Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Politics of Exploration

I had originally planned to be posting on my blog this fall about the new finds from HMS "Erebus" that I'd hoped would be announced by Parks Canada. Archaeology is a patient science, though, and though news is scarce now, I'm sure there will eventually be much more to hear about this remarkable discovery and the secrets it yet has to tell. But alas, the politics of exploration have once more taken over the headlines from actual exploration itself, journalist Paul Watson's would-be exposé -- the one he says the Toronto Star wouldn't let him publish -- has now been plastered over the Internet thanks to Buzzfeed. Ordinarily, I wouldn't want to comment on such an article, but now that major news outlets such as the Ottawa Citizen have picked up the story, I fear that I need to set the record straight again. While Watson's article certainly shows that there was a fair amount of squabbling and bitterness among some of the parties involved in the 2014 search, and that some details were, at first, imperfectly conveyed to the public (understandable in the great excitement of the moment), the evidence for any deliberate deceit -- especially on the part of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society's John Geiger -- is simply nonexistent.

A large part of Watson's article hinges on remarks made by Mr. Geiger as part of the CNC documentary on the Franklin find. As the lead historical consultant for the Canadian, UK, and US versions of this program, I've reviewed scripts and checked historical facts for all three, and so am very closely aware of the many slight differences between each version. The directors, using the same available "elements" -- video sources that, added together, would fill many times the length of the program -- made a variety of different choices. The moments that Watson points to, when John Geiger uses collective pronouns, such as 'we,' and 'our efforts,' and contrasting 2014 with previous years, are moments in which he's referring to the whole history of the modern Franklin search. Here are his exact words, from the final production script of the upcoming NOVA version of the documentary, which will air in the U.S. on September 23rd:
This is a great moment for exploration. We’ve been searching for, you know, a hundred and sixty years for answers to what happened to the Franklin expedition, the best equipped, most finely prepared and trained expedition that had ever set out for the Northwest Passage — and to have it literally obliterated, end in mass disaster, no survivors and no ships. It's just … it's been a confounding mystery.
Clearly, the "us" of this "we" is us -- all the people, Canadian and American and British, Inuit and non-Inuit, who have been a part of the long search, whether as researchers in libraries, writers/scholars, or people walking the ground or probing Arctic waters.

A shorter version of Mr. Geiger's remarks was used in the Canadian and British versions, where their intended meaning might not be as clear -- but in any case it was never, so far as I am aware, Mr. Geiger's intent to claim any credit as the discoverer. These false criticisms, made by Mr. Balsillie (see here for my earlier blog post pointing out that his letter of complaints about the CBC documentary has no foundation in that program's actual contents) and echoed in Mr. Watson's article, are without any basis in fact. The credit has been given, from the very start and consistently going forward, to Ryan Harris, Marc-André Bernier, and their divers, and I am absolutely certain that, whichever version of the documentary one views, there couldn't possibly be any confusion about this fact.

I agree with Madeline Ashby's op-ed piece in the Citizen -- it indeed matters who discovered the ship! -- but Mr. Geiger has never made any claim of having done so. While we are at it, though, the Parks Canada divers themselves have often acknowledged the importance of earlier work to their find -- to Inuit testimony, both still living in the person of Louie Kamookak, and that collected and analyzed from the historical record by David C. Woodman, and to all the searches and researches, adding up to nearly fifty searches between 1926 and 2008. As with all great discoveries, it's the ultimate result of the efforts of many. Among whom I would certainly include Mr. Geiger, whose book Frozen in Time, co-written with Owen Beattie is quite often the first volume that has caused a Franklin searcher-to-be to develop a deep and lasting fascination with the Franklin story -- and that's what fuels us all.


  1. Mr. Potter, while you focus on the facts, Canadians are focusing on an election. The big picture is the current government, its policies and how it manipulates.

  2. Indeed so. I don't think the way the Harper government has handled this whole thing does them any credit. But as I'm not a Canadian, my voice isn't part of that. I've been at work on this story for decades, and I'm afraid the 'small picture' is the one I'm best at.

  3. It is interesting that in the 170 annyversary of the departure of the Franklin expedition, instead of being celebrating it in harmony and happines we (*) are involved in such media and political convulsion. It reminds me a little the controversy about who found the Northwest Passage. The Erebus was all this time there at the bottom of the sea, as the Northwest Passage was always in the arctic too, waiting to be found. Finding both has been a matter of time, the result of a serie of steps, without the previous one you would not have ever given the next. But there is a key step in this chain of discoveries without which the searches could have been looking in the wrong places forever, and that is the Inuit testimony. They deserve the credit, a pity they didn´t have the means to find the ship by themselves,

    (*) "we" in the metaphorical sense, I mean the Franklinite world-see the importance of handle properly pronouns.

  4. Everything I've read on this subject, including Watson's unconvincing story, just backs you up, Russell. So far it looks like Mr. Watson is so fixated on condemning the Harper Administration that he is inventing a scandal where there isn't one. He really needs to produce more compelling, undeniable evidence that, say, Geiger tried to pressure people into giving him the credit or something similar before he can be seen as more than just a reporter with a grudge who has gone off the rails.

  5. What I find the saddest part of all this is that while divers are currently exploring the wreck, politics (both petty "office politics" and federal) are grabbing the headlines!
    I have read numerous discussions with various people involved in the search, discovery and exploration of the wreck, and it seems to me credit for success has been spread around generously.
    How many of us would love to be part of that dive team? How many of us were a wee bit envious of Ryan Harris and his video "live' from the wreck last April? The sense of excitement we all felt watching that.......that is where our energies should be directed!
    I may be naïve in thinking it, but I do hope that people will put aside the squabbling and just focus on solving this age old mystery. Who would have thought prior to finding the wreck of the Erebus that when divers are there exploring, the lead story would be who gets credit for what?

  6. The bias of this post is evident from the moment it uses the phrase "plastered over the Internet" to describe the posting of Watson's article on Buzzfeed

    The issue is not whether Geiger outright lied. On his part, it's a more subtle matter of suggestion and misrepresentation--and on the part of the Harper government, it's a question of trying to shape and control the ways in which facts are presented so they appear most favorable to Harper.

    I urge people to read Watson's long piece on Buzzfeed; I found it much more persuasive than this post.

    1. Don, thanks for your comment.

      If the implication of Paul's story is not that there were outright lies, why was his radio interview with Danny Riendeau titled "The Franklin Lie"? Right from the start, with Ryan Harris -- the senior Parks archaeologist -- in attendance, credit was given to him and his team. I don't see how it matters what ship Geiger was on, and none of his statements that I have heard or read are in any way deceptive. Were some of the others present miffed at his becoming the spokesperson? That could well be, but that doesn't come anywhere close to a deliberate falsehood.

    2. I've read Watson's Buzzfeed post and I can see why the editors at his last job refused to print it - it is full of a lot of accusations and implications presented in such a way as to suggest they are truths. Watson repeatedly states an event or comment and then applies the most negative interpretation he can to it. Now, maybe that interpretation is in the end correct, but Watson hardly proves that to be the case in his article.

      If I was his editor I could have easily punched holes in Watson's conclusions, rightly pointing out that he lacks even a single "gotcha moment" akin to hearing Nixon admitting to wrong doing on the Watergate tapes, That is, any evidence that indisputably shows Geiger went too far. Instead, all we have is Watson's relentlessly cynical interpretations of events combined with inferred negative associations, but it's easy to take each instance he provides and produce a perfectly innocent explanation. At worst Geiger may have a large ego which rubbed people the wrong way, but that hardly makes for a scandal!

      Honestly, I think you should go back and reread Watson's Buzzfeed post with a more cynical eye. Ask yourself if what you are reading is a proven fact or just Watson's (perhaps self-serving) interpretation. I think a lot of people eager to bash Harper (and he may very well deserve it) are just taking Watson's word on it in this case, but at the expense of Mr. Geiger's reputation.