Captain Joseph-Elzéar Bernier’s Sealskin Outfit

An intrepid navigator asserted Canada’s Arctic sovereignty.

Written by Anne-Gaëlle Weber

Posted February 6, 2023

This sealskin outfit belonged to Captain Joseph-Elzéar Bernier (1852-1934), an Arctic navigator who aimed to reach the North Pole and to accurately map the northern limit of Canada. His goal was to assert Canadian sovereignty in the face of American expansionists, who — having recently renegotiated the borders of Alaska — sought to take advantage of the vaguely-defined border of the Northwest Territories, transferred to Canada by the British Crown in 1880.

Captain Bernier crossed the Atlantic more than 250 times, but he is best known for leading twelve expeditions to the Canadian Arctic. The Canadian government subsidized his expeditions from 1906 to 1911, during which time he claimed possession of the Ungava Peninsula, in present-day Nunavik, and of Melville Island, in the Arctic Ocean, for Canada. After 1911, he financed his travels independently through the fur trade, mapping the regions of Pond Inlet and the eastern archipelagos.

During his last expedition in 1925, at the age of 70, he was hoisted on a harness to the top of the mast to better steer his ship through the ice.

This object resides at Musée maritime du Québec.

This article originally appeared in Cinquante Merveilles de nos musées: les plus beaux trésors de la Francophonie Canadienne. The special interest publication was part of Projet Portage, a five-year initiative to connect history lovers in French and English Canada, generously supported by the Molson Foundation.

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