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Canada's Greatest Navigator

For the week of Monday December 22, 2008

On December 26, 1934, Captain Joseph-Elzéar Bernier died in Lévis, Quebec. He is renowned for his life-long dedication to help assert Canadian sovereignty over the Arctic Archipelago.

Capitain Joseph-Elzéar Bernier
© Harkness Studio / Library and Archives Canada / C-006672
Joseph-Elzéar Bernier was born on January 1, 1852, in L’Islet-sur-Mer, Canada East (now Quebec). He left school at 14 to work as a cabin boy on his father’s ship, Saint-Joseph. Three years later, at barely 17, he was its captain! Bernier quickly became a respected Master Mariner and went on to achieve numerous feats. For example, in 1874 he crossed the Atlantic in 15 days and 16 hours, an impressive time for the era.

In 1895, Bernier obtained the highly coveted job of Governor of the Quebec jail, a position that gave him the leisure to plan his long-time dream of exploring the Arctic. He aspired to navigate through the polar ice and be the first to reach the North Pole. In 1904, he took his ship, Arctic, on his first Arctic expedition. However, this voyage was re-routed as he was sent to the Hudson’s Bay area to help relieve and re-supply a detachment of the Royal North West Mounted Police, which would later become the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Over the next few years, Bernier made three government-subsidized trips to the Arctic (1906-07, 1908-09 and 1910-11). On July 1, 1909, he unveiled a plaque on Melville Island, officially claiming the Arctic Archipelago for Canada. After 1911 Bernier travelled in the region only on private trading expeditions. 

C.G.S. Arctic commanded by Captain J.E. Bernier
© George R. Lancefield / Library and Archives Canada / PA-096482

From 1922 to 1925, the federal government assigned Bernier to patrol Canada’s territorial waters in the Eastern Arctic and to issue permits to whalers and foreign fishermen. He also helped establish new RCMP posts in the area. Bernier retired in 1927 at the age of 75.

Throughout his career, Bernier commanded more than 100 ships and crossed the world’s oceans 269 times, travelling from North America to Europe and to South America, Africa and Australia. From 1904 to 1927, he made 12 trips to the Canadian Arctic and spent seven winters in the region. However, he never attained his dream of reaching the North Pole. Joseph-Elzéar Bernier was designated a National Historic Person of Canada in 1961. Canadian Sovereignty in the Arctic Archipelago was designated a National Historic Event of Canada in 1981.

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