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Grant Mitchell

The Hon. Grant  Mitchell, B.A., M.A., C.F.A. Senator Grant Mitchell has had careers in the public service, business and politics in Alberta. He was appointed by former Prime Minister Paul Martin in March, 2005.

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Seeing the Light: Report on Staffed Lighthouses in Newfoundland and Labrador and British Columbia

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Statement made on 15 February 2011 by Senator William Rompkey (retired)

Hon. Bill Rompkey:

I am sure all honourable senators are aware of the iconic value of Canada's lighthouses on both coasts. Those of us who come from the coastal areas are perhaps aware of not only their iconic value, but also the emotional attachment people have to them and, indeed, the continuing utility of lighthouses because they still serve mariners and aircraft at the present time.

Furthermore, lighthouses can potentially enrich Canadian communities in the future. Lighthouse tourism is a growing trend.

Our committee has been studying two aspects of lighthouses: first, their preservation, on which we are reporting later this spring and, second, the issue of the staffing of lighthouses or "de-staffing." Some of us have a problem with that word, but we have been able to find no alternative, so it is the de-staffing of lighthouses on which we are reporting.

Our report is entitled Seeing the Light: Report on Staffed Lighthouses in Newfoundland and Labrador and in British Columbia, because those are the only two provinces that still have staff in their lighthouses. I want to speak to that report today, and the question of whether or not there should be staff in the lighthouses on those two coasts.

Traditional lightkeepers have vanished from most lighthouses in Canada. Most lighthouses are now automated — often solar powered — and they do the work, or they are supposed to do the work. We all remember our first LP record player and how the needle would get stuck and the song would go on and on and on. That can happen. Technology is not perfect. From time to time, those new inventions malfunction.

There are lightkeepers at approximately only 50 sites, roughly half in British Columbia and the other half in Newfoundland and Labrador. In 2009, the Canadian Coast Guard advanced a plan to remove Canada's remaining lightkeepers from those regions. The Coast Guard took the view that eliminating those jobs would be a better use of taxpayers' dollars. The agency had earlier made several such attempts in those two provinces. On all occasions, public opinion averted full-scale closures.

I must say that the outcry in British Columbia was particularly strong, and we owe the people who are interested in the lighthouses in British Columbia a great deal for having delayed the process.

This time, the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans asked if our standing committee would study the question and make recommendations, which is not terribly unusual. I remember the Minister of Defence doing the same thing in 1993. Some senators are still in the chamber who sat on that committee. Therefore, it is not completely unusual for a minister to ask a committee to study a question, but it does not happen every day. I was interested that she asked this particular committee in this chamber and not the committee in the other place. Of course, we have to commend her for her judgment in that respect.

Our committee agreed to do the study and, speaking for myself and perhaps other members of the committee as well, it is one of the most satisfying things that I have been involved with. It is not up there on the Richter scale with tax policy or jails or whatever, but it is an important issue for the people on the coasts. They welcomed this study and they welcomed us with open arms. After all, it was members of this chamber, such as Senators Pat Carney and Mike Forrestall, and now Lowell Murray who has adopted the mantle of those two who came before him, who brought the Heritage Lighthouse Protection Act into law. We agreed to study the staffing question and we broadened our terms of reference to include lighthouse preservation in general.

For the initial report on staffing, we held hearings in Ottawa and we made regional visits. A number of committee members travelled first to Nova Scotia, where lighthouses were de-staffed in past years, to learn from that experience, and we made similar fact-finding visits to Newfoundland and Labrador and to British Columbia.

Originally we had planned public meetings in those provinces with simultaneous interpretation and full transcription, but because we had limited funds available to us, as many committees have found over the past year or so, we wound up making only fact-finding trips rather than formal recorded hearings. In one way this was a shame, because people in those remote areas see us so seldom and so seldom feel that their voices are heard at the centre of the country. It is this particular chamber, I would think, which carries the flag of the Parliament of Canada to the remote regions of this country so often. We should do it more often. It is when we do it that we are appreciated most, I think, as a chamber.

Wiser heads decided that we did not have the money to take the full committee, so we did a fact-finding trip. However, it turned out to be a very informative experience. We spent nearly a week in each province. We met with a wide variety of stakeholders, community groups and interested individuals. We heard from more than 240 people in all. That shows there was a great deal of interest.

We travelled by road and helicopter to as many lighthouses as we could, looking over the structures and talking to the lightkeepers themselves. Everywhere we went, coastal people told us that a human presence on remote coastlines reinforces sovereignty itself and that lightkeepers can provide emergency aid.

I want to point out an interesting fact on the question of sovereignty. On both coasts there is a place called Green Island, which is important for Canadian sovereignty. The first, on the East Coast, is just off Fortune Bay, between Fortune Bay and St. Pierre and Miquelon, which of course are two French islands.

The lighthouse is exactly on the margin between our two countries. It was driven home to me forcefully that this is a presence of the Government of Canada on its perimeter. The only lighthouse that has been saved for that purpose is one in New Brunswick, at Machias Seal Island, I believe.

Hon. Jim Munson: We did a news story on that — the last disputed territory between Canada and the United States.

Senator Rompkey: Senator Munson will get his chance to speak in a moment.

As I was saying, it brought home forcefully that this lighthouse is providing a Canadian presence in an important matter of sovereignty.

The other one is Green Island on the north coast of British Columbia. I stood in that lighthouse and I could see Alaska and I could see the marine line between our two countries.

This issue is important, and it is one of the services that our lighthouses provide. They are not all in that category but some are. For that reason, I think they should be preserved.

The regions where lightkeepers still work include some of Canada's most remote and isolated coasts, outside the Arctic. These keepers serve this country in more ways than most people know. We talked to airplane pilots with 40 years of experience who told us, particularly in British Columbia, that those lighthouses and the keepers in them were important for their travel. Air travel is increasing on the West Coast of British Columbia with that kind of small plane that needs lighthouse reference.

I think BC Ferries is the biggest ferry company in the world. They told us that those lighthouses were important for their operation. We heard from ferry operators, pilots, fishermen and tourist operators. All of them said that those lighthouses and the keepers in them were important for the future.

On both coasts we heard that nothing could replace the structure. The tower itself, apart from the light, is a point someone can use to take a bearing. If lighthouses are taken away, we remove one of the ways a ship coming to land can find a bearing.

By the way, I discovered today that India is in the process of establishing lighthouses every 30 miles along their coast and they are hiring lightkeepers. There is a disconnect there somewhere. Canada is firing lightkeepers and India is hiring them. I think it is worth finding out why.

We also heard about lightkeepers' assistance to environmental monitoring, climate studies, whale research and ecological reserves.

Tourism is another issue, and tourism benefits everyone. At Crow Head near Twillingate on the east coast of Newfoundland, we heard from a local development committee that a knowledgeable keeper in an upgraded light station can help increase their tourist visits from 40,000 per year to 55,000 per year. Those lighthouses are a draw for tourists. The interest is not only in the lighthouse itself; someone must be there to explain the purpose of the lighthouse, its function and how it operates. People want that historic experience.

We learned that lightkeepers can be used more systematically than at present, but their duties have been cut back. This cutback is in spite of the fact that there are now more small craft on the water.

Lightkeepers already report on weather and sea conditions. They collect long-term scientific data. They protect rare wildlife and plant species. They also support the RCMP's Coastal/Airport Watch Program. In fact, it was pointed out to us that lightkeepers provide services to the public, both directly and indirectly, for at least seven federal departments and agencies.

That fact raises a key question. There is a silo mentality here. The lightkeepers are orphans. There are seven different federal agencies using those lighthouses, but no one takes any responsibility for them. We need a whole-of-government response to those lighthouses and some sort of co-ordination and ongoing funding that will allow them to continue to provide the services they provide now.

No cost-benefit analysis has been completed that justifies the de-staffing of lighthouses, and no agency has picked up on all the possible uses of staffed lights. The views we heard on both coasts were overwhelmingly in favour of keeping the keepers, and that is what we recommend unanimously. An evaluation of which lighthouses should retain their lightkeepers and which ones should be de-staffed should be prepared immediately. That review should also look at whether some lights without a keeper should be re-staffed, as we heard in the Maritimes.

Again, our consultations were most rewarding. When we talked to lightkeepers in places like Triple Island in British Columbia, a bare rock except for the slender tower in a rocky area where waves can be gigantic, I wish that some members who look skeptically at the use of the Coast Guard could have accompanied us on this trip. Maybe on our next trip, Cheryl Gallant can come with us and see for herself what waves are like on both coasts. However, people have a perception of what lies behind the simple phrase, "aid to navigation."

I want to thank a number of honourable senators, some of whom are in the chamber today. I want to thank Senator Patterson, the deputy chair, who is here. I also want to thank Senator Raine, who knew the mountains well, but who also came to know the coastline. I think she became as passionate about the coastal areas as she is about the mountains.

I thank them for their cooperation, and I commend this report to the chamber.

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