On Wednesday, amidst breathless coverage of the rejected budget and the possibilities for a May election, Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, Gail Shea, announced the federal government had cancelled its plan to destaff light stations in Newfoundland and Labrador and British Columbia.

In a prepared statement, Shea said, “Our government recognizes both the significance of lighthouses and light-keeper services to the coastal communities they now serve, as well as the important role the Canadian Coast Guard plays in keeping mariners safe.”

“Halt plans to remove light-keepers from currently staffed lighthouses in British Columbia and Newfoundland and Labrador.” — Gail Shea

“Therefore, I have instructed Canadian Coast Guard officials to respect the report and immediately halt plans to remove light-keepers from currently staffed lighthouses in British Columbia and Newfoundland and Labrador.”

The decision comes more than two months after the publication of a report by the Standing Senate Committee on Fisheries and Oceans entitled “Seeing the Light.”

First and foremost, the report recommended that: “the Canadian Coast Guard halt its current destaffing plan, and that destaffing, continued staffing, or restaffing be determined on a lightstation-by-lightstation basis through appropriate guidelines and thorough consultations. Until this is completed, current lightkeeper staff levels should be maintained in the Pacific Region and in the Newfoundland and Labrador Region.”

The report also recommended that, “a long-term policy for lightstations be developed that will obviate cyclical reviews and that ensures continuation of a suitable level of staffing.”

Of a cycle

The second recommendation is an important one for light keepers who’ve been at the job a while and say it smacks of Déjà vu.

“I read the email this morning,” says Leonard Patry, keeper at the Cape Anguille Light near Codroy. “And it looks so definite. But still, I’ve worked with them for quite a few years and still in the back of my mind I wonder what time this is going to be back on again, eh? Because it did happen before — it was on, it was off, then it was on and off again… Anyway, I don’t know what it’s got to do with, maybe it’s got something to do with elections or something?”

“In the back of my mind I wonder what time this is going to be back on again, eh?” —Leonard Patry

Election or no election, it was good news.

Patry’s father was a lightkeeper, and he himself was born at the light. These days he lives a few kilometres away, but he’s there every morning to check the equipment, and sign in to the log book — a practice that connects him to all the generations of lightkeepers that came before.

“Every day we do a full check,” he says, “and I actually do it twice a day, once in the morning and again in the evening before I go. And it’s all logged. So it’s preventative maintenance, I guess.”

More than a landmark

Keeping the station running is one thing, but lightkeepers also play a crucial role for the boating community — a job that mechanized stations will have a hard time replacing.

“All light stations are important because you don’t know what times somebody’ss life is in danger,” says Clayton Dyke, a lightkeeeper at the Green Island Light, off Catalina. “So to have a couple of light keepers there, there’s probably a life or two they could save, right?”

He’s been on the job since 1981, and remembers a time, shortly after he started, that  illustrates the point:

“Me and another light keeper was out there … and we looked outside just about dark one night when a dragger was heading for the island. So when we saw her close to the island we knew she wasn’t in the run, so we runned out on the front of the island there and the other light keeper started waving a flashlight and I runned in and started blowing the horn, so she made the turn.

“We looked outside just about dark one night when a dragger was heading for the island.” —Clayton Dyke

“When she made the turn to get in the run she hit the bottom with the little reef that’s going out there, and I think she done some damage to to bottom but she never had no leaks or anything, you know… If we never run in time, I don’t know if they had her on automatic pilot or no but, if we never done that she would have come up right the front of the island, and gone ashore. That was around ’85, I believe.”

Dyke is retiring in a couple months (he’ll be 80 next year) but he was happy to hear the news that the de-staffing was put on hold, but he’s not sure how long it’ll last. After all, the job isn’t like it used to be.

“We don’t do so much now as we did years ago,” says Dyke. “Because everything now out there is automated, and the only thing that we have to do now is take a check on the bulbs in the light, and we have to make sure that everything is operating properly. But touching anything, or anything like that, we’re not allowed to do anything.”

There for the people

According to Clifford Doram, maintaining is only where light keeping starts. A light keeper at the Cape Race Light, he says talking to small craft on the wireless is a big part of his day.

“We listen to the set all the time, talk to the boats, in case anyone needs help,” he says. “Lot of times the weather stations will call here, find out what it’s like, lot of small boats call here too, to find out what the winds are like and what the seas are like.”

“We listen to the set all the time, talk to the boats, in case anyone needs help,” —Clifford Doram

Of the three, Doram is the only one not near retirement, so he was pleased with the announcement. “I feel fairly safe right now,” he says, “because usually when you get word like that, you know that they’re keeping them open, usually you’re good for 4-5 years before you hear any news again on anything like that.”

If the Department of Fisheries and Oceans is serious about the recommendations made in the senate committee report, it may be even longer than that. Something that sits just fine with Doram.

He’d like to see staffed stations “as long as there’s boats on the water.”

“I know they have high-tech equipment and all that today,” he says, “but sometimes you get a situation where that don’t even work, and if not for the eyes of the lightkeeper, sometimes it could be pretty serious.”