Located in the Kitikmeot Region (Nunavut), the Wrecks of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror National Historic Site has begun transitioning to a fully Inuit-led and operated national historic site. The site is comprised of two protected areas: one in Wilmot and Crampton Bay and another in Terror Bay on the south shore of King William Island. At these locations, the remains of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, the three-masted, wooden vessels from Sir John Franklin’s last Arctic voyage, sit relatively intact on the ocean floor.
For centuries, explorers were determined to chart a polar shortcut from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. In 1845, the two Royal Navy ships left England with 134 men to find the long-sought Northwest Passage. Captain Sir John Franklin (HMS Erebus) – who led the expedition – and Captain Francis Crozier (HMS Terror), were tasked by the British Admiralty with mapping the portion of the Northwest Passage that remained uncharted by Europeans. Both ships were eventually trapped by ice in September 1846 near King William Island, abandoned in April 1848 by the surviving crews, and sank sometime thereafter.
From 1848 to 1880, a succession of search parties pursued traces of the ships and the men that were on them; no survivors were ever found. These searches led to the mapping of large tracts of the Canadian Arctic. Inuit knowledge provided clues about the fate of the Franklin Expedition to these early 19th century searches and continued into the early 21st century until the wrecks of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror were located in 2014 and 2016 respectively.
Parks Canada’s archaeological exploration and study of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, in collaboration with Inuit, is one of the largest, most complex underwater archaeological undertakings in Canadian history. The discovery of the long-lost Franklin ships has generated a great deal of positive attention on Canada’s North and highlighted the importance of Inuit knowledge, or Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit, in the search and finding of the two vessels while also providing the opportunity to showcase northern culture.
Parks Canada is committed to the holistic use of Inuit knowledge and participation in the planning, management and operations related to the national historic site. This collaborative work helps to further understand the Franklin story, and how to protect these sites, and the precious environment in which they are located.
Since 2018, all newly recovered artifacts from HMS Erebus and HMS Terror are jointly owned by the Government of Canada and Inuit. In April 2019, the Government of Canada and Inuit Heritage Trust signed a Memorandum of Understanding detailing how the two organizations will work together to protect, study, conserve and share these important examples of maritime cultural heritage.
The Wrecks of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror National Historic Site was originally established in 1992 prior to the finding of the wrecks. In 2015, the wreck of HMS Erebus was added to the National Historic Sites of Canada Order ensuring legal protection for the wreck under the Canada National Parks Act, with HMS Terror added in 2017 after its discovery. The site is currently restricted from public visitation by way of a Superintendent’s Order, except for Inuit who can access the area to exercise their traditional harvesting rights.
Formed in 2016, the Franklin Interim Advisory Committee was comprised of community members and representatives from the Kitikmeot Inuit Association, Inuit Heritage Trust, the Government of Nunavut, the heritage and tourism industry and Parks Canada, and advised on the management of the wrecks until the Inuit Impact and Benefit Agreement was finalized between Parks Canada and the Kitikmeot Inuit Association.
The Advisory Committee has met over 50 times since 2016, allowing valuable research to continue, while ensuring Inuit participation and benefits were in place during these initial years of site establishment. Parks Canada is grateful for the time and energy that the Committee devoted to the national historic site.
Acting on the advice of the Franklin Interim Advisory Committee, the Wrecks Guardian Program was initiated in 2017. The program is administered by the Nattilik Heritage Society and comprised of Inuit from Gjoa Haven, Nunavut who work collaboratively with Parks Canada to protect and present the national historic site. Guardians safeguard the wreck sites by monitoring local marine traffic and the environment, with the ability to report incidents to law enforcement. Guardians support the development and delivery of visitor experiences and research activities through the integration of Inuit knowledge and experience.
In March 2023, the Kitikmeot Inuit Association and the Government of Canada signed a ten-year Inuit Impact and Benefit Agreement. The Inuit Impact and Benefit Agreement sets out a new model for a cooperative relationship established between Parks Canada and Inuit. Through communication and collaboration on shared goals, the Wrecks of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror will progressively become a fully Inuit-led national historic site. The Agreement supports economic development opportunities in Gjoa Haven and Cambridge Bay through an Inuit business development fund, an Inuit cultural and heritage fund, an Inuit scholarship fund, Inuit training and employment opportunities, and the Wrecks Guardian Program.