I have today laid before Parliament a Ministry of Defence departmental minute detailing a gift which the UK intends to make to the Government of Canada. This reflects our long shared history and the closeness of our current bilateral relationship.
Sir John Franklin set sail from England in 1845 with two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, in search of a Northwest Passage through the Arctic. Sadly, the ships and all their crew were lost.
In 1992, the wrecks were designated as a national historic site by the Canadian Government under the Canadian Historic Sites and Monuments Act—despite neither shipwreck having been found at that time. This significant step was taken as a result of the ships’ association with Franklin’s final expedition, and their role in the history of exploration of Canada’s north and the development of Canada as a nation.
Recognising the significance of these ships to the people of Canada, a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was signed between the UK and Canadian Governments in 1997 assigning custody and control of the wrecks along with their contents to the Government of Canada (Parks Canada) with certain conditions should they be discovered.
Many attempts were made over the years to locate the ships, but only artefacts were found. The ships remained undiscovered until September 2014 when an expedition led by Parks Canada discovered the wreck of HMS Erebus. In September 2016, HMS Terror was also found.
Both wrecks are under relatively shallow Arctic Waters to the south of King William Island. The expeditions that located them brought together the Government of Canada as well as public, private and non-profit organizations. The use of state-of-the-art technology combined with Inuit knowledge made these historic discoveries possible.
During her recent visit to Canada, the Prime Minister made clear the importance of recognising our shared past. As the wrecks are of great historical and cultural value to Canada and recognising the historical significance of the Franklin expedition to the people of Canada, the Government believe the 1997 MOU should be replaced with an appropriate updated MOU, giving full ownership of the wrecks to Parks Canada. It is intended that the new MOU will include a clause to allow the UK to retain ownership of a small representative sample of artefacts. This exceptional arrangement will ensure that these historically significant wrecks and artefacts are appropriately conserved and allow items to be displayed for future generations in both Canadian and United Kingdom museums.
The transfer of ownership is expected to be undertaken over the coming weeks, subject to completion of the departmental minute process.