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Iconic N.S. lighthouse faces demolition Add to ...

Except for the nine years he spent in Ontario, where he was desperately homesick for the sea and salt air, Ivan Fraser has lived his entire 67 years along Peggy’s Cove Road in the shadow of one of Canada’s maritime icons.

Mr. Fraser, a retired printer, today scrapes together a living selling his paintings and photographs of the Peggy’s Cove lighthouse. The idea that the beacon on Nova Scotia’s South Shore, visited by more than 500,000 tourists each year, faces an uncertain future is, he says, simply “devastating.”

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“Where is the thinking? Why didn’t the government snap that up, bingo! Get it cleaned up, open it up,” Mr. Fraser says. “People should be able to go into that. It’s a crying shame.”

The Peggy’s Cove lighthouse, badly in need of paint and repairs, is one of some 500 Canadian lighthouses that the federal government has declared surplus as it gets out of the business of owning and maintaining what have become, for the most part, outdated navigational aids. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans, which is responsible for the lighthouses, wants to replace them with simple metal or Fibreglas poles with lights on them.

If communities or other levels of government do not petition Ottawa for heritage designation by May 29 – a designation that would ensure that a lighthouse would not be altered architecturally and could not be sold or transferred without public consultation – many of Canada’s maritime monuments could be blown up, burnt down or bulldozed.

In Nova Scotia, about 70 lighthouses are at risk, 21 of which are the subject of petitions for heritage designation. No one, however, has filed one for Peggy’s Cove.

Former B.C. senator Pat Carney has become one of the leading forces in the bid to save Canada’s lighthouses, sponsoring the federal Heritage Lighthouse Protection Act, which came into effect in May, 2010. She notes that Peggy’s Cove draws thousands of tourists each year, and lighthouses, as major attractions, are important economic drivers: “They have social and economic development potential for very distressed coastal communities.”

In Ms. Carney’s native province, the job of getting heritage designations has been easier – notwithstanding the high-profile advocacy of a former senator – because only 18 lighthouses have been declared surplus. B.C. also received money through the federal economic stimulus plan to repair a handful of its lighthouses. Nova Scotia has seen no such government largesse.

“I don’t want to cry the blues,” says Barry MacDonald, president of the Nova Scotia Lighthouse Preservation Society. “But I would pose the questions to Canadians: Money got spent in the West, why not the East?”

Lighthouse preservation groups, including the Heritage Canada Foundation, had hoped that DFO would partner with communities to preserve the structures. But the department appears uninterested.

“We don’t need to own them any more,” says Andrew Anderson, the DFO official in charge of real property, safety and security. “The technology that supports navigational systems has evolved pretty rapidly over the course of the last number of years and it’s gotten to an extent that we don’t need to own large structures or real estate.”

Mr. MacDonald says his society will put in a petition to save the Peggy’s Cove lighthouse if no other group comes forward before May 29. On Friday, he met with his local MLA to discuss the issue, and he’s travelling to Ottawa next week to talk to federal ministers.

Still, Mr. MacDonald marvels at the complacency of Maritime communities when it comes to preserving their heritage. In Peggy’s Cove, which has only about 60 families, there is a view, he believes, that “as long as the government will look after it, we don’t have to.”

“People just think, ‘Well, they’ve always been here, they’ll always be there because the government has always been there taking care of them,’ ” Mr. MacDonald says. “But the times they are a-changing. This is the wake-up call for communities to step up … because we’re going to lose part of our history.”

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