Jack Knox: Lighthouses go lifeless — they can’t keep the keepers

Here’s irony: After years of trying to boot lighthouse keepers out of West Coast light stations, Ottawa can’t keep them in.

A shortage of keepers has forced the Canadian Coast Guard to leave some lights unstaffed, at least temporarily.

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None are currently empty, but Pine Island, off the northern tip of Vancouver Island, was lifeless for several weeks. Another light off the north coast has been affected four times since last winter. The lack of relief keepers has many of those at B.C.’s 27 staffed stations feeling stressed.

While the coast guard points out that even with no one on duty, all lights were still working and providing navigational aids to mariners, the lighthouse keepers union says the lack of a human presence is a safety issue for boaters, flyers and others. “They’re rolling the dice, hoping nothing goes wrong,” says Barry Tchir of the Union of Canadian Transportation Employees.

The problem is one of recruitment and retention: Keepers are aging out and not enough people are applying to replace them. A report done for the coast guard in March cited a variety of factors, including low pay, a cumbersome application process, the ongoing misery of the federal government’s Phoenix payroll system and a lack of advertising for the vacant spots.

Then there’s the nature of the job. It takes a special breed to want to live in isolation, cut off from the rest of the world. It’s Eden to some — a few of today’s keepers grew up in lighthouses and love being surrounded by nothing but nature — but Alcatraz to others.

The coast guard says it recognizes the recruitment barriers and is working to clear them. Dozens of applicants are in the pipeline. It currently has a posting for assistant lightkeepers.

Tchir isn’t as optimistic. He says more keepers are nearing retirement and the coast guard hasn’t done enough to address a shortage it saw coming years ago.

“The wheels of government sometimes move slowly, but this is ridiculous,” he says.

Again, there’s irony here. For decades, Ottawa treated lightkeepers as a romantic extravagance, not a necessity, and tried to crowbar them out of their isolated outposts.

From 1970 on, the federal government closed or fully automated more than 200 of Canada’s lighthouses.

In 2002, by which time 16 of B.C.’s 43 lights no longer had a human presence, federal auditor general Sheila Fraser complained about the $72 million Canada had spent on its remaining 50 staffed lighthouses since 1998.

“It is now accepted that staffed light stations are not necessary for maritime safety and navigation,” she wrote. That led the Liberal government of the day to take another run at destaffing in 2003 and the Harper Conservatives to try again in 2009.

But that led to a backlash from B.C., where what made sense on paper in Ottawa sounded crazy, if not downright reckless, to those contending with the snotty weather and demanding conditions of the remote, rocky reaches of the coast. The Conservatives abandoned the destaffing idea in 2011 after a Senate committee report argued strenuously for the need to keep real people on watch.

“Because of their presence at isolated and critical points along Canada’s coasts, lightkeepers perform a variety of safety-related functions and services that are vitally important to mariners and aviators,” the report said.

In areas where conditions can change by the minute, pilots radio lighthouses for real-time weather reports. Boaters rely on them when their GPS craps out, or their engine fails. Every once in a while the TC runs a story about keepers either directing search-and-rescue efforts or heading off themselves to haul some blue-lipped, hypothermic kayaker out of the saltchuck. They’re also Canada’s eyes and ear on its edges, watching for everything from oil spills to drug smugglers.

“It’s far more complex and important a job than many Canadians are aware of,” says Sen. Pat Bovey, who is delving into the issue. Bovey is a Manitoba senator, but Islanders will remember her as the director of the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria for 18 years before she departed for Winnipeg in 1999. She still keeps a place here. In May, retiring senator Nancy Greene Raine asked her to take over the lighthouse file.

What Bovey has found so far concerns her. The shortage is even making it hard for keepers to go on leave.

“You can’t work 11 hours a day, seven days a week, not have a break and not end up with stress issues.”

Quite a change from the days when they were clinging to their lighthouses by their fingernails.

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