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Lighthouses as Irreplaceable Symbols of Maritime Heritage


Hon. Michael L. MacDonald: Honourable senators, I wish to speak today to the inquiry before us calling for the attention of the Senate to the importance of lighthouses as irreplaceable symbols of Canada's maritime heritage and monuments that enrich communities and the landscape of this country. My remarks will be brief, but this is an important inquiry on a topical issue, and I commend Senator Munson for calling this matter to the attention of the Senate.

Canada is certainly a maritime nation, although when a country is over 3,000 miles wide and spans a continent where a large percentage of the country does not live on the coastline, it is sometimes easy to overlook this fact.

Honourable senators will recall earlier this year we commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of the maple leaf flag. It replaced the Canadian Red Ensign, which served as our flag for almost 98 years. The original Red Ensign was the British merchant flag that flew off the stern of Canadian ships that sailed all over the world. Since the 18th century, it was a familiar sight on the Great Lakes, the St. Lawrence River and along the Atlantic seaboard, as well as Vancouver and Victoria on the Pacific coast. This merchant flag became synonymous with Canada, and the simple addition of the Canadian Coat of Arms created our first flag.

Our first national flag was not a foreign imposition or a deliberative government initiative or a decision by committee but a by-product of Canada's maritime heritage, a heritage that is best preserved and represented today in the over 900 lighthouses that dot our landscape.

According to Fisheries and Oceans Canada, light structures that are defined as "navigational aids" meet the broader definition of lighthouse. Canada has about 250 "postcard" lighthouses, some of which are already protected as heritage sites. All provinces, except Alberta and Saskatchewan, have true lighthouses. Nova Scotia has the most, with 160; Ontario, with 104; New Brunswick, 78; Newfoundland, 72; Quebec, 59; Prince Edward Island, 56; British Columbia, 52; and Manitoba has two lighthouses.

It would also be mistaken to assume that all the great lighthouses are on the coastline. There are beautiful structures throughout the Great Lakes, such as the Point Clark and Cove Island lighthouses, just two of the six magnificent imperial towers constructed before Confederation, all of which remain standing.

These lighthouses are also monuments that capture an era and a way of life, and they represent a substantial cultural and architectural inventory.

We are all familiar with the story of the Canadian railroad and how John A. tied the country together with this greatest engineering feat of the 19th century. But the greatest 19th century engineering feat before Confederation is still enjoyed every day in this very city. The Rideau Canal and lock system, built by Colonel John By, was a tremendous achievement in its day, although by the time it was completed, the development of the railroads had made it redundant. Built for military and commercial purposes, it had little or no impact on either.

But talks to abandon or even remove it in later years were ignored, and today it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is a great adornment to the Nation's Capital, a living, working symbol of our past. This city would have been much diminished if the Rideau Canal hadn't been properly preserved and maintained. Civilized people today look on with sadness and anger when we witness those in some parts of the world that deliberately destroy ancient sites and monuments, and we regret our inability to do anything about it.

While we can still commit to maintain Canada's cultural and architectural heritage, in the case of our lighthouses, we have also reached the point where we have to address the issue right now.

Times have changed. With the advent of modern technology such as GPS, the traditional function of lighthouses as an essential guide for mariners is in transition. In May of 2010, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans declared over 900 active and inactive lighthouses across Canada surplus to its needs. DFO says it's not in the heritage business, and that is administratively true. Of course, that is not to say that these lighthouses could no longer serve a purpose or that they should be left to crumble.

Lighthouses are iconic and hold a great attraction for people of all ages. I have seen it all my life. Adults are drawn to them. Children love them. Many have considerable commercial or tourism potential, not only as monuments, but also repurposed as museums or interactive community centres, to name just two examples.

Many of these structures are modest in size and easily maintained, but quite a few are huge monoliths occupying magnificent settings. Think of the many Roman towers that survive throughout Europe, how they enrich the landscape and how they help preserve the history of another era for all to see and appreciate. The great Canadian lighthouses are our Roman towers and must be preserved for future generations of Canadians to experience and enjoy.

The Government of Canada, aware of the changing circumstances surrounding the future of these lighthouses, addressed this new reality in 2010 with the introduction of the Heritage Lighthouse Protection Act, which provided that these properties could be transferred to new owners as long as they are maintained. The act has provided a mechanism for Canadians to participate in the nomination and preservation of heritage lighthouses.

Through the act, the Government of Canada has afforded lighthouses protection in four ways. First, it provides for a selection process, a two-year public petition period, for the designation of heritage lighthouses. This nomination process ended on May 29, 2015, and the results should be known in the coming months.

Second, the act prohibits the unauthorized alteration or disposition of designated heritage lighthouses. Third, the act ensures they are reasonably maintained. Finally, the act facilitates the sale or transfer of heritage lighthouses in order to fulfill an ongoing public purpose with continued long-term protection.

According to the Parks Canada website, 348 lighthouses were petitioned for heritage designation, 92 in Nova Scotia alone. Given the volume of response, it is clear that Canadians want to ensure that these historical monuments are maintained. I look forward to Parks Canada's recommendations and I implore the department to come to a fair and reasoned determination. I believe that Canadians expect nothing less.

In the past few decades, preservation societies have worked to save some of Canada's lighthouses on the grounds that these structures, like railway stations and grain elevators, have special significance to Canadians and played an important role in our history.

I would be remiss if I did not commend the exceptional work undertaken by the Nova Scotia Lighthouse Preservation Society, the NSLPS, for their relentless work pursuing the protection of our province's coastal treasures. Through their efforts, the NSLPS helps to ensure that the historical and sentimental value of Nova Scotia's lighthouses is recognized, while striving to attain the protection and preservation these monuments truly merit.

This month the NSLPS, in conjunction with the National Trust of Canada, launched an initiative called "This Lighthouse Matters," which encourages the public to privately contribute to the fundraising needed to assist in the maintenance of our lighthouses. As stated on their website:

. . . non-profit community groups are the most suitable to preserve lighthouses because these are the people whose ancestors kept the lights and who care deeply about them. They are the most likely to develop the sites in a sensitive and appropriate manner."

It is my hope that the process implemented by the Heritage Lighthouse Protection Act will allow for the safekeeping of many of these historic structures for generations to come, and I look forward to Parks Canada's final determination on heritage designation.

The Government of Canada is also being proactive in terms of funding. For example, Sambro Island Light, near Halifax Harbour, is the oldest surviving functioning lighthouse in North America, but it is in rough shape. I was pleased to hear of the federal government's commitment of $1.5 million for its restoration announced just last month.

While we welcome this financial support, it admittedly is an ad hoc response to a unique circumstance and there remain many more large structures that will require government involvement to ensure their sustainability. The Heritage Lighthouse Protection Act represents merely the first step in what I hope will be a comprehensively managed approach to this issue, because many lighthouses require solutions crafted to their unique circumstances.

I can think of no better example than the one with which I am most familiar — the lighthouse in my hometown of Louisbourg. The original structure was built at Lighthouse Point in 1734 — the first lighthouse built in Canada and the second in North America — providing safe passage for warships and supply vessels entering the harbour. Destroyed by fire in 1736, it was rebuilt and operated until levelled by British batteries in 1758, during the second siege of Louisbourg. The third lighthouse burned in 1922.

The striking concrete octagonal lighthouse today is surrounded by the archeologically excavated foundations of its three predecessors. But while Lighthouse Point itself is a national historic site, the present-day lighthouse is managed by DFO and has been declared surplus. Parks Canada presently has 11 lighthouses it administers, none of which will be declared surplus. Louisbourg Lighthouse could easily and permanently be maintained by Parks Canada, and I encourage the government to consider this easily achieved solution in the near future.

The government has taken some encouraging first steps to secure the future of our lighthouse heritage in this country, but these are only the first steps and much remains to be done. Governments, stakeholders, societies and communities must all work closely together in the upcoming months and years to make sure the proper decisions are made on every structure.

Canada will celebrate its one hundred and fiftieth anniversary in 2017. When Canada celebrates its two hundred and fiftieth anniversary in 2117, let's make sure that our descendants can look at our generation and thank us for having the foresight to do the intelligent and responsible thing in preserving our heritage for Canadians of the 22nd century.