How Jim Balsillie plans on selling the North

For just one time, Jim Balsillie would take the Northwest Passage—in the hopes of finding sovereignty in the Arctic, tourism and jobs
Jim Balsillie, the founder of BlackBerry, has a curiosity that evolved into an obsession—and his Arctic Research Foundation. (Photo Illustration by KC Armstrong and Richard Redditt; Hair and make-up by GianLuca Orienti/Judy Inc; Prop styling by Rachel Wine)

From a few hundred metres in the air, the 28-person military camp pitched on the frozen Queen Maud Gulf looks like pepper grains spilled on a white tablecloth. The view at sea level only heightens the Arctic isolation. Snow-covered ice stretches to the horizon in all directions; a stiff wind whips the canvas tents and gnaws at exposed skin. The temperature is -31° C with wind chill, but somehow it feels colder.

Inside one of the tents, a triangular hole has been cut into the two-metre-thick sea ice. Next to it, a brown cocoa mat has been laid along each side to prevent slips. Working in pairs, divers from Parks Canada’s underwater archaeology unit and the Royal Canadian Navy plunge 10 m below the surface to explore the wreck of HMS Erebus, one of two Victorian-era bomb ships that British naval explorer Sir John Franklin and his 128 men sailed into the Northwest Passage in 1845, never to be seen by European eyes again.

The quiet is broken by the crackle of a radio, followed by the hollow rasp of a diver sucking in a breath. He asks whether anyone has measured a table leg found lying amid the ship’s well-preserved wooden timbers. “That likely came from Franklin’s cabin,” explains Marc-André Bernier, the avuncular head of the Parks Canada underwater archaeology team, as he stares at live video feeds of the dive on a monitor. Other artifacts spotted include “six-pounder” cannons and rivets that once held copper sheathing to the hull.

Professional divers aren’t the only ones swimming here. One day earlier, a shivering Jim Balsillie, the former co-CEO of Research In Motion, maker of the BlackBerry, stripped to his underwear and jumped into the freezing water and back out again—part of a Navy Arctic ritual. Balsillie has been a key player in the Franklin hunt through his Arctic Research Foundation. He provided the underfunded Parks Canada team with a research vessel and used his Ottawa connections to secure support of other government departments, including the Navy, Canadian Coast Guard, Canadian Hydrographic Service and even the Prime Minister’s Office.

Related: Inside the first-ever tour of HMS Erebus

Balsillie is the first to admit he’s no “Franklinophile.” Rather, he sees the search, and the considerable public attention it has generated, as a springboard to achieve broader Arctic goals: securing Canadian sovereignty in a vast and relatively uninhabited land. His vision involves forging a series of ad-hoc partnerships between governments, industry and scientists—not unlike the ones that found Erebus—all aimed at increasing Canada’s presence above the Arctic Circle, drawing more visitors and jobs. “I’m interested in a co-op idea in the North,” says Balsillie, dressed head to toe in a naval uniform, gold bars on his shoulders. (He’s an honorary Navy captain.) Canada is a big country with limited government resources, he says, “so you have to find another way to move the ball forward.”

As fate would have it, Balsillie’s efforts to change how business is done in the Far North comes just as the Arctic’s national and strategic importance is raised to a level not seen in years. Warming global temperatures and receding sea ice have resurrected centuries-old talk about the Northwest Passage, with the Danish bulk carrier Nordic Orion completing the first commercial transit two years ago. Russia’s newly bellicose attitude, meanwhile, has put Arctic security back on the agenda and Prime Minister Stephen Harper has made his “northern strategy,” complete with summer tours heavy with photo ops, a political priority. More importantly, Balsillie has forged a close relationship with Rear-Admiral John Newton, the commander of the Navy’s Atlantic fleet, who is in the process of plotting the service’s return to the Arctic, once $3.5 billion worth of Arctic offshore patrol ships begin arriving in 2018.

Canadians’ initial reaction may be to write off the whole exercise as a misguided legacy project on Balsillie’s part. It’s a gargantuan undertaking that’s normally laid at the feet of governments, and there are no guarantees it will work. At the same time, Balsillie’s reputation as one of the country’s greatest entrepreneurs has been tarnished by BlackBerry’s collapse, as well as his failed bids to buy a NHL hockey team. But in the High Arctic none of that matters much. Here, locals are far more interested in Balsillie’s unusual drive and seemingly genuine interest in the North and its people—so much so that one of his nagging concerns during the logistically challenging ice dives was whether a free community dinner hosted by his foundation in the tiny hamlet of Cambridge Bay (population 1,400) would get people out on a Friday night. He needn’t have worried. The elders honoured him with a name in the local dialect: Ayuittuk, or “Man who gets things done.”


Photograph by Chris Sorensen
The aerial view of the 28-person military camp pitched on the frozen Queen Maud Gulf in April, at the site of Franklin’s HMS Erebus. (Photograph by Chris Sorensen)

Sitting across the aisle from one another, Balsillie and Newton are swapping stories as Balsillie’s chartered Falcon 10 jet zooms through the clouds toward Cambridge Bay, on the southern coast of Victoria Island. After touching down, the two men are whisked to a nearby Cold War-era DEW (distant early warning) Line facility where military planners are coordinating this year’s Operation Nunalivut, an Arctic military exercise held annually since 2007, which is providing the heavy lifting behind the ice dives on Erebus. That includes a massive airlift of equipment—everything from tents and diving gear to rations and frozen blocks of potable water—to the campsite, where a makeshift runway has been built on the ice. The next day, Balsillie and Newton would be flown by helicopter to the dive camp, about an hour’s flight due east across the frozen gulf, and Balsillie would become one of very few civilians, other than the Parks Canada divers, to witness the event first-hand.

The scene at the camp is something to behold—a true feat of man over nature. Planes and helicopters come and go on the makeshift ice runway. Generators provide electricity and power Internet connections. Support staff heat bagged rations in huge pots of water to turn them into something resembling food. Underwater, divers carefully manoeuvre around the wreck, illuminated by lights hung underneath the ice, and measure debris and artifacts with folding rulers. There are plans, time permitting, to take a 360-degree image of Erebus’s interior using a laser scanner. If human remains are found, there’s a strict protocol that requires work to stop until the British, who own the ship, are notified. Bernier, for one, says he got a chill when he saw a sailor’s old leather boot. “When you can link objects to human beings, that’s when it really hits home—it’s not about the ship, it’s about the people on the ship.”

For the Parks Canada archaeologists, it’s a rare opportunity to dive on an immaculately preserved shipwreck at a time of year when simply surviving on the ice would be tricky. They hope to glean clues—ideally paper journals or early photographs, known as daguerreotypes—that will help explain what, exactly, happened to Franklin and his men. More than a century of searches have revealed little. Erebus and Terror were beset in ice off the northwest coast of King William Island in 1846. Franklin and several crewmen died the following year. The rest of the sailors later abandoned the ship in a desperate bid to walk south to the mainland, with subsequent expeditions turning up bits nd pieces of the ill-fated march, including human bones that showed signs of cannibalism.

Royal Canadian Navy
Communicating with the divers and monitoring progress and air supply. (Royal Canadian Navy)

Ryan Harris, who has led the search for Parks Canada, says swimming around the wreck and peering inside offered sobering insights into what Franklin’s men must have gone through. “They must have just been crawling over one another—particularly during these long, harrowing winter months, with the winds howling outside and perpetual darkness. The ship would have been chock-a-block full of sailors, with their perspiration and condensation, and they would have been on half-rations. It would have been a difficult time.”

Balsillie, who spent a night at the camp, says he’s often struck by the similarities between Franklin’s day and our own. While technologies have improved, the Northwest Passage remains relatively uncharted compared to other areas of the planet. Indeed, one of the rationales for committing so many government resources to last year’s search, the full cost of which has never been disclosed, but no doubt runs in the tens of millions, was using the data about the sea floor to update navigational charts. It’s also clear, based on a cursory glance of the surroundings, that the chasm between the resourceful Inuit and technology-dependent outsiders remains nearly as wide as it was in 1845.

Just a few hundred metres from the main camp, where military and Parks Canada personnel wear bulky Canada Goose jackets and fiddle with high-tech equipment, a small group of Canadian Rangers, a mostly Inuit force, tend to gear that looks to have been purchased from the local co-op store. Jackie Ameralik, for example, is repairing a qamutiik, the heavy wooden sled pulled behind a snowmobile or dog team, using nothing more than his hands and thin piece of blue nylon rope. “I have to change the ropes every two weeks or so,” he says, referring to the unique construction method that’s designed to spare the sleds from being rattled to pieces as they bounce across the ice. He was among the first to arrive at the dive site after travelling by snowmobile for about nine hours across the sea ice from Gjoa Haven, a community of 1,200 on the southeastern tip of King William Island. As he works, another ranger whips up a fresh batch of bannock, a type of flat quick bread that he cuts into small chunks and serves with lunch in the mess tent. Still warm and studded with raisins, it is the only freshly prepared food on the menu.

The skills gap isn’t lost on Newton, who sees the dive on Erebus as a highly publicized training exercise for his sailors. “This is what killed Franklin,” he says. “It’s hard for us. It’s an abandoned area of the Canadian North and an ice dive through very thick ice. And, unlike [past Arctic exercises], this one shows far more collaboration that leads to more effectiveness, should something actually happen.”

Royal Canadian Navy
Removing a 1.5-m-thick ice block for the dive site. (Royal Canadian Navy)

Balsillie was first bitten by the Arctic bug in 2008, back when he was still co-CEO of RIM (which was renamed BlackBerry in 2013), one of the most powerful tech companies on the planet. At the urging of Peter Mansbridge, another Arctic buff, Balsillie and friend Tim MacDonald flew around the Arctic archipelago and dropped in on remote communities and scientific research facilities. “I wanted to see the science camps,” Balsillie says, ever the tech nerd. Yet, like so many others, he was also swept off his feet by the Arctic’s austere beauty. Asked to explain what he found so compelling, Balsillie waxes poetic about the “infinite colours” of an Arctic summer, when lichens crawl across the rocky landscape, and the “existential signals of beauty and force” of a frigid Arctic winter, when ocean and land are rendered indistinguishable. Senses are further heightened, he says, by the knowledge that, in such an inhospitable environment, “death is right around the corner.”

What started as a trip of curiosity quickly became an obsession. While other millionaire CEOs might prefer sailboats and tropical climates, Balsillie says he’s comfortable tramping around the permafrost in a fur-trimmed parka. He even calls the Arctic “my Florida.” The vast region no doubt stirs his patriotic side as well. This, after all, is a man who wasn’t content to simply buy a hockey team. He wanted to move it back to Canada. He’s also someone whose philanthropy has a distinct public policy focus, having helped to found both the Centre for International Governance Innovation and the Balsillie School for International Affairs.

Though Franklin was always playing in the background on these early trips—“It’s part of the legend of the whole area,” says MacDonald, who runs the electrical and auto parts supply company Ideal Supply in Listowel, Ont.,—it took a chance sighting in 2009 to really get Balsillie’s competitive juices flowing. He recalls flying in a helicopter, low and fast, over the western coast of King William Island when he spotted an icebreaker with Russian markings near Victory Point, where Franklin’s two ships first became trapped and were ultimately abandoned. Later, on that same trip, while standing on the bow of the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Louis S. St-Laurent, he mused that Canada should be the one to find Erebus and Terror—not some deep-pocketed foreign explorers. He would have to hurry.

Royal Canadian Navy
Royal Canadian Navy

In 2010, the luxury “yacht” Octopus, owned by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, turned heads when it glided into the waters of Pond Inlet, a small village on the northern shore of Baffin Island. The 126-m ship boasts seven decks with room for 22 guests and 50 crew, as well as a glass-bottom pool that transforms into a dance floor—handy when you’re a billionaire who likes to throw an exclusive Hollywood bash every year at the Cannes International Film Festival. More than a party boat, however, the Octopus is also a sophisticated research and exploration vessel outfitted with two helicopter pads (and helicopters), a submarine and a remotely operated underwater vehicle. Back in March, Allen made headlines when he discovered the Japanese battleship Musashi, which sank off the coast of the Philippines in 1944.

It’s not clear whether Allen or his family had an interest in searching for Franklin’s ships, although Octopus has apparently made several trips through the Northwest Passage over the past few years. A spokesperson for the reclusive billionaire said that, while “the technology needs are varied based on the parameters of expeditions and search, the same research-based approach Mr. Allen and his team of researchers used with the Musashi can be applied to other expeditions, such as the Franklin.” Others note that just about everyone who braves the ice floes of the central Arctic ends up ruminating about the lost Franklin vessels, if not jumping into a Zodiac and going ashore to walk the flat beaches in search of Franklin artifacts. At any rate, the point is: there was another tech tycoon with a taste for underwater archaeology in the area.

Balsillie says Allen wasn’t a motivating factor in his decision to meet with Andrew Campbell, the vice-president of visitor relations at Parks Canada, at Ottawa’s Rideau Club later in 2010. At the meeting, Balsillie put to rest fears that he was interested in Franklin because of some hitherto unforeseen money-making opportunity, and asked what the shoestring operation needed to find the lost ships. The answer: a dedicated vessel. So, with about $2.5 million, Balsillie and MacDonald formed the Arctic Research Foundation with a mandate to locate Erebus and Terror and “educate the public on Canada’s Arctic issues, land and culture, and history.” After failing to rent a suitable boat, Balsillie and MacDonald decided to purchase an old Newfoundland fishing trawler and repurpose it as a research ship. They later named it the Martin Bergmann after the director of the Polar Continental Shelf Program, and close personal friend, who died in a 2011 plane crash in Resolute. Working his contacts in the PMO, Balsillie also pushed to bring other government departments on board. “It was obvious to me that the different silos of government didn’t co-operate,” he says. “It was really freezing progress.”

The co-operative approach Balsillie put in motion—plus a dash of luck—paid off last September when the searchers finally made their big discovery. The Coast Guard icebreaker Sir Wilfrid Laurier was working farther south in the eastern Queen Maud Gulf—an area that had been the focus of previous survey efforts—after unusually heavy ice floes pushed the expedition out of the Victoria Strait, where the 2014 search was supposed to be located. While they waited for the ice to clear, Robert Park, an archaeological anthropologist at the University of Waterloo, and colleague Doug Stenton, Nunavut’s director of heritage, jumped at the chance to take a helicopter to visit a nearby island, of their choosing, while a hydrographer set up a GPS beacon. After landing, Park and Stenton examined an old Inuit campsite, while the hydrographer tended to his equipment, and the helicopter pilot walked the gravel beach. It wasn’t long before the helicopter pilot yelled that he found something: a large piece of iron hidden behind a boulder. “Some Inuk probably put it there so they could find it later on,” Park says. It turned out to be part of a Royal Navy davit, used to lower boats in the water. Along with another wooden piece, the artifact effectively pointed the way to Erebus. The actual wreck was soon found near the island in 11 m of water by Harris and the rest of the Parks Canada team. Balsillie led a toast after the find, and asked those present, “Don’t you love it when a plan comes together?”

In truth, the impromptu celebration was more of a first act than a finale—thanks in no small part to Rear-Admiral Newton, a man with an equally deep Arctic fascination, and the means to turn Balsillie’s Arctic dreams into reality.

Royal Canadian Navy
Divers from Parks Canada and the Navy work together in pairs as they explore and map HMS Erebus during 12-hour days. (Royal Canadian Navy)

Though Balsillie had already been made an honorary captain of the Canadian Navy, it wasn’t until he sat down next to Newton at a gala event two years ago at Ottawa’s Canadian War Museum that the relationship really took off. “Because of my interest in the North and Jim’s interest in the North, somebody asked me to sit with him and talk about a project he had on the go,” says Newton, whose father, also a Navy man, took him on a life-altering trip through the Arctic aboard a Navy ship when he was a teenager. “So Jim introduced me to the story of the Franklin search.”

It quickly became apparent that both men had something to gain from co-operating to find Franklin’s lost ships. Balsillie needed skilled sailors to crew the Martin Bergmann; Newton was looking for opportunities to prepare his men and women for the challenges of working in the harsh Arctic environment. With a half-dozen new Arctic offshore patrol ships on the way, “we were trying to build an Arctic competency in the sailors of our fleet,” Newton says, adding that the public profile of the Franklin hunt also helped to sell the Navy’s return to the Arctic.

What neither one of them could have imagined is where the nascent partnership would ultimately lead—to a massive dive operation on Erebus, orchestrated by all three branches of the Canadian Forces. “Things really started to change when the Navy got involved because they brought great resources to the project,” says MacDonald. “It was like a whole other level of horsepower.”

If there’s an irony to how things worked out, it’s that the success of the Franklin partnership threatens to magnify some of the very problems Newton increasingly faces in Arctic waters: an influx of ill-prepared boaters, many of whom would no doubt be keen to visit Erebus, get themselves into trouble and need to be rescued. “The problem is the variability in the North, with the ice so different from one year to the next,” says Newton as he leans back in a chair in his Halifax office, one week before the dives were scheduled to begin. “But the last two years have had really heavy ice in the Arctic and we’ve got all sorts of inappropriate boats lined up in Pond Inlet”—the passage’s eastern entrance—“waiting for it to clear. It’s a big risk.”

Ann Bainbridge and her husband, Glenn, know the danger first-hand. They were sailing their 12-m aluminum boat, Gjoa, in Bellot Strait last summer when they suddenly realized the ice had closed in around them. The pair, from Ontario’s cottage country, were freed by a nearby cruise ship that, coincidentally, had been chartered as part of the official search for the Franklin vessels. The rescue came not a moment too soon as witnesses reported spotting two polar bears on nearby ice floes. Ann Bainbridge, who has spent this winter living on a Norwegian tugboat in Cambridge Bay, describes the experience as “intense.”

Related: A man goes face-to-face with a Franklin Expedition crew member—his great-great uncle

For Newton, the key to getting a handle on all that ill-prepared traffic starts five floors below his office, through a double set of heavy steel doors. It’s called the Marine Security Operations Centre, or MSOC, and it’s a coastal surveillance system created in the wake of 9/11 that brings together the military and more than a half-dozen other government departments. While many Canadians assume the vast Arctic is a blind spot, the bunker-like MSOC makes clear that no ship travels through Canada’s Arctic waters (or anywhere else for that matter) without being watched closely—and not just to determine where it’s going, but what it’s up to. “It’s more than dots on a chart,” explains Newton. “It’s data—massive quantities of data. Some of it comes from automatic systems that ships blast out on the airwaves. Some comes from surveillance information from manned aircraft. Some of it is from open-source schedules maintained by shippers.” Canada’s RADARSAT-2 satellite is another key source of information. Even the Twitter feeds from sailors are mopped up and added to the mix. Every day, roughly 26 million different pieces of information gush into the centre through a fibre-optic firehose and are reduced into roughly 1,500 different “tracks,” or ships, including those plying the High Arctic. “The moment the ice pulls back, and the influx of commercial and tourism activity takes place, we’ve already got 90 per cent of the plot figured out,” Newton says.

It’s another example of Canada trying to make up for a relative lack of resources by co-operating across government departments and sharing infrastructure—and to great effect. “I think we’re world-leading in this whole government-integrated, multidisciplinary technique,” Newton says. “People are coming from all over to talk about it. The Mexicans were just here. So were the Brazilians and the European Union.”

Yet, for all the James Bond-like technology, the core challenge of securing the Arctic ultimately depends on people and experience. That’s a lesson Chief Petty Officer 1st Class Andrew Tiffin learned back in 1996 when he and other divers went looking for a downed Griffon helicopter, which itself was on a search-and-rescue mission off the northern tip of Labrador. “It was our first opportunity to work up in the Arctic in austere conditions,” recalls Tiffin, a member of the Navy’s fleet diving unit. After being dropped off near the crash site, he and others hiked through deep snow to the edge of a cliff before suiting up and jumping in the freezing water. As soon as one diver emerged, he was immediately whisked back to an icebreaker to warm up. “You’re done for the day,” Tiffin says. “The conditions are just brutal.” He wears a ring made from the downed helicopter’s titanium rotor, as do seven other current and former divers who were on the mission. In some ways, it’s a testament to Arctic survival. That day, they all came back alive.

Explore memorabilia in the lounge of the Fleet Diving Unit Atlantic

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Emboldened by their successful multi-team effort during the Franklin hunt, Balsillie and Newton are blue-skying with others about forging new partnerships to expand Canada’s northern reach. After visiting the Erebus dive, the two flew to a giant iron ore mine on Baffin Island where Newton floated the idea of sharing the cost of building a hangar alongside the mine’s meticulously maintained airstrip. The pair made another stop in Resolute to visit the Polar Continental Shelf Program, a federal facility that acts as a supply depot and jumping-off point for Arctic science and research projects. Newton asked Mike Kristjanson, the facility’s logistics director, whether it would be useful to station scientists on the Navy’s Arctic patrol ships during the summer months (it would be). Kristjanson, in turn, offered the military advice about landing aircraft on the ice in the Queen Maud Gulf, which he described as his operation’s “bread and butter.” Balsillie’s “co-op” vision of the North—a series of mutually beneficial partnerships between unlikely partners—seemed to be coming together before his very eyes.

There is, however, a downside to forging an Arctic vision on the backs of shared infrastructure and mutual co-operation: not everyone is likely to agree on the end goal, or the best way to get there. Balsillie and Newton received an earful on the topic when they sat down to dinner at the Polar Continental Shelf Program’s modern cafeteria, where three scientists working out of the facility were sipping coffee. When the topic of Franklin came up, all three made it clear they’re not overly impressed by the effort to find the missing ships. While Newton touts the project as an astute use of government resources, Wayne Pollard, a geography professor from McGill University who has been travelling to the Arctic to do research on permafrost since 1979, sees it mainly as a lot of money being spent on something that has no real value—unlike scientific research. “It’s great because it raises knowledge about the Arctic,” Pollard says, “but there’s a lot of money being spent on things other than science.” He goes on to complain about the lack of money available for pure, knowledge-based scientific research in Canada, arguing that the funding situation for scientists is actually worse today than it was 20 years ago.

Balsillie listened quietly to the scientists’ complaints. He then wondered aloud whether scientists could act as guides for eco-tourists, taking them out into the wilderness and showing them how they perform their experiments—providing, of course, that their university employers didn’t throw up a roadblock. “People need to reimagine approaches, shared infrastructure and co-operation,” he would later say, adding that taxpayer-funded scientific research should “benefit the commons.”

Even the vaunted partnership to find the Franklin ships is not immune from internal tensions. Balsillie has been trying to generate more publicity from the effort, which he sees as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to put Arctic issues squarely on the radar of average Canadians. He pushed to have the bell that was raised from Erebus last year put on public display. When Parks Canada refused, citing the need to concentrate on preserving the artifact, Balsillie approached Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum, which came up with the idea of making a 3D replica.

Royal Canadian Navy
Royal Canadian Navy

Another source of frustration is the obvious political appeal that Franklin holds for a federal government seeking re-election. Louie Kamookak, who spent three decades researching Inuit oral history related to Franklin and who worked with Parks Canada back in 2006 to hone its search, says he was disappointed when the ship’s discovery was revealed at a splashy press conference in Ottawa, not nearby Gjoa Haven. “I think the community expects that, now that [the ship] is found, there will be more tourist traffic and benefits for the community—that something good will come out of it in the long run,” he says. Others take issue with the fact that Prime Minister Harper’s interest in the North—he tours the Arctic every summer and has his photo taken riding all-terrain vehicles, shooting rifles and standing stoically on the bows of ships—often outstrips the actual investments Ottawa makes in the region. For example, Harper’s initial pledge to build a fleet of heavy icebreakers to patrol the Northwest Passage and a naval base on Baffin Island slowly morphed into a handful of less-capable “slush-breakers,” as critics call them, and a seasonal refuelling station. Meanwhile, many local communities still struggle with reliable access to clean water, electricity and other basic services.

While the Franklin hunt has generated grandiose talk about sovereignty and nation-building, it’s at the community level where Balsillie seems most keen to make a difference. He argues that locals should be put into a position to benefit from the Erebus discovery by acting as guides for tourists. “These young people need jobs,” he says. His foundation, meanwhile, is busy assembling several shipping containers full of science equipment to send to the North, with plans to have locals participate in the study and preservation of Franklin artifacts. “We can’t remove all the work associated with Franklin and bring it back to Ottawa,” says MacDonald, adding that an empty shipping container that was heated, wired for electricity and outfitted with artists’ tools for anyone to use has proven to be a huge success in Cambridge Bay. The foundation is also looking to purchase another research boat that can be rented to scientists in the region after receiving several requests.

Borrowing from his thinking about what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur, Balsillie compares the effort to secure Canada’s future in the North to building a successful company: you need to get the details right—in this case, the relationships between people, governments and industry—and then worry about scaling up the project later. “It has to come from micro-machinations that are coherent, and they work,” he says. “It’s all about passionate engagement.”

Photograph by Chris Sorensen
The camp’s ‘men’s washroom.’ (Photograph by Chris Sorensen)

In an effort to begin building those bridges, Balsillie’s foundation—which, operationally, essentially consists of one, soft-spoken man named Adrian Schimnowski—organized a free dinner at a community centre in Cambridge Bay while the ice dives were taking place. The event was referred to as “the feast” around town and boldly competed with Friday night bingo—a fact that was a clear source of anxiety for Balsillie, who feared no one would turn up. In the end, more than 200 people came out to listen to traditional Inuit music, eat a buffet of muskox and Arctic char and watch a screening of Parks Canada’s video of the Erebus dives. The former co-CEO of what was once the most important high-tech company in the world watched intently from the front row, occasionally bobbing his head to the drum beats. He would later have his picture taken with several young people at an Elks Lodge (after word that the “BlackBerry guy is here” made its way around the room) and hold an in-depth conversation with a local soapstone artist about different cultures’ “myth structures” and “dualism” (he’s an avid collector of African tribal masks).

Where this is all heading, nobody seems to know—least of all its architects. “In the beginning it was primarily a Franklin-centric project,” MacDonald says. “But as we’ve got more involved in the region, there have been opportunities that have allowed us to help out in ways we never imagined. I think that’s really ignited Jim’s interest and philanthropic spirit. As far as an end game, he’s never articulated what that is.”

That’s probably because Balsillie doesn’t know. “I never, ever lose sight of the fact that this is crazy,” he says, before reciting his personal credo: “Success is about navigating cascading circumstances and, if it works out, you use revisionist history to act like you knew what was going to happen all along.”

So far, so good.