Joseph Bernier

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Joseph Bernier

Joseph Bernier (1852-1934) led expeditions to the farthest reaches of Canada's Arctic wilderness in the early twentieth century. Bernier had once dreamed of reaching the North Pole and planting the Canadian flag there, but instead plied the Hudson Bay and Arctic Sea waters in his durable ship, the Arctic, and proclaimed Canadian sovereignty over the scattered islands and Inuit communities in the region. He made some dozen trips before his final 1925 voyage, establishing important political, social, and economic ties to the region for Canada and awakening interest in its northernmost territories.

Seafaring Family

Bernier, born on January 1, 1852, in L'Islet, Quebec, was French Canadian by birth. He grew up in L'Islet, a town on the St. Lawrence River, outside of Quebec City. His family's origins in the area dated back to 1656, and he came from a long line of shipbuilders and sailors. Several of them, including Bernier's father, earned the designation capitaine au long cours, or deep-sea captain. Bernier himself made his first ocean voyage when he was still a toddler with both parents on the Zillah. The vessel was captained by his father and traveled as far as Malta on a mission to bring supplies to British forces during the Crimean War.

Bernier was schooled in L'Islet, but was indifferent to his studies save for the subject of geography. He showed far more interest in his father's line of work, which came to involve sailing newly-constructed ships to England for sale there. Around 1864, when Bernier was 12, his father built a ship of his own and named it the Saint-Joseph in his son's honor. On this vessel Bernier learned the rigors of the seafaring life firsthand, serving as a lowly apprentice on several ocean crossings. A terrible case of seasickness was cured by his father's rather harsh method: the 13-year-old was tied to the front of the ship as it pitched and rolled through rough waters for two hours.

Became Ship Captain

At the age of 17, Bernier was made the Saint-Joseph 's captain by his father, making him purportedly the youngest ocean-going captain in Canadian history. His father built a second ship, the Saint-Michel, and he served as captain of that after 1870. Around this time he married Rose Caron, a native of L'Islet. He spent the next two decades in the same line of work as his father, sailing ships to England and acting as a sales agent. In all, he made 269 Atlantic crossings during his lifetime. In 1895, he was offered a position as governor of the Quebec jail and accepted it. He read avidly during this time, meeting and questioning whaling captains and traders who had ventured into Canada's northernmost areas. He dreamed of sailing there and perhaps even reaching the North Pole. He began lecturing on the topic and soon won the support of the Quebec Geographical Society. Realizing he needed to provide for his family before embarking upon such a journey, which might stretch nearly two years in duration, he learned of a steamship that had run aground off the coast of Newfoundland. He hired a salvage company and managed to free her, took her to Montreal for refitting, and sold the vessel at auction for $30,000.

Still, Bernier estimated that an Arctic expedition would cost at least $150,000 and realized he needed government support. Beginning in 1900 he traveled to Ottawa and petitioned Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier regularly, but Laurier was uneasy about committing funds for a project that seemed foolhardy at best. The islands and fjords of Canada's northernmost regions—much of it until recently in the possession of the Hudson Bay Trading Company—were littered with the carcasses of ships that had become icebound or met with other trouble. The most famous of these was the 1845 expedition led by British explorer Sir John Franklin in search of the elusive Northwest Passage—the commercial sea route from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Franklin and his 129 men became icebound, and no word was heard from them for eight years. More than 40 search parties were sent out to find them, and the highly publicized expedition and resulting tragedy served to highlight the dangers of the treacherous cold and ice of the lands in Canada north of the Arctic Circle.

Argued for North Pole Expedition

Bernier was undaunted, however. Lecturing frequently in order to drum up public support, as Laurier had suggested, he was fond of telling audiences the tale of an American ship, the Jeannette, which became frozen in the ice near Wrangel Island off the coast of Siberia in 1879. When the ice moved, so did the ship, in a northwesterly direction, and finally parts of it were found on the eastern coast of Greenland. Bernier told his rapt listeners that the discovery meant that the ship's parts traveled across the Arctic Sea around the North Pole. He believed that if a vessel was strategically placed, it would drift near enough the Pole so that a sled voyage could be made there to stake a claim. To date, only the Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen, attempting to use this drift method, had come close to the Pole on a 1896 voyage.

With support from the Canadian government still unforthcoming, Bernier was dismayed to learn that an American, Robert E. Peary, was trying to reach North Pole on foot via Greenland. In 1903 diplomatic relations between Canada and the United States soured briefly over what became known as the Alaska Boundary Dispute, and members of a British commission sided with the American claims and a strip of land in British Columbia was handed over to the United States. The public outcry in Canada was strong, and it ignited a nationalist fervor to claim the Pole. Thus in 1904 the Canadian Parliament enacted legislation that granted Bernier's planned expedition a sum of $200,000.

Plan Thwarted

Bernier, though in his late 50s by then, eagerly prepared for the arduous voyage. He found a German vessel that had made a trip to the Antarctic, the Gauss, and had it refitted and rechristened the Arctic. Then, Bernier was sent word that the planned expedition was to be postponed, and that he and his ship—which technically belonged to the Canadian government—were to be sent to the northern end of Hudson Bay with a Canadian North West Mounted Police officer. The officer conducted a criminal investigation of a ship captain in the area suspected of selling alcohol to the Inuit, which was against the law at the time. Bernier told a newspaper reporter some years later that he believed the Canadian government called off his North Pole quest when it learned that Peary was about to make another try.

There could serve another purpose to such a trip northward, Bernier believed: Canada could stake claims on the scattered islands of the Arctic Circle. Some of them had been claimed by Franklin's party, but the British government granted Canada sovereignty over them in 1880. Bernier was a proponent of the Sector Theory, which held that Canada should possess the right to all territory from its mainland to the North Pole. Customarily a government would send settlers to such places, but the forbidding Arctic climate discouraged this prospect. Finally winning approval for his voyage, Bernier gathered a learned crew of metal workers, botanists, meteorologists, and other professionals, along with experienced sailors, and set out on his first expedition in July of 1906.

Staked Claims in Arctic

Bernier's Arctic sailed through Lancaster Sound and the Prince of Wales Strait. It crossed the Arctic Circle on August 11, 1906, and at Albert Harbor the captain hired two Inuit men, Monkeyshaw and Cameo, to accompany them further. Bernier landed on Bylot and Somerset Islands, making an official Canadian claim on both. At Beechey Island he found a rock left behind by the Franklin party, and built a cairn over the inscription. Bernier's explorations of the islands found other evidence of the ill-fated Franklin expedition, and some of the items were brought back for deposit in the National Archives of Canada.

In all, Bernier made another eleven trips to the Arctic over the next 19 years. His three before 1909 established Canadian sovereignty on the islands of the region. He officially claimed the last of these, Banks and Victoria, for Canada on Dominion Day of 1909. He gathered his crew for a ceremony that day, erecting a cairn and a plaque; with that act, Canada now claimed all territory from the Yukon in the west to Baffin Land, which was adjacent to Greenland, and all land north of that to the Pole.

Friendly with Inuit

During World War I, Bernier's ship made mail runs and carted supplies to the European front. After the war, he began making trips to Inuit communities like Pond Inlet, where he set up a trading post. Over the next few years he worked to establish a foothold for Canadian government administration of the region. After being deputized a special fisheries officer in Ottawa, he issued permits to whalers and fishermen in the area. He also helped establish Royal Canadian Mounted Police posts. During all of his trips, Bernier made copious notes and from these a wealth of scientific information about navigation, weather, and plant life in the region was gleaned. One member of his party studied the Inuit tongue, Inuktitut, and made a dictionary.

Bernier's missions were forgotten for many years, but the Inuit who met him during his expeditions remembered him fondly even generations later. He treated these hearty, indigenous people with respect and often plied them with questions about how to survive the cold. He even adopted their dress and always invited them aboard the ship to see its marvels. Generous supplies of pilot biscuits, or hardtack, that he left behind helped stave of hunger during the lean winter months in some places. One of his crew members was his wife's nephew, Wilfrid Caron, who decided to stay behind at Pond Inlet. Caron married an Inuit woman, with whom he had children, and Caron descendants lived in the area still at the onset of the twenty-first century.

Bernier's wife Rose died in 1917, and in 1919 he married Alma Lemieux. His last trips to the Eastern Arctic were the first annual patrols of seas by the Canadian government, between 1922 and 1925. After he retired, he settled in the Quebec community of Lévis and continued to lecture. He died of a heart attack on Christmas Eve of 1934 at the age of 82. He is still remembered by many Inuit communities in Nunavut, as this area of Canada has been called since 1999, and often referred to by his Inuit name, which means white bear. "Kapitaikallak helped in a big way," a resident, Nutaraq Cornelius, was quoted as saying by Nunatsiaq News writer Jane George. "He taught us about rifles. He showed us that by using the binoculars we can see things from far away." Still, confusion over official Canadian policies remained. "People did not understand that the land had been claimed by the government," Cornelius pointed out. "Inuit learned about this much later. He had warned the people of the change that is coming in the following years… . It's true, these events happened a long time ago. But even after these many, many years, you can still see the Kapitaikallak isn't forgotten today. We still remember him. We know about him."


Fairley, T. C. and Charles E. Israel, The True North: The Story of Captain Joseph Bernier, Macmillan, 1957.


Nunatsiaq News, October 26, 2001. □

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Joseph Bernier

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