OpEd: Keepers of the light

source: The Telegram (St. John’s), Wednesday, October 14, 2009, p. A6

Those in the business of sounding warnings and being alert to danger are looking very carefully at a statement issued on Sept. 30 by Gail Shea, the federal minister responsible for the Canadian Coast Guard, putting the brakes on the controversial plan to de-staff lighthouses in British Columbia and Newfoundland and Labrador. The minister has ordered a review and while the review is going on, no staff will be removed from light stations. The Public Service Alliance of Canada represents the lightkeepers and while we are glad the plan has been put on hold, we feel no great sense of relief, for several reasons.

It is obvious Gail Shea’s office was deluged with complaints – the minister described it as “concerns raised by a variety of stakeholders” – and the government doesn’t want the bad publicity. But instead of saying the plan to remove staff from all lighthouses is a poor one and will be scrapped, she wants more information about what she calls “the additional services provided by lighthouse staff.” After the review, if it is shown that staff (human beings) are necessary to deliver services, Minister Shea says “this option will receive full consideration.”

We are worried that the so-called review is nothing more than a delaying tactic and, after it is done, lightkeepers will be reassigned as was planned all along. The automated lights will be on, but nobody will be home.

We say that because the Canadian Coast Guard already knows full well what additional services are provided by their lightkeepers and yet they were still going to remove them all from light stations. Logs are kept and incidents are reported. Before automated equipment was the norm, the contribution of lightkeepers was proudly highlighted in annual reports. Now that Coast Guard managers want to make a case for full automation, the hundreds of good deeds are brushed aside as unimportant. Perhaps we need to recall one time (of many) when “additional services” saved lives.

One morning in January 1992, the two lightkeepers at Green Island, Fortune Bay, heard three people calling for help while clinging to the rocks of a small island near their light station. They immediately took a boat out to investigate. Three men and a boy, from the nearby French island of St-Pierre, were seabird hunting when their small boat was disabled and then overturned when they attempted to put it ashore. One man drowned while the three others managed to scramble to a shelf in the cliff. The lightkeepers were the first on the scene and the three stranded people were rescued.

The review will show that, in their daily interactions with mariners and fish harvesters, our lightkeepers routinely pass along information or take actions that are not part of their job description. At Green Island, Trinity Bay, they are unofficial pilots, giving directions to trawler skippers unfamiliar with the entrance to Catalina harbour. At Puffin Island, Bonavista Bay, they have regular contact with the skipper of a fish “collector” boat wanting wind and tide information as he navigates around a bay filled with small islands. During seal hunting season, skippers ask for reports on the movement of ice. Last month, lightkeepers got a call from a fisherman whose boat engine failed, so they towed the boat to safety.

We want to know who is doing the review of additional services, how long it will take, and if it will be made public.

Bill Broderick of the Fish, Food and Allied Workers, representing 10,000 inshore and deepsea fish harvesters in the province, says this bombshell was dropped on the union in a phone call from a Coast Guard manager a few months ago.

We are also concerned that there is no meaningful public consultation planned on this issue. Coast Guard “engagement” sessions with handpicked “client representatives” can be manipulated to support the case for de-staffing.

Why not hold some public sessions in the fishing communities where the services provided by lighthouse keepers are well known and understood? Why are seven sessions planned for the Maritimes to discuss the impact of “modernizing” aids to navigation and the only session scheduled in Newfoundland was cancelled? Finally, we ask, what is the downside of having staff at lighthouses, even with automated lights and horns? For the thousands of fish harvesters who work on the water, it’s a benefit that is intangible but real.

Knowing there is a lightkeeper on duty, someone aware of weather and sea conditions, someone who saw your boat go out and hasn’t seen you come back, is a comfort to people who do dangerous and difficult work.

Let’s hope we haven’t become so dazzled by technology that we discount the importance of a person watching and reacting to another in distress. Ask yourself this question. If you were in trouble on the water, which would you rather have on Puffin Island – a room full of the latest in digital technology or an observant and caring lightkeeper?

Jeannie Baldwin is the regional executive vice-president (Atlantic) of the Public Service Alliance of Canada.


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