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Introduction by Donald Graham



Lighthouse: the very word conjures up an image of solitary, sweeping power setting the mariner's infinite domain apart from the landlocked. Canada really begins at Langara Island and ends at Cape Spear, and whatever goes on across that mind-boggling expanse in between, no one shares as much in common as the keepers of those two lights. For all the political energy expended in the century between the National Policy and the Just Society, for all that sweat and hammering at the dented anvil of "national unity," they personify the elusive dream of forging a nation from one sea to the other. They could have traded places eighty years ago or last week with less dislocation than two-thirds of Canada's rootless people who pack up and move every ten years.

They also share a perception of their life and work far removed from the imaginations of some twenty million who talk on telephones, open their mail every day, have no inkling of how sweet a fresh pepper tastes after a month, who seldom thought of seals, whales, and wolves before Greenpeace, who waste more water than they drink. On the lights, nothing goes to waste. Even bent nails can be straightened and meals planned a month ahead to that day of delight when a helicopter comes hammering down through the drizzle with fresh food and a fat sack of mail. Reveling in their quarantine from smog-locked cities where the future seems always a car-payment away, lightkeepers still wonder, sometimes, what they might be missing.

The seventy-odd families who keep lights on the West Coast are heirs to one of the most effective and extensive networks of manned lighthouses left in the world: forty-three beacons which evolved piecemeal in the wake of shipwreck, brainchildren of an unsung architectural genius.

Canada took over three colonial lighthouses - Fisgard, Race Rocks, and Sandheads - when British Columbia joined Confederation in 1871. From this nucleus the Department of Marine and Fisheries (later the Department of Transport) established beacons in the approaches to the leading harbours, Victoria, Vancouver, and Nanaimo. Then, in belated, grudging response to an appalling sequence of wrecks along the dreaded West Coast of Vancouver Island (culminating in January 1906 with the wreck of the S.S. Valencia, which took three days to go down off Pachena Point with 117 passengers and crew), it made the "graveyard of the Pacific" proof against further catastrophe with nine manned lights and foghorns forming a corridor of light and sound from Sheringham Point in Juan de Fuca Strait to Triangle Island off Cape Scott.

The overseer of this revolutionary transformation, chief engineer of Marine and Fisheries and chairman of the Canadian Lighthouse Board, Colonel William Patrick Anderson was driven by his yearning to go down in history as one (if not the last) of the world's great lighthouse builders, at any cost. The people who took over and tended his far-flung concrete achievements paid hard.

For forty years Anderson's orders were executed, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, by a succession of marine agents out of Victoria: Captain James Gaudin, Captain George Robertson, Colonel A.W.R. Wilby, and Tom Morrison. Whatever their mindset or compassion, these officials co-authored a long, dark chapter in Canadian history, inflicting hardships few Canadians could even contemplate.

We never knew. Taking full advantage of their defenseless exile, Ottawa seldom missed an opportunity to repay lightkeepers' essential life-saving service by cutting wages and withholding decent pensions and benefits, guaranteeing life on the mudsill of society at a fraction the pittance paid "Indian and coolie day labour." One marooned keeper who had never, in twenty-five years' service, taken a holiday because he would have had to hire a replacement, prayed in an open letter to his fellow keepers that "the new order of things will mature before we die of old age."

The new order of things is at hand. Engineers in Transport Canada are committed to the hazardous course of automating lighthouses. To the extent they can convince their political masters that not a single life will be lost and that millions of dollars will be saved to pay some interest on the national debt, the lights will be abandoned.

This book, like its forerunner Keepers of the Light, will serve its purpose if it shows how both claims fly in the face of our forgotten history. "If men leave the lights," British Columbia's fishermen predict, "other men will die."