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Canaries and rare birds

['Andy Barker']
['Andy Barker']


All along the Trans-Canada Highway there are signs to indicate either the name of a community, brook, or river. One such sign, west of Badger, is Rocky Brook which wasn't a hard name to come up with as the brook is thoroughly rocky. 

Another sign, less than an hour from Port aux Basques, is Coal Brook. Perhaps surprisingly for many people, it actually means there is coal in them there hills. However, like two other known deposits in the region, the tonnage is too low to make it a viable industry. Makes me wonder if people nearby have ever used such coal for heating, as it gives off better heat than wood. 

Due to the presence of various gases, coal mines are dangerous places to work. Thus, prior to modern devices, canaries were synonymous with coal mines. The little yellow bird is highly sensitive to toxic gases so, they were brought down in the mines and as long as they chirped or sang, miners knew they were safe. However, if the birds became quiet or died, the miners knew gases were rising to dangerous levels, and thus, they had time to scramble to safety. From that practice we have – a canary in a coal mine – an advance warning of some danger.  

The first such canary warning I heard about was at the pellet plant in Labrador City in January 1964. As an 18-year-old greenhorn high school graduate I listened to a guy at the lunch table tell us that at night, from his home in Catalina, the lights from foreign draggers looked like a floating city. 

In those days Canada had only a 12-mile limit and the 200-mile limit only came about after the1976 Cod War with the gutsy Iceland pushing back Great Britain. However, Canada ignored the canary of over-fishing and joined the foreigners in pillaging the cod stocks up until the cod moratorium of 1992.  Now, 25 years later we are still dealing with the near death of the cod stocks, and all the ramifications that has had on Newfoundland and Labrador. 

Newfoundland fishing interests and federal fisheries just didn't ignore the danger signs, the canary of over-fishing cod, as they also pillaged the caplin stocks; specifically, females full of roe, a highly prized delicacy in Japan. In the pillaging days of the 1980s the St John's waterfront was abuzz with Japanese freighters being loaded with tractor trailer load after tractor trailer load of female caplin. How could the experts not see that the destruction of the female species would eventually decimate the stock? 

Just a few years ago we heard canary after canary sing to us the dangers of developing Muskrat Falls. However, their warnings were brushed off as naysayers. Now, we whistle past the graveyard as the project is presently more than $4 billion over-budget and two years behind schedule. With electricity rates projected to go through the roof, there could be lots of people with picks and shovels heading to the west coast looking for coal in them there hills to heat their homes. Woe is me! 

This is the twentieth anniversary of the referendum to kill off the denominational education system. One of the pressures to change the system was declining enrolments. In 1997 our schools had 101.608 students, down from the 1971 peak of 162, 818 (K-11). Sadly, those seemingly dismal enrolment numbers of 1997 now look fantastic as our K-12 school system hovers around 66,000 students. 

For the past 44 of 46 years I have been tied to the education system. It started in 1971, teaching English to trades at the vocational schools. I resigned and returned to university. Then, it was into regular school system as teacher-librarian until retirement in 2000. However, serendipity had me come full circle by accepting in 2002, my present position, library- technician with the College of the North Atlantic, once the vocational schools. 

I used to think I was the old guy in the education system, but September past while attending the Congress of Aboriginal People in Ottawa, I more than met my match. There I met an elder from Saskatchewan, Rene Chatrand who spoke so well at the Elders meeting and at the Congress.  

Rene told me he teaches mechanics Grades 7-12 in a K-12 school.  And he says the girls show great enthusiasm for the course. Based on a quick lesson he gave a group of us on atmospheric pressure and mechanics I can easily understand how Rene is able to fire up his students. 

Rene speaks with enthusiasm, calmness, and enjoys teaching at his school; Father Gamache Memorial in Fond-du-Lac, Sask. Neither the school nor the place had I heard about prior to Sept 21. The school is located on a far northern reserve where most of the people are either Dene or Metis. Rene himself may be Cree, but I am not sure. 

But I am sure, I clearly heard Rene say he was 79 years old; 80 in the spring. And with a glint in his eye he told the school is asking him about a five-year contract. I told Rene he must be the oldest teacher in Canada. Who else in Canada at his age is teaching, full time, in the regular school system?   


Rene is indeed, a rare bird! 

Meanwhile, in Newfoundland and Labrador we have ignored the canaries at our peril and now we have so many ducks in a row: challenging cod, caplin, crab, shrimp, stocks; a ballooning provincial deficit; stagnant oil prices; aging population; so few immigrants; and an extremely low birth rate that now has communities seeking resettlement. Not a pretty picture!   

However, to help save the day, this province should look to its aging population, seek out the Renes, the rare birds, talented older men and women, to do their bit in the economy as a means to make the best of a bad situation.  

And who knows, maybe the rare birds can hold the fort long enough until one, two, three or so of our seemingly dead canaries come back to life and make the younger crowd want to come back, come here, stay here, to make the place a more hopeful, more promising place to live. 



 Andy Barker contact at 

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