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Captain Joseph-Elzéar Bernier, Arctic Mariner

by Murray Lundberg

This article was originally published on October 20, 2000. Last update: May 11, 2023.

    Between 1904 and 1911, Captain Joseph Bernier did more than any other person to solidify Canada's claim to the Arctic Islands. Going beyond just his presence as a government agent, he unveiled a plaque on Melville Island in 1909 that made that statement in bronze.

Joseph E. Bernier, explorer in the Canadian Arctic     Bernier was born in L'Islet, Quebec, on January 1, 1852. At the age of 14 he left school to work as cabin boy on a ship owned by his father, Thomas Bernier. Three years later, his father made him captain of his own ship, the St. Joseph, carrying lumber from Quebec to England.

    He spent much of the next 26 years sailing the world, then in 1895 was offered a job as Governor of the Quebec jail. Although his body was away from the sea, his mind was not, and he began to pursue a life-long interest in the Arctic, particularly in the many challenges of polar navigation.

    He acquired another ship in Germany, the Gauss. Renaming her the Arctic, Bernier then outfitted her for an attempt to reach the North Pole in 1904. Just before he was ready to leave, however, the government made him an attractive offer to use his ship to patrol the Eastern Arctic. As Government Agent on these cruises, he collected license fees and duty from traders and whalers. On most patrols, prospectors and/or scientists from many disciplines were aboard, and explorations and studies were made throughout the archipelago.

    Bernier and his crew spent the winter of 1906-1907 at Baffin Island, then the winter of 1908-1909 at Melville Island. On July 1, 1909, having for 5 years made the regular presence required by most international definitions of sovereignty, Bernier unveiled a plaque on Melville Island which officially claimed the Arctic Islands for Canada.

    Bernier again wintered over in 1910-1911 (at Arctic Bay), then that summer rejoined the private sector, setting up a trading operation on Baffin Island.

    In World Way I, Captain Bernier put his North Atlantic experience to use when he commanded a convoy ship. Following the war, he returned to his Arctic trading, finally retiring in 1925, at the age of 73.

    Joseph-Elzéar Bernier died at Lévis, Quebec on December 26, 1934. During his career, he had been in command of over 100 ships, and had crossed the Atlantic 269 times. He had been married twice. His first wife, Rose, died in 1917 after 47 years of marriage. Two years later, he married Alma Lemieux, who was at his side when he died.

    Captain Bernier was honoured by the naming of Bernier Bay on the north end of Baffin Island. Although a school at Chesterfield Inlet (Igluligaarjuk) was also named to honour him, it was closed in disgrace.

From July 1, 2013 until May 10, 2023, the Canadian passport featured a double-page image of
Captain Bernier and his 1906-1913 explorations. Click on it to greatly enlarge it.

Captain Joseph-Elzear Bernier in Canadian passport

Further Reading

Captain Bernier's sealskin outfit - now at the Musée maritime du Québec.

Captain J.E. Bernier's Contribution to Canadian Sovereignty in the Arctic
By Yolande Dorion-Robitaille (Ottawa: Minister of Indian/Northern Affairs, 1978)

Report On The Dominion Of Canada Government Expedition To The Arctic Islands And Hudson Strait On Board The D. G. S. Arctic
By Captain J.-E. Bernier (Ottawa: Gov't Printing Bureau, 1910)

The True North: The Story of Captain Joseph Bernier
One of of the "Great Stories of Canada" series. Written by T.C. Fairley & Charles E. Israel (Toronto: Macmillan, 1957)