A beacon of light
Sam Gallant goes to Panmure Head lighthouse almost every day – and many nights, if there’s a lot of work to do. As secretary treasurer of the Panmure Island Lighthouse Association, she’s been making this trip for five years and is still taken aback by how beautiful the lighthouse is.
“It never loses its magic. In fact, yesterday, it was so windy and so stormy here that you could barely stand up at the site of the lighthouse. When you get inside and the wind stops … it’s such a sense of security,” she said Tuesday.
But as beautiful as Panmure Head is, nobody needs it to do its job. With GPS technology on most ships, navigating a shoreline using a lighthouse is mainly a thing of the past. This puts a lot of lighthouses in Canada in jeopardy, as their history isn’t worth the cost of maintenance to the federal government.
On Thursday, however, the federal government announced Panmure Head, which sits on the southwest tip of Prince Edward Island, is among 74 lighthouses across Canada that will receive heritage designation under the Heritage Lighthouse Protection Act.
The announcement comes five years after 970 lighthouses were declared surplus, meaning they would no longer be maintained or, in some cases, torn down. In 2011, the government revised the number of surplus lighthouses to 541, according to a senate report. At the time, the government allowed applications for some to be transferred to local groups to preserve if the lighthouses met certain criteria such as their architectural quality, their importance to the community or if they reflected “an important theme in maritime history.”
The groups also need to buy or acquire the lighthouse, and are responsible for maintaining it.
That’s a job that’s both costly and often logistically difficult, according to Marc Seguin, executive director of Save Our Lighthouses, an organization dedicated to raising money and awareness for Canada’s lighthouses.
“The cost will vary enormously ... for instance the Sambro Island lighthouse. It’s technically in the Atlantic Ocean, so it’s got salt air, wind and waves it has to worry about,” he said, adding the Nova Scotia community recently raised about $1-million to cover some repairs.
Because the road to heritage designation must include a plan to acquire and maintain a lighthouse, the onus is on the local organizations to save their lighthouses, Mr. Seguin said.
“It doesn’t matter how important they are, it doesn’t matter how old they are. It doesn’t matter how many lives they’ve saved or how many ships they’ve saved. If someone in that local area is not willing to fund the preservation of the lighthouse, then it’s not going to happen,” he said.
Petitions to save about 350 lighthouses under the act were submitted to the government. After a review by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, it was decided that 32 structures would be transferred to private hands The government will maintain another 42 that received heritage designation. Community groups will receive a total of $1.2-million, and $5.6-million has been earmarked to maintain those that remain under federal control.
For Panmure Head, Ms. Gallant said the local organization was already in place, which helped get the process started, but it was still stressful.
“We realized it was boots to the ground. We had to get a business plan done in very short order. We had to scramble from day one,” she said.
And because the Panmure Island Lighthouse Association is volunteer-run, it required goodwill on the part of a lot of people.
“For a very small non-profit association, the waters are not very deep when it comes to business experience,” she said.
Other communities weren’t as lucky as Panmure to have an established lighthouse organization, Mr. Seguin said.
He said he’s hopeful other levels of government, particularly municipal, will take charge and save more of those lighthouses which will otherwise be lost.
“Even though they’re not used in a lot of cases to guide ships, they do still shed light on our past,” he said.
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