"During the five remaining surveys the equipment was used to analyze the performance in cold water while searching for the Franklin ships and any associated debris," the spokesperson said in an email. (Note: DRDC responded by email after publication of this article, and the information was added on September 23.)
Now that they had located what they believed to be a Franklin ship, the few aboard the Laurier that knew of the find focused on hatching a plan to get Bernier off the Russian cruise ship. It needed to be done in a way that would not arouse suspicion among those aboard either vessel. They eventually radioed that Bernier needed to come and deal with “a human resources and financial issue.”
On Sept. 6, with Bernier finally aboard the Laurier, the marine archaeology team returned to the wreck using a remotely operated vehicle equipped with high-resolution cameras. It was tethered to Investigator on a cable and gave the experts eyes on Erebus.
They returned to the Laurier and called Captain Noon to his quarters over the ship’s intercom.
“If you know anything about ships, you’ll know that is extremely unusual,” Noon wrote in his log days later, after the shroud of secrecy was lifted. Being called to his quarters for an urgent meeting had set Noon on edge. He braced for bad news.
“I had no idea what had happened and I actually feared the worst,” he wrote.
Bernier officially confirmed what his team had found. It was a Franklin ship. Sitting next to his bookshelf lined with volumes of nautical history, Noon stared at the laptop screen as the sonar image of the wreck scrolled by. It was so eerily real Noon felt as if he were watching it live. The men hugged and cried.
Then Bernier made a phone call, the next step stipulated in the communications protocol.
Around 9 p.m. on Sept. 6, Bernier reached Campbell in Ottawa. It was a Saturday night in Canada's sedate national capital, which helped protect the secret a little longer.
On the icebreaker, Noon imposed a complete communications lockdown. He informed the crew of the discovery, ordered each person aboard to sign a nondisclosure agreement, and cut the ship’s satellite phone and internet links to the outside world.
The rules spelled out in the protocol agreed by all search partners were very specific: It had to be kept secret within a strict chain of command until the prime minister himself could announce the news.
On Sept. 10, the morning after Harper’s announcement, I sat down for breakfast on a lower deck of the Laurier. I was the only journalist invited to live and work aboard the icebreaker for close to a month with the expedition.
At the time I was the Arctic correspondent for the Toronto Star. I was on the Laurier when Erebus was found, but due to the strict communications lockdown I didn’t learn of the find until Sept. 7, the day after Parks Canada marine archaeologists confirmed the wreck was one of Franklin’s ships.
In the crew’s mess, I sat across from a veteran archaeologist stewing over his fried eggs and coffee. He told me he had just read the CP story featuring Geiger’s prominent quote about the moment of discovery, and him saying a prayer.
“I can’t believe this guy,” he said, rolling his eyes.
I soon found out he wasn’t alone. Others expressed concerns about information being given to the public. For example, Harper’s public statement included a factual error. He said “the find was confirmed on Sunday, September 7, 2014, using a remotely operated underwater vehicle recently acquired by Parks Canada.” That actually happened on Saturday, Sept. 6. The prime minister also did not note that the actual discovery occurred on Sept. 2. As a result, press coverage often incorrectly stated that the find occurred on the weekend.
I urged the civil servants to go on the record so I could write the story of what really happened. They said they were too afraid of losing their jobs. They also saw Geiger as Harper’s designated spokesperson for the expedition, and they were wary of going against the government line.
I ran into my own troubles trying to report what the frustrated scientists and civil servants aboard the Laurier told me. I initially pursued it for the Star but was eventually told by the paper’s editor-in-chief that they were not interested in “engaging” in the story. I resigned, and blogged about it. My resignation subsequently became a story in itself, and that caused my sources to open up with more detailed information.
(One concern expressed to me by a senior executive of TorStar Corporation, which owns the Star, was that I might be perceived to have a potential conflict of interest. I am writing a book about the Arctic based on the decades-long hunt for the Franklin Expedition. Geiger is also planning to publish a book, which, by the publisher’s description, is focused on the 2014 Victoria Strait Expedition and the discovery of Erebus. While my book is a work of narrative nonfiction, the RCGS’s contract with the government specifies that theirs is a “coffee table book devoted to the discovery and the impacts on contemporary issues affecting the North.” The RCGS book is due to be published this year, while mine will not appear until 2016. I also currently do not have a signed contract with a Canadian publisher.)
Those aboard the Laurier told me they were hesitant to speak up because they were aware that federal scientists had experienced a rash of cutbacks and restrictions when their work was deemed out of step with the government’s priorities.
Beginning in 2008, for example, the Harper government began requiring that scientists with Environment Canada receive approval from a new central media office before speaking publicly or with the media.
“Environment Canada has ‘muzzled’ its scientists, ordering them to refer all media queries to Ottawa where communications officers will help them respond with ‘approved lines,’” reported Canwest News.
The Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC), the union representing most Canadian government scientists, surveyed its members in 2013 and found 37% had been blocked from speaking publicly about their work. Nearly 25% had been asked to change or remove information from a report for “non-scientific reasons.”
In addition to the restrictions, Environment Canada and other departments seen as producing work not aligned with government priorities lost a reported 5,000 jobs between 2013 and 2015.
The civil servants on the Franklin search team told me they wanted to avoid a similar fate, which is why many would only agree to be quoted anonymously.
Some also specifically mentioned Jeremy Hunt, whom they called a friend of Geiger’s, as someone they didn’t want to cross. The boyish-looking Hunt is a senior official in the powerful Prime Minister’s Office.
Hunt, along with many others, would later receive a medal from the RCGS for his participation in the 2014 Victoria Strait Expedition. There is also at least one family tie between Geiger’s organization and Hunt. Hunt’s picture appears on the RCGS website with his mother, Susan Hunt, next to a report of a Nov. 14, 2012, gathering at Gatineau's Canadian Museum of History where she was inducted as an RCGS Fellow.
"Susan Hunt is a distinguished academic geographer and geography instructor at Mount Royal University in Calgary," Geiger said when asked about her. "She has been a fellow since 2012. I did not know Jeremy Hunt at the time." (Neither she nor her son responded to emails.)
Although few Canadians have heard of him, Hunt is well-known in power circles as the prime minister’s gatekeeper and trusted adviser, according to a July 6 profile in the Hill Times.
The Calgary native started as an intern in the Prime Minister’s Office in 2006 and rose quickly to take on several crucial responsibilities. He is now director of tour and scheduling, director of stakeholder relations and outreach, and director of the executive office in the PMO.
“If you’re a local politician, for example, looking to get the PM to attend an event, or if you’re a business leader looking to bend the Prime Minister’s ear, Mr. Hunt is the key PMO contact,” Laura Ryckeweart wrote in the profile. (Disclosure: I was in contact with Hunt in 2009 when I needed help receiving government clearance to travel with an Arctic survey team aboard the Coast Guard vessel Louis S. St. Laurent. Also, the prime minister and I were friends in high school.)
Harper’s former deputy chief of staff, Keith Beardsley, told Ryckeweart that Hunt “certainly has a great deal of influence as to what happens and as to the Prime Minister’s public image — because tour is a large part of that, as is to a lesser extent stakeholder relations, because he is the face of PMO for a lot of individuals, corporations or even association policy groups.”
Then there is Geiger himself, who has forged a strong relationship with the prime minister.
Geiger has led the RCGS since 2013, the year before he attached it to the high-profile expedition to find Franklin’s ships.
Since taking over as CEO of the RCGS, Geiger has enjoyed privileged access to Harper. During the prime minister’s six-day tour of the Far North in August 2013, Geiger was part of a small group who traveled with Harper and his wife, Laureen, on side trips that were not scheduled on the official itinerary.
In one photo from the tour, Harper has his arm around Geiger while they pose on a ledge next to the raging Alexandra Falls, a 32-metre waterfall on the Northwest Territories’ Hay River. Denis St-Onge, a retired geoscientist who posted the pictures on Flickr, is to the prime minister’s right, next to Karen Ryan, an archaeologist at the Canadian Museum of History.
A brief report on the trip on the RCGS website said Hunt invited Geiger, Ryan, and St-Onge as the first outside experts “to be part of this type of tour to provide information on a variety of topics including history, geology and archaeology.”
Prior to the RCGS joining the expedition, in May 2013, Geiger had a private meeting with the prime minister. That came the same month that Geiger resigned as the elected president of the RCGS to take over as its new CEO. The RCGS report about Geiger’s meeting with Harper noted that he “was given a tour of the temporary Franklin Expedition display in the lobby of the Prime Minister’s parliamentary office.” That display was organized by Karen Ryan, who joined Geiger, Harper, and Hunt on the Arctic trip a few months later.
Harper and Geiger were together again in May 2014. The prime minister gathered with Prince Charles and other dignitaries to present Geiger and the RCGS with a donation of $75,000, from the prince. The duo also reunited in the north in August 2014, just before the expedition kicked off. Harper's Twitter account shared a photo of the two of them together aboard the HMCS Kingston.
Jesse Brown, the media critic who runs the CanadaLand podcast and website, has reported on the connections between Geiger and Harper, as well as on the RCGS's work with the oil industry and concerns raised about the eroding editorial standards at its Canadian Geographic magazine.
Elections Canada records show Geiger was an active contributor to Harper’s Conservative Party of Canada in the months before and after he brought the RCGS into the Franklin search.
His full name is John Grigsby Geiger. A John G. Geiger made 10 separate contributions to the Conservative Party of Canada, totaling $1,600, according to Elections Canada’s online database. (The maximum allowable amount for a contribution by an individual to a registered party was $1,200 in 2014. In an email response Geiger said his wife was responsible for some donations.) No other political parties are listed as receiving donations from John G. Geiger.
Geiger’s first contribution came on March 20, 2014, a few weeks before he attended the first meeting of expedition search partners in April. An expedition source said the next month the RCGS signed an 11-page contract with Parks Canada to participate in the 2014 expedition. (The RCGS issued a press release about its participation in July.)
On Canada Day this year, Geiger presented the prime minister with a framed photo of the Arctic Council "To commemorate the 2014 Victoria Strait Expedition." The gift was disclosed by the PMO because its value exceeds $200.
The RCGS had joined the expedition only a few months before the discovery of Erebus. Yet from the moment the prime minister’s photo op ended at Parks Canada, it was Geiger who gave numerous national and international interviews, and who acted as the expedition’s principal voice when news of the Franklin find was fresh and of huge interest. Given the strict contact terms and tightly controlled messaging required by the Harper government and the PMO in particular, he could have only done so with the blessing of senior officials.
During interviews, Geiger proved adept at working in references to Harper's Arctic sovereignty initiative.
“I think the legacy of the Franklin Expedition, you’re right, in part, is to assert the presence of Canada in the Arctic,” Geiger told the Globe and Mail. “I mean, we are inheritors of this Golden Era of British exploration. But I think the current government has been very wise to pay attention to the north. There’s tremendous economic, you know, future in the north. There’s a lot of resources. There’s a lot of activity up there.”
Affan Chowdhry, the interviewer, put it to Geiger that “there is a political element and agenda to this.”
Geiger agreed, but shrugged it off as cynicism.
“I’ve spoken to the prime minister about this,” Geiger added. “His interest in this is absolutely sincere. You know, he’s a student of the north. He loves that part of the country. He travels, as you know, extensively, more than any Canadian political leader has in our history. Is that a bad thing? Is it a bad thing to have political leadership that is interested in a part of the country that represents very much the economic future and, in some respects, the cultural future of our country? I don’t think so.”
Geiger said in an email that he had no contact with anyone in the PMO about what he should say in media interviews.
"I was not given any instructions or talking points by anyone about what to say — and what not to say — during interviews or about scheduling and otherwise coordinating media opportunities regarding the discovery of Erebus," he said.
Geiger also discussed his part in the discovery with the Globe, this time adding a fresh detail to his anecdote about a moment of prayer "when we were there."
“You have a passion for the Franklin Expedition,” Chowdhry told Geiger. “You’ve co-written a book about the expedition. Describe that moment when you realized, ‘That’s it!’"
“You know,” Geiger replied with a shrug, “I was euphoric, obviously. I was extremely excited. Very happy. You know there was a toast proposed very shortly thereafter. But I was also haunted by it, a little bit, as I have always been by the expedition, by the fact that 129 men died.
"And, you know, when we were there,” he continued, “I had the Anglican Book of Common Prayer with me and I cited a prayer for those lost at sea as well. And I reflected on the fact that there may well be human remains on that ship.”
BuzzFeed Canada asked Geiger about the timing and details of the prayer he cited after learning of the discovery, and when he participated in a toast to the find. He did not offer a date or describe who was with him, and instead cited details about other toasts and prayers.
"A toast was made at the start of the expedition, when many of the partners were together, people like Jim Balsillie, Ryan Harris, and Admiral John Newton, as well as the Prime Minister," he said. "I’ve participated in one or two since the discovery. Regarding prayers, John Newton led one at the start of the expedition. I did have the prayer book with me, and when we were in Victoria Strait a couple of us recited the prayer for those lost at sea."
When CTV’s Don Martin asked how the discovery had unfolded, Geiger omitted the prayer anecdote he told CP and others.
“Suddenly there was a moment when, I wasn’t in the room, but two of the archaeologists were doing this tedious work, and suddenly realized there was a ship in front of them,” he said. Geiger neglected to mention he wasn’t on the same boat, or even in the same body of water.
The media tour continued with CBC Radio’s Quirks & Quarks. Host Bob McDonald introduced Geiger as “one of the people who led the successful expedition” and said it was carried out “all under the flag of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society.”
Geiger correctly said that he was on One Ocean Voyager, but added that sea ice forced the full expedition’s flotilla south of Victoria Strait, which in his case wasn’t true.
“All the vessels had to head into the so-called southern search area,” Geiger told McDonald. “So really, the very bottom of Victoria Strait, and then to the south of that, in Queen Maud Gulf. So really, the major area that we had been, you know, assigned to search has not been searched. And instead, we were kind of bumped to the south.”
To the Parks Canada–led team that did find Erebus, it sounded like Geiger was trying to claim that he was there.
“It’s rewriting history,” said one senior member of the expedition.
Contracts and other documents obtained by BuzzFeed Canada do not outline a role for Geiger or the RCGS to act as lead spokespersons for the expedition. The contract related to the expedition specifically says, “In dealing with the media, the Parties shall not speak for one another unless previously agreed to in writing through an established and jointly-developed media protocol.”
Parks Canada also secured the right “to approve all products and messages related to this project to ensure accuracy.”
Geiger said in an email that the RCGS's role "has been to celebrate the discovery, and the role played by Parks Canada with the support of public and private partners, and to share the story with Canadians."
As examples, he pointed to a special issue of Canadian Geographic magazine, his upcoming book, and the recognition of Parks Canada's Ryan Harris as "one of Canada’s top 100 explorers."
In terms of the expedition itself, the RCGS was contracted to provide a "research platform" for equipment such as the robotic sub.
"As CEO, I’m very proud of our organization’s supporting role," he said.
The role continued in October when Harper told the House of Commons that the wreck had been identified as Erebus. In preparation for the announcement, two senior Parks Canada divers were told to get ready to fly to Montreal and Toronto to brief reporters. They were ordered to stand down at the last minute, a federal source said. Once again, Geiger handled the media with a written statement and interviews.
Few of those involved in the expedition would go on record about their frustrations with what they felt was Geiger’s mistelling of the discovery, and his efforts to convey core Harper government messages during interviews. One exception is Jim Balsillie, the former co-CEO of Research in Motion, now known as BlackBerry, who was a leader of the Franklin search effort.
Balsillie watched in frustration as Geiger placed himself and the RCGS at the centre of the discovery. The final straw came when in April 2015 Balsillie watched the aforementioned documentary about the expedition on CBC’s The Nature of Things. It was co-produced by Lion Television, the U.K. film company that Geiger and the RCGS brought in as a partner. (Gordon Henderson, president of the Canadian co-producers 90th Parallel Productions, which revised Lion’s first cut of the documentary on a tight deadline, told BuzzFeed Canada that Geiger exercised no control over the film’s content.)
Three weeks after it aired, on April 30, Balsillie wrote a formal letter of complaint to Minister Aglukkaq and copied it to the PMO. Balsillie said he was “troubled that Canadian history is not being presented accurately and I have expressed my concerns to [Geiger] in the past.”
While I don’t want to speculate about the motivation of RCGS and its partners in creating an alternative narrative for themselves and their role in the Victoria Strait partnership I am concerned that official communication outputs, such as this documentary, contain versions of the search that are misleading to the Canadian public.
Balsillie said that he was warned that his outspoken objection could have serious personal ramifications.
“Most people were supportive of me in sending the letter, but a couple of civil servants cautioned me that if I pushed too hard, the PMO could ‘destroy me and my friends,'” he said. “The notion that I could be intimidated by boys in shorts for questioning the accuracy of RCGS’s narrative is laughable.”
Balsillie said he never received a reply until the letter was made public. (Read his letter here.)
Meanwhile, as Balsillie and others fumed over how the find was being misrepresented to the public, Harper and Geiger began to exchange medals in recognition for each other’s work.
On March 4, Geiger helped host a reception at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto to hand out the Erebus Medal, a newly created award from his organization. It was struck this year to honor “participants in the 2014 Victoria Strait Expedition and their contributions to the discovery of HMS Erebus.”
Two recipients of the medal were Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his wife, Laureen. The photo of them holding their medals next to Geiger was published by the RCGS and was also featured prominently in a March press release from the Prime Minister’s Office. It announced the news that the government was funding “approximately 11 days of intense ice diving and underwater archaeology in April” to explore the wreck of the Erebus.
Geiger’s organization hosted the cocktail reception at the museum, which cost $100 a ticket. Harper chose the event, attended by some 200 people including federal Finance Minister Joe Oliver, as well as British and American diplomats, to announce the new dive.
“This discovery would not have been possible without the incredible efforts of the 2014 Victoria Strait Expedition made up of government, private and non-profit partners, including The Royal Canadian Geographical Society,” read a quote from Harper in the release.
An Erebus Medal was also presented to senior Harper aide Jeremy Hunt.
Searchers said they were baffled as they tried to figure out what Hunt had done to earn a medal honoring those who participated in the expedition.
“Nobody can understand that,” said one member of the discovery team.
Geiger said in an email that the medals "were received by, of course, those who led the search, but also those who supported the search team, both in the field and elsewhere. Among the recipients were people in political offices who worked on this file such as Mr. Hunt."
There remained yet another medal to be given out. This time it was Geiger’s turn.
“It’s rewriting history,” said one senior member of the expedition.
On July 8, the governor general awarded the newly created Polar Medal to 10 Canadians on behalf of Queen Elizabeth II to recognize their contributions to the North. Four people received it specifically for their role in finding Erebus. Geiger was one of the honourees.
The other three recipients were people who had dedicated years, and in some cases decades, to the mission: marine archaeologist Harris, Nunavut archaeologist Stenton, and Inuk historian Louie Kamookak. The latter spent some 30 years compiling and studying Inuit oral history in his quest to find Franklin’s ships, or the remains of the commander himself. The other two also had put years of work into the effort.
Robert Park, the archaeological anthropologist who was with Stenton and Stirling when the davit piece was discovered on an island in the Arctic, was one of many who said they couldn't understand why Geiger was being honoured.
"I was surprised," he said in an email sent from aboard the Laurier, which is currently back in the Arctic as part of the search for Franklin's other ship. (The RCGS is not participating in this year's expedition.)
“There’s been a level of control around this project that strikes me as odd.”
Park said that anyone who had been following the media coverage of Erebus would have assumed Geiger "played a central role and thus deserved the award since his was definitely the most prominent public face in the media immediately following the discovery."
BuzzFeed Canada contacted the office of the secretary to the governor general to ask who had nominated Geiger and the other three Polar Medal recipients related to Erebus. A spokesperson said that "all nominations are kept confidential to respect privacy."
"Recipients for the inaugural ceremony were identified during the consultation and development process that led to the creation of the Polar Medal," they said.
The medal itself is a symbol of the government's Arctic sovereignty push. When the governor general announced the new medal in June, he made sure to emphasize the policy. “Canada is a northern nation, and the North is integral to our identity and our sovereignty," he said.
The medal ceremony was a painful reminder to those aboard the Laurier: They knew that if the professionals at Parks Canada had listened to Geiger and called their ship north into Victoria Strait late last August, Erebus could still be hidden in her Arctic tomb, enshrouded in thick kelp.
On the day of the medal ceremony, Philippe Morin, a reporter with the CBC North, stood outside Whitehorse’s MacBride Museum of Yukon History. He wanted to ask Geiger about the RCGS’s role in the expedition.
Morin tweeted: “John Geiger today at Polar Medals ceremony: Declined to explain Geographic Society's role in finding HMS Erebus.”
Three photos accompanied the tweet. One showed a smiling Geiger with the new medal on his lapel. One blurred image captured him walking next to a woman, on their way into the ceremony.
The final image was of the woman's hand blocking the lens of the reporter’s camera as he tried to get answers from the man who told the story of Erebus to Canada and the world.