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The politics behind sparing lighthouse keepers: Senator MacDonald
December 10, 2019
image Michael L. MacDonald
Michael L. MacDonald
C - (Nova Scotia - Cape Breton)

I read with interest the November 20 column by John DeMont regarding automated lighthouses. It was a thoughtful piece lamenting the loss of staffed lighthouses here in Nova Scotia. As a native of Louisbourg, I grew up understanding the importance of the lighthouse keeper, and thought it unsettling how their critical role was casually dismissed by both faraway bureaucrats and a disengaged federal government. The lighthouse keeper was always a coveted, respected, and important position in my hometown, as in all coastal communities. 

Mr. DeMont states that a grassroots movement saved the remaining lighthouse keepers in Canada. While I commiserate with him over the loss of Nova Scotia’s manned light stations, I don’t share his conclusions of how and why the remaining manned lighthouses were preserved. Not mentioned in his article was the role that the Senate of Canada played in keeping these remaining staffed lighthouses, nor the importance of having a federal government that was not only willing to listen but prepared to overrule bureaucratic agendas. 

In 2009, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans was pushing a plan to remove the remaining light keepers, as was done to Nova Scotia in the 1990s. The then-minister of fisheries and oceans, Gail Shea, directed that the plan be put on hold and asked the Senate Committee on Fisheries and Oceans, of which I was a member, to undertake a review and advise on the matter. The Senate committee held hearings in Ottawa, as well as fact-finding missions to Newfoundland and Labrador and British Columbia. We also visited sites in Nova Scotia to hear how the de-staffing of lighthouses had been experienced.

Opposition to de-staffing was widespread on both coasts. We heard that light keepers are the “eyes and ears” of mariners and an important part of the maritime safety net, particularly on the West Coast where hundreds of light planes fly daily between the mainland and Vancouver Island alone, with pilots relying on up-to-the-minute communication with lighthouse stations regarding rapidly changing weather. When lives are on the line, automated equipment cannot compare with the reliability of a light keeper's immediate knowledge of weather and sea conditions.

In our final report, we concluded that “any cost savings realized from de-staffing will come at a high price — that is the risk of loss of life.” We recommended that fisheries and oceans not proceed. The Harper government listened and killed the scheme.

However, the pushback on lighthouses was modest compared to the representations made last year when two Senate committees (on both of which I served) undertook reviews of the contentious bills C-69 and C-48. We heard overwhelmingly negative testimony from across the country that these bills would be detrimental to our prosperity. Based on evidence gathered, the Senate proposed many important amendments. Yet the government rejected all of them, and only adopted changes they themselves fed to the Senate, courtesy of the so-called "independent" senators group, none of which addressed the more serious concerns of those most affected. The Trudeau government stubbornly refused to listen.

It is my observation that the most important factor in influencing the decisions of government is not the size of the lobby, but the willingness of government leadership to accept informed opinion. Like John DeMont, I applaud the decision to maintain the remaining staffed lighthouses made by the previous Conservative government. But it was the work of the Senate, and the willingness of people like Gail Shea, Peter MacKay and Stephen Harper to support its advice that actually made the difference.

Senator Michael MacDonald represents Nova Scotia in the Senate.


This article was published in the November 28, 2019, edition of The Chronicle Herald.