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Cape Breton students work to save historic lighthouse

Three successive political science classes have teamed up with community members to make a case for local landmark

By JENNIFER HALSALL | MAY 13 2015

A historic lighthouse in Gabarus, Nova Scotia may get a new lease on life thanks to the help of some third- and fourth-year political science students at Cape Breton University. The 125-year-old beacon on Cape Breton Island, a throwback to Gabarus’s bygone days as a fishing hub, was declared surplus by the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans in 2012 and risks falling into disrepair.

Now, under the tutelage of Tom Urbaniak, a political science professor at CBU, students are teaming up with concerned community members to make a case for its continued operation. “It was an important part of the coursework,” says Dr. Urbaniak, who has involved three successive political science classes in the project.

The CBU students have investigated funding and insurance opportunities, studied the problematic erosion of the precipice upon which the lighthouse rests, and created a business plan that would see the lighthouse rejuvenated as a historical attraction on Gabarus’s scenic coastline. They’ve also helped form the Gabarus Lightkeepers Society, a local body dedicated to conserving the lighthouse. If everything goes according to plan, the lighthouse will remain active, with the Coast Guard maintaining the light and the lightkeepers’ society maintaining the building and grounds.

“The students have been very enthusiastic,” says Tim Menk, a volunteer with the lightkeepers’ society. “It’s been eye-opening I think on both sides, for students and for those of us who are older… to see that a common cause can be made and that friendships can be formed.”

As a scenic attraction, the lighthouse plays a major role in Gabarus. The village’s population can double in the summer, when cottagers and tourists arrive to catch a glimpse of the rugged coastline. “We have people coming to the lighthouse all the time … from all over Canada and the U.S.,” says Janet McGillen, president of the lightkeepers’ society.

CBU students and local residents pose in front of the lighthouse with Dr. Urbaniak (third from right).
CBU students and local residents pose in front of the lighthouse with Dr. Urbaniak (third from right).

But in wintertime, it’s a quieter place. Gabarus has only about 80 full-time residents, making the student’s contributions especially important. “There are all kinds of things that need to be done in a small community that can’t be done with only the people who are here,” says Mr. Menk. “The sheer number is very low, let alone the average age is very high.”

There’s no shortage of student volunteers. Three successive groups of students have taken part in the lighthouse project, enough that Dr. Urbaniak’s small class has developed a reputation.

“It’s known as the lighthouse class,” says Maureen Jobes, one of Dr. Urbaniak’s students. “It’s one of those classes that are hands on; you get to help and you get to go out there and see everything work, instead of just sitting there behind a desk.”

“This is a little different,” Dr. Urbaniak agrees, “examining the needs and interests of a community, and establishing respectful relationships with people of different walks of life. That’s all part of the political and policy processes. I hope the students take away from this a sense of appreciation for grassroots community development.”

Brett Booth, another student involved in the project, says he plans to stay in touch with the lightkeepers society after he moves off the island. He credits the class with opening his eyes to the workings of local government. “It made me realize everything has policy, everything has procedures,” he says.

Once work begins on the lighthouse’s restoration, students from all three classes will be invited back to get their hands dirty and help out. But their contributions don’t stop there – already, the group is exploring options for future projects, like reopening the long-abandoned Bell Cove Trail.

Back at the lighthouse, the stakes are high for the group of enthusiastic volunteers. Unless the Gabarus Lightkeepers Society can win over the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and gain ownership of the historic red-and-white structure, it will be replaced with a solar-powered light standard. But despite the challenge, Ms. McGillen is confident they’ll pull through.

“We don’t even give that a second thought,” she says. “We’re not having that; we are saving our lighthouse.”

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