He was born in L'Islet, Quebec, the son of Captain Thomas Bernier and Célinas Paradis. At the age of 14, he became a cabin boy on his father's ship. Three years later, he became captain of his own ship and commanded sailing ships for the next 25 years. Bernier was named governor for the jail at Quebec City in 1895. From 1904 to 1911, he explored the Arctic archipelago on annual voyages in his ship the CGS Arctic and officially claimed the islands for Canada. Bernier retrieved documents that had been stored in caches by earlier Arctic explorers. He also established Royal Canadian Mounted Police posts in the Canadian north. During World War I, Bernier commanded a ship which transported mail along the eastern coast and carried goods in convoys across the Atlantic. He returned to patrolling the arctic after the war's end, continuing until his retirement in 1925, when he was awarded the Royal Geographical Society's Back Award.
He published Master Mariner and Explorer: A Narrative of Sixty Years at Sea ... in 1939.
Joseph-Elzéar Bernier and his Northern expeditions are featured on pages 12 & 13 of the 36 page Canadian Passport.
- Joseph Bernier, the Arctic Islands for Canada, Pathfinders and Passageways: The Exploration of Canada, Library and Archives Canada
- Joseph Elzéar Bernier (1852-1934), Arctic profiles, University of Calgary (pdf)