Ongoing costs concern Billings council as it considers assuming Kagawong light

MANITOULIN—Modern technology has sent many once-vital goods and services tumbling into the dustbin of history and too often that includes buildings with historical and cultural significance. When news broke that the federal Department of Oceans and Fisheries (DFO) had declared many lighthouses across Canada as surplus to the nation’s navigational needs, numerous groups stepped forward to ensure these buildings, many of which form part of maritime communities iconic images, did not simply get bulldozed into oblivion.

“It’s been 37 years since Dr. Jack Bailey and Barney Turner started this business of trying to protect the Island’s lighthouses,” said Manitoulin Lighthouse Committee co-chair Bill Caesar. “Ever since the government tore down the lighthouse at Narrow Island.”

The rules governing surplus federal assets dictates a hierarchy whereby such assets are offered first to the provincial governments, then First Nations and municipalities, explained Mr. Caesar, and numerous municipalities have been submitting business plans and proposals geared to preserving the lighthouses in their vicinity, in which the province has indicated no interest.

Some of the lighthouses on Manitoulin are getting close to being transferred to local municipalities, along with the necessary funds required to refurbish and maintain the structures, but even a determined booster of local heritage like Mr. Caesar is advising municipalities to look closely into the deals being offered by the federal government.

“I think it is very important that the municipalities take a close look at what is being proposed,” said Mr. Caesar. Although he is a strong proponent of maintaining the cultural and maritime history represented by the region’s lighthouses, Mr. Caesar has misgivings about simply accepting what is presented.

“Billings is wise to check the different clauses, the legalese is extensive,” he said. As to the lighthouses themselves, there is more to making the transfers than simply the state of the structures. “There was a report in 2006 that said ‘no further action required’,” said Mr. Caesar. “I sent in a series of photographs that said differently.”

The environmental impact of countless years of paint chips, discarded batteries and the minutiae of generations past that have accumulated during eras with a lesser concentration on environmental issues present a much larger challenge than the federal government seemed to be letting on.

Following the submission of Mr. Caesar’s photographs, a flurry of activity took place to clean up the sites but Mr. Caesar said he remains somewhat skeptical that the work has brought the locations up to the level where they need to be.

The issue, noted Mr. Caesar, is that the government’s protocols are to ensure the sites are up to standards commiserate with their usages, which is technically industrial. But the usage envisioned for nearly all of the sites is far from industrial.

There are four lighthouses that have recently had offers tendered to the applicants seeking to take them over: Kagawong, Janet Head (Gordon Barrie Island) and two in Killarney (Killarney East and Killarney North West). Each municipality is investigating the terms being offered by the federal government.

“Killarney North West is tied up because the coast guard never bought it, they were sort of sitting on it illegally,” Mr. Caesar said. “So they have to transfer it to themselves before they can it pass it on.”

Killarney East has its own issues. “Killarney wants to use it as a park,” said Mr. Caesar. “But the Coast Guard has a radio tower they want to keep there which they need for their operations, but the fence they want to put up will keep people from being able to reach the lighthouse.”

“We have our staff negotiating on this matter,” said Billings Mayor Austin Hunt. “The council has concerns because of the way things are worded, it looks like we will have to commit to looking after the lighthouse for 20 years. We need clarification on what that means exactly and whether the money that is coming in with the transfer will cover what needs to be done to keep the lighthouse maintenance up to snuff.”

Mayor Hunt noted that his council has a series of questions that they want clarified to ensure the transfer will not place a burden on local ratepayers. The proposal before the council included the $20,000 commitment from the Coast Guard in addition to the $7,000 of repairs and upgrades earlier identified as being necessary to ensure the lighthouse is at a solid baseline.

Among the concerns being expressed by Billings council is that the lighthouse must be accessible to the Coast Guard for light maintenance for up to 20 years.

The municipality’s staff will continue to negotiate with the Department of Oceans and Fisheries and the federal lands agency over the transfer with the support of the Billings Old Mill Heritage Museum board.

Michael Erskine