Parks Canada Struggling with Erebus Artifacts Ownership

Nunuvut’s government is staking claim to artifacts from the HMS Erebus – one of two ships from the ill – fated Sir John Franklin expedition of 1845. Nunavut is refusing to issue Parks Canada dive permits unless Parks Canada relinquishes rights to artifacts found and retrieved from the seabed at the wreck sight of the Erebus in the waters of Victoria Strait, just off the coast of King William Island where it was discovered in September 2014. The Erebus is thought to be the ship on which Franklin perished during the ill fated expedition. The other lost ship, HMS Terror has yet to be found.

Parks Canada finally relented to the Nunavut request after realizing their divers could face arrest by the RCMP. Permission from Nunavut’s director of heritage must now be consulted before retrieving any artifacts from the site.

Franklin canon recovery 2015 underwater

One of the cannons from the HMS Erebu is lifted to the surface during last year’s artifact recovery mission in the Arctic. Thierry Boyer/Parks Canada photo.

In addition to Nunavut, other claimants to the Erebus’ artifacts include the Kitikmeot Inuit, who claim ownership under a land claims treaty, as well as the British, who, since the ships and expedition were of British origin, and based on an agreement drafted in 1997, possess rights to claim any artifacts of “outstanding significance” to their Royal Navy. The agreement between Canada and Britain recognize ownership of the wrecks and their contents by Britain, though it acknowledges Britain will ultimately gift ownership to Canada of everything, except gold, recovered from the wrecks.


Parks Canada diver surveys the HMS Erebus. Parks Canada photo.

“During the permit application process for the spring 2015 ice dive on HMS Erebus, the government of Nunavut included a condition that denied Parks Canada the authorization to recover artifacts from the wreck site,” says a briefing note for Leona Aglukkaq, who was then the environment minister.

The federal cabinet has subsequently declared the HMS Erebus wreck and surrounding waters a national historic site, which took precedence over Nunavut’s permit regulations. However the wreck of the Terror, Franklin’s second lost ship is presumed to be outside the historical site designation therefore creating the same issues and subject to Nunavut’s initial claim of jurisdiction for the HMS Erebus artifacts.

HMS Erebus Parks Canada photo

Diver inspects the hull of the HMS Erebus preserved by the Arctic waters. Parks Canada photo.

This summer Parks Canada will return to the Erebus wreck site to document artifacts and then continue nearby areas to the north to search for the elusive HMS Terror as well. Hopefully all the ownership and jurisdiction tug – of – wars will ease enough to allow divers to expedite the process before the artifacts are scattered.


A portion of the Erebus steering wheel found at the site. Parks Canada photo.

Erebus crewman's boot

A crewman’s boot in good condition was found at the site of the Erebus. Parks Canada photo.

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