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Banner: Pathfinders and Passageways: The Exploration of Canada About This Site
The Mapmakers: An Essay in Four Parts
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Joseph-Elzéar Bernier (1852 - 1934)

Joseph-Elzéar Bernier was born in L'Islet on New Year's Day 1852. He was part of a line of captains on the south shore of the St. Lawrence. His baptism with the sea occurred at the age of two when his parents took him to Cuba on a ship captained by his father. At 17, his father presented him with a ship that he had had built, to train him. Joseph-Elzéar took it as far as Ireland, where he brought wood. For many years before undertaking his voyages to the Arctic, Bernier crossed the Atlantic, piloting new ships built in Quebec for England on their maiden voyages, a job requiring specific expertise. In 1871, Bernier was in Connecticut when Charles Francis Hall left for his last polar expedition. As of that moment, northern navigation became his primary interest and he built his personal on board library with books and maps on Arctic voyages.

For many years, at the end of the last century, Bernier tried to persuade the Canadian government of the importance of taking possession of the islands north of Canada. Finally, in 1904, he bought a German ship for the government, which he named the Arctic, and filled it with provisions for five years. He planned to go around Cape Horn and enter the Arctic through Bering Strait. However, as he was leaving, the Department of Marine and Fisheries countermanded the expedition and sent him to Hudson's Bay with the Royal North-West Mounted Police to stop a defrauder and to set up posts for this police force. In spite of his disappointment, he would later write that this voyage was useful as they conducted studies on ice and on navigation. "But so far as I was personally concerned the first arctic voyage of real importance to me was that of 1906-07, [...]" (Bernier 1939, 306).

Photograph: Captain Joseph-Elzéar Bernier

Bernier left Quebec in 1906, headed for the Far North, to confirm Canada's sovereignty over the Arctic islands. The British government had formally ceded these islands to Canada in 1880 but the Canadian government had taken no measures to confirm its sovereignty and to exercise its jurisdiction over this territory. It seemed more important to do this than to try to reach the North Pole, as there was talk in the United States of American explorers taking possession of the Arctic archipelago for their country. The explorations of the Norwegian Sverdrup around Ellesmere Island were so disconcerting to the Canadian government that they paid him a large sum for his surveys and his maps by way of having him abandon any claim.

Like his predecessors, Bernier took Lancaster Sound and reached McClure Strait between Banks and Melville islands, then entered Prince of Wales Strait. During this first voyage, when he stopped at Beechey Island, Bernier found that the rock inscribed by Franklin during his last winter was unsupported. Bernier and his companions built a cairn and put the plaque on it. From island to island, Bernier rediscovered the places that were reached and marked by his predecessors. Thus we learned that some of them had built caches in which they left information and provisions for themselves and for others in case of shipwreck and that these constructions were used as targets by the whalers. Captain Bernier brought back from these caches documents that were left by explorers, which he deposited at the National Archives of Canada. On each of the islands, Bernier and his team conducted topographic surveys followed by a ceremony marking the official taking of possession by Canada.

Between 1906 and 1925, Bernier made twelve trips to the Arctic and spent eight winters there. The expeditions of 1906 to 1909 were primarily conducted to get basic information to claim for Canada all the islands in the Arctic north of the North American continent. The Arctic expeditions ceased during the First World War. Bernier then transported mail on his ship, the Guide, along the shores of the St. Lawrence and the coast of Labrador and also made several transport voyages to Europe. The end of the war was marked by the return of scientific expeditions to the Arctic.

Photograph: Hoisting a polar bear aboard the "Arctic"

Establishing Canadian sovereignty in the Far North meant introducing the laws of Canada into the region. To this end, Bernier needed to issue permits to whalers and to fishermen who came hunting and fishing in territorial waters. He also participated in the establishment of numerous Royal Canadian Mounted Police posts. He says in his memoirs that the most northerly post, Bache, is the home of Santa Claus and that, each year, thousands of letters to him are delivered there.

Photograph: Captain Joseph-Elzéar Bernier and Nu-Kood-lah on board the "Arctic"

When Bernier undertook his voyages, most of the Inuit communities had already been in contact with Europeans and their North American descendants. The latter, even though very paternalistic towards them, as was the norm at the beginning of the 20th century, still needed their help in the Arctic. Bernier hired two Inuit during his first voyage, knowing that they would not only be able to help him on the voyage but would serve as reporters, informing their communities of what they had seen. On his voyages, Bernier transported a large quantity of food and other articles, which he distributed in the Inuit communities.


"[...] but first of all hired young Monkeyshaw, and old Cameo, two Eskimos who would be useful in various ways during the cruise. I had another purpose in view in selecting the men according to their ages. I wanted them to tell their friends what they had seen to the west. If I had taken only a young man, his story would not have been accepted unreservedly by his tribesmen, but with corroboration by an older man his statements would be unquestioned. Besides which as a broadcaster, the young man would live longer."

(Bernier 1939, 312)

Bernier conducted his last voyage to the Arctic as commanding officer in 1925, the same year that he had to abandon the Arctic, which had been worn by the ice. Bernier gave many lectures on the Arctic both in Canada and abroad and continued to travel to all the continents. He died of a heart attack on Christmas Eve 1934.

His explorations and his activities allowed Canada to establish its sovereignty over some 740 000 square kilometres in the Arctic and to sensitize the Canadian public to the political and economic importance of the Far North. It has been written of Captain Joseph Elzéar Bernier that he was the "the greatest Canadian navigator".

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