Digest>Archives> February 2003

Canadian Auditor General Calls for Automating All Its Lighthouses

By Bob Gustafson


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Surgeon Cove Point Lighthouse in Newfoundland. ...

A report by the Canadian Auditor General that’s critical of the Canadian Coast Guard’s efficiency and management practices has recommended that the remaining staffed lighthouses, most of them in Newfoundland and Labrador, be automated.

But a Newfoundland lighthouse keeper who is being paid by the federal government to sit at home says the idea is a bad one and that the Auditor General ought to get out into the real world.

Lloyd Lilly of Lewisporte, Newfoundland, has been a keeper for more than 33 years and was stationed at Surgeon’s Cove Head, an isolated light 20 miles north of Lewisporte. “Right now, the station is automated,” he says, “and has been since October. When they (federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans which oversees the Coast Guard) did that, they turned a blind eye to everyone. This in spite of the fact that when they held a meeting about it, they couldn’t fit everyone in the meeting hall. And those who couldn’t get in sent in letters.”

More importantly, Lilly says, is the fact that he has assisted a number of mariners during his stint as keeper and that requests for assistance have increased, not decreased, over the past several years.

“We gave them all kinds of information,” he says, “but they just didn’t pay attention.”

In her report to the House of Commons last December, Auditor General Sheila Fraser noted: “The Canadian Coast Guard began its program to automate, remove staff, and remotely monitor light stations in 1970. However, it still maintains 51 staffed light stations. Because of a 1998 government decision, the Department staffs 50 light stations in the Newfoundland and Pacific regions, largely for heritage reasons. The other remaining light station, in the Maritimes Region, is staffed for sovereignty purposes.”

Keeping certain stations staffed for reasons of “heritage” and “sovereignty” is where the Coast Guard went wrong, according to Wayne Fagan, spokesman for the Canadian Transport Employees union which represents the light keepers.

“The decision made five years ago was based on political pressure to keep the lights open for heritage reasons,” Fagan says. “The Coast Guard is not in the business of heritage; it’s in the business of saving lives and assisting mariners. At that time, we recommended that they enhance services and enhance training - for search and rescue, new technology, weather watch, ice watch, in other words, to keep an eye on the sea. But the Department went the other way with heritage. So, they made the move to relocate keepers off remote stations to shore stations. But the fact remains that we should be in the business of search and rescue, of risk management.”

Elsewhere in the Auditor General’s report, Fraser stated: “In December 1998, the Treasury Board approved $47.6 million in operating funds and $24.5 million in capital funds over five years (1998-99 to 2002-03) to continue staffing light stations in the Newfoundland and Pacific regions. In addition, ongoing operating funding of $12.9 million annually was approved for years after 2002-03. The Treasury Board requested that the Department review the decision to maintain staffing at the light stations after five years.”

Fraser continued: “It is now accepted that staffed light stations are not necessary for maritime safety and navigational efficiency. A 1998 Canadian Coast Guard study found that most industrialized countries were removing staff from light stations, and

* The United States had removed staff from 474 of 475 light stations since 1990,

* England had removed staff from 68 of 72 light stations,

* Ireland had removed staff from all of its 80 light stations, and

* Australia had removed staff from 102 of its 104 light stations.”

She concluded, “Fisheries and Oceans Canada should develop and implement an overall strategy for the future of its light stations considering maritime safety and heritage objectives.”

As for keeper Lloyd Lilly’s future he says, “They’ll keep paying me until spring and then they’ll decide what to do with me. I suspect they hope I’ll go away somewhere.”

This story appeared in the February 2003 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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