Joseph-Elzéar Bernier was born at L'Islet, Québec, on January 1, 1852. A sea captain by the age of 17, Bernier was at sea, save for a few brief intervals, for sixty years, and commanded over 100 ships. His interest in Arctic exploration originated in 1871 when he saw Charles Francis Hall's Polaris in dry-dock being readied for a voyage to the North Pole. Bernier then began to read the history of polar exploration and to study the problems of Arctic navigation.
In 1895, Bernier retired temporarily from the sea and was appointed governor of the Québec city jail, a position that allowed him free time to study the field of Arctic exploration from a historical perspective. During this period he set an ambitious goal, that is, the discovery of the North Pole for Canada. He analyzed the available data—Arctic winds, ice conditions, and currents—before deciding that he would route his assault on the pole by ship via Bering Strait and over the pole to Spitsbergen. An able publicist, Bernier began in 1898 to promote his plan and turned to the Canadian government for support.
In 1904, the government purchased the Gauss, a German ship that had wintered successfully in the Antarctic. Renamed the Arctic, the ship was provisioned for Bernier's polar expedition before the government changed its plans. Instead, Bernier took the ship to Hudson Bay to deliver supplies to the police post at Fullerton, California, established to exert Canadian sovereignty over American whaling interests. The subsequent wintering bolstered Bernier's fascination with the Arctic.
Canada had made no attempt to use its Arctic territories effectively since their transfer from Britain in 1880. American and Norwegian expeditions had been active on Ellesmere Island, and Scots and Americans continued to dominate Arctic whaling. The only official Canadian government expedition to the High Arctic had been that of Albert Peter Low in 1903. In 1906, Bernier made the first of his three famous, flag-waving, cairn-building voyages to assert Canadian sovereignty in the far north.
In that year the government's department of marine and fisheries ordered Bernier north to the Arctic
Archipelago to annex lands, build cairns, and collect customs dues from foreign whaling ships. Bernier took the Arctic into Lancaster Sound, Navy Board Inlet, and Eclipse Sound, then west through Barrow Strait, taking possession of many islands in the Arctic Archipelago, before reaching his farthest point west at Melville Island. He wintered at Albert Harbour, near what is today Pond Inlet. Bernier recognized that in claiming land for Canada, his actions also made the Inuit inhabitants Canadian. Although his orders did not require it, Bernier explained the ways of Canada to the Inuit.
In 1908, the governments instructed Bernier to take the Arctic as far as Etah, Greenland, from where he proceeded west to winter at Winter Harbour on Melville Island, further north of where any Inuit lived. The following spring, sled parties visited and claimed Banks, Victoria, and King William islands. On July 1, 1909, at Winter Harbour, Bernier proclaimed sovereignty over the entire Arctic Archipelago as far north as the pole, the first time Canada had claimed ownership based on the sector principle.
In 1910, Bernier received orders north again, to patrol the waters of the Arctic Archipelago, issue whaling licences to foreign whalers, and act as justice of the peace and protector of wildlife in the region. However, ice prevented the ship from getting through McClure Strait. His farthest point west was 30 miles southwest of Cape Ross at the mouth of Liddon Gulf. Disappointed in failing to complete the North West Passage, Bernier returned eastward and wintered at Arctic Bay.
Bernier's return south in the fall of 1911 coincided with a change in government in Ottawa. The new government had a different approach to northern development, and would no longer send ceremonial expeditions to the Arctic. For the next decade, the Arctic was neglected by officialdom, virtually forgotten by all except private traders, until the initiation of the Eastern Arctic Patrol in 1922.
In 1910, Bernier had purchased land and buildings at Pond Inlet and Bylot Island from Scottish whaling interests. The government also granted him a nearby tract of land 960 acres in area that he named "Berniera" and planned to use as a private trader and entrepreneur in the Arctic. In 1912, he returned to northern Baffin Island with his own ship, the Minnie Maud, to trade and search for gold. (Two other expeditions visited northern Baffin Island that same year in an unsuccessful search for gold.) The crew of six French Canadians, two Englishmen, and one New Zealander wintered on shore in wooden shacks and later in snow houses with the Inuit. The expedition returned south the following year with cargo valued at $25,000. In 1914, Bernier returned to winter again in northern Baffin Island with his new ship, the Guide. In 1918, he sold his holdings to a rival trading company, the Arctic Gold Exploration Syndicate.
In 1922, the department of the interior brought Bernier, then 70 years old, out of retirement to captain the Arctic on an expedition sent north to establish Royal Canadian Mounted Police posts. The expedition, commanded by John Davidson Craig, was the first of an annual series of voyages known as the Eastern Arctic Patrol. The following year, Bernier again commanded the Arctic when it sailed to Pond Inlet for the trial of three Inuit accused of the murder of a trader. Bernier captained the Arctic again for the next two summers. In the fall of 1925, after a short assignment with the department of railways and canals, he retired. He died in Lévis, Québec on December 26, 1934.
Bernier broke new ground in turning the imagination and vision of the Canadian public and its political leaders toward the North, and he did so with flair and skill. Bernier's accomplishment was not in traveling to new lands, but in securing Canada's claim to lands that other expeditions, mostly British, had already discovered and cursorily explored. He charted in more detail, described with more accuracy, and explored with more tenacity areas that had been found by others; in doing so he proclaimed Canada's sovereignty in the Arctic.
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