Lighthouses as Irreplaceable Symbols of Maritime Heritage Inquiry-Debate Continued


Senator Jane Cordy December 10th, 2014

On the Order:

Resuming debate on the inquiry of the Honourable Senator Munson, calling the attention of the Senate to lighthouses as irreplaceable symbols of Canada's maritime heritage and monuments that enrich communities and the landscape of this country.

Hon. Jane Cordy: Before I begin, I took the adjournment of this debate, and it was held in the name of Senator Mercer. So, after I speak, I would like it to be adjourned in his name.

Honourable senators, Canada is a nation rich in nautical history, and that is especially evident in my province of Nova Scotia. Thoughts of Nova Scotia conjure up images of rugged shorelines, fishermen pulling in their catch, the Bluenose racing across the water under full sail and, of course, the lighthouse at Peggy's Cove.

People from all over the world make their way to the iconic lighthouse at Peggy's Cove, which has been an economic boon to the province over the years. As Nova Scotia has been home to the most lighthouses of any province, the lights have always been a fixture dotting the coastline. Nova Scotians and Canadians strongly identify with these iconic structures.

As the importance of the lighthouses in nautical safety fades in the wake of technological advances, they continue to be a tangible reminder of a proud past, one that should be preserved and celebrated. Canadians who live on Canada's vast shorelines know these structures as more than just buildings; they are a link to the past. We have a strong emotional connection with the coastlines of Canada and the way of life associated with the sea. Lighthouses are an integral part of the fabric of that life.

Honourable senators, this important part of Canada's heritage is slowly being lost to history. Since 2010, when the Department of Fisheries and Oceans declared almost 1,000 Canadian lighthouses surplus and discontinued upkeep of the facilities, most of them have been falling into disrepair and crumbling into the sea.

This is the case with one of Canada's most iconic lights, the Sambro Island Lighthouse in Nova Scotia. Located at the mouth of the Halifax harbour, the light on Sambro Island has been guiding fishermen, sailors and vessels of all kinds safely into the harbour for over 250 years. It is the oldest operating lighthouse in North and South America.

The lighthouse on Sambro Island was created by the very first act passed by Nova Scotia's House of Assembly on October 2, 1758. The building of the lighthouse was to coincide with the founding of Halifax.

Standing as a sentinel at the historical Port of Halifax, the Sambro light was the landfall and departure point for centuries for large naval fleets, convoys and troop ships. As well, the Sambro light was the first thing troops returning home from military service would see on their return to Canada.

The light was also the first thing to greet the thousands of immigrants who landed at Pier 21 in Halifax, earning it the name of Canada's Statue of Liberty for a growing number of Canadians.

The lighthouse saw its last lightkeeper in 1988, when the decision was made to automate the light. Since the abandonment of the light station, the lighthouse and the supporting structures on the island have been left to degrade by neglect, the elements of the open sea and vandalism. Unfortunately, this is common of many of Nova Scotia's lighthouses.

To quote Barry MacDonald, who is President of the Nova Scotia Lighthouse Preservation Society:

Sambro light is considered by many to be the most historically important lighthouse in Canada. Plans to preserve it must reach beyond the efforts of a community-based, volunteer group of individuals.

The lighthouse on Sambro Island has been commemorated by both the Royal Canadian Mint and Canada Post. It is now time for federal leadership to help to ensure that this iconic Canadian maritime landmark will not be lost to history. It will be unfortunate, honourable senators, if it is to be found only on a coin or stamp.

The federal government promoted Canada's nautical history this summer as announcements were made by the Prime Minister himself regarding the exciting discovery of the wreck of the HMS Erebus of the doomed Franklin expedition. Canadians were excited by this discovery, as well as they should be, as the Franklin expedition was an important event in the forging of our nation. To many Canadians, particularly those living near the coastlines, the iconic lighthouse is every bit as ingrained in that nautical history.

Since the declaration of the majority of Canada's lighthouses as operational surplus, it has been left to community groups and private citizens to step in and save these abandoned structures. This is not an easy task, and, in most cases, it simply isn't feasible. Parks Canada is now in the midst of the deliberation stage to determine which lighthouses in Canada will receive heritage designation under the Heritage Lighthouse Protection Act. Ninety-two sites in Nova Scotia have been presented for consideration, with final decisions to be made on May 29 of 2015.

Unfortunately, a vast majority of these lighthouses will likely be denied protection, and if the sites are to survive, community groups and municipalities will have to step in. If community support does not materialize, these sites will simply be left to succumb to the elements. Organizations like the Nova Scotia Lighthouse Preservation Society work diligently to provide community groups with guidance on taking custody of these sites, while also petitioning all levels of government to support these culturally-significant sites.

The Nova Scotia Lighthouse Preservation Society was founded in 1994 by lighthouse enthusiasts on a visit to Sambro Island. They were concerned about the condition of the lighthouse and the keepers' houses. They set up the non-profit society to benefit all of the 150 lighthouses in Nova Scotia.

Organizations like the Nova Scotia Lighthouse Preservation Society can only do so much. Government support will be required. The relinquishing of these sites to community groups could be a lengthy process, during which time the structures continue to crumble as the federal government has abandoned their upkeep. Support will be required to bridge the gap between the abandonment of these sites by the government and the transition of ownership to private community groups. I understand that the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans has just recently committed to some very basic repairs to the Sambro Island site to prevent it from falling into irrevocable disrepair.

Honourable senators, we are a nation rich in nautical history. Discoveries such as the HMS Erebus are important to preserve, but the preservation of Canada's historical lighthouses is also important. It will not be easy for community groups to take on the challenge of ownership of these structures. Federal support will be necessary to facilitate and assist them.

Currently, the Sambro Island Lighthouse Heritage Society is working on a business plan for the long-term care of the historic Sambro Island site. It is community groups like this that are needed to ensure the preservation of these sites. Sadly, it is impossible to find community groups to step in to save all of Canada's lighthouses, but we musn't give up hope.

As Barry MacDonald says:

It takes just one champion in any community to motivate others to get involved and take pride in preserving their local lighthouse.

This is not just for us. It is for our kids and grandkids. The heritage of our lighthouses connects us with something that came before us and we want to see it continue.

Honourable senators, my hope is that, through community involvement and government support from all levels of government, many of these historical treasures can be saved and rejuvenated for future generations to learn about, to visit and to appreciate.