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Canaries and rare birds

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


All along the Trans-Canada Highway there are various types of road signs. One such sign, west of Badger, is Rocky Brook, a no-brainer name as the brook is thoroughly rocky.

Another such sign, less than an hour from Port aux Basques, is Coal Brook, the meaning of which is less obvious. Surprisingly though, for those who don't know the geology of the area, the name actually means that 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.

Coal mining is dangerous due to the presence of various harmful gases. Thus, canaries were once synonymous with the coal industry. The little varied colour bird is highly sensitive to toxic gases so, they were brought down into the pit and as long as they chirped or sang, miners knew they were safe. However, if the birds became quiet, showed signs of distress, 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 – to indicate an advance warning of a looming danger, a coming crisis; a figure of speech all too often familiar in my life time.

Such a canary encounter happened at the pellet plant lunch room in Labrador City in January 1964 where a workmate told a bunch of us around the table that back home in Catalina, “The night lights from the foreign draggers trawling just offshore looked like a floating city.” For a landlubber like myself that was a startling scene to visualize; alarming information to hear.

In those days Canada had a 12-mile limit with little enforcement. The 200-mile limit only came about after the1976 Cod War when the gutsy Iceland, protecting its fishing grounds, took on Great Britain and won. However, Canada ignored the canary, the dangers of over-fishing, and joined the foreigners in plundering the cod stocks up until the cod moratorium of 1992.

Now, 25 years later we are still dealing with the collapse of cod stocks, and all the ramifications that has had on Newfoundland and Labrador.

Over-fishing cod was compounded even further with the ramping up of the fishing of its major food source, caplin; and 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 tractor trailers waiting in line for their loads to be hoisted aboard Japanese freighters. Everybody made tons of money. How could the experts not see that the destruction of the female species would eventually decimate the stock?

Almost three decades later critics were warning about the dangers of developing Muskrat Falls. Now their warnings are coming home to roost with the project presently $4 billion over budget and two years behind schedule. The project is a huge strain on our provincial budget and electricity rates are predicted to go through the roof. So, don't be surprised if you see people with picks and shovels near Coal Brook looking for the coal in them there hills to heat their homes.

This is the twentieth anniversary of the referendum that killed off the denominational education system. One of the pressures to change the system was declining enrolments. In 1997 our schools had 101,608

students (K-12), down from the peak of 162,818 (K-11) in 1971. Nowadays, the 1997 numbers look fantastic as the system hovers around 66,000 students in a province of 528,448.

As for ever again attaining the phenomenal numbers of 1971, we would, based on today's ratios, need a population of 1,300,000. The possibility of a population explosion of that magnitude is as likely as hitting an elephant on the TCH instead of a moose; and the elephant odds are even less likely as MUN's Harris Centre is predicting 40,000 fewer people living in this province by 2036. Woe is me!

For 44 of the past 46 years, my life's work has been linked with the education system. For two years, beginning in 1971, I taught English to trades at the Vocational Schools. I resigned, returned to university; and from there into regular schools as a teacher-librarian until retirement in 2000. Then, in 2002, serendipity had me come full circle by accepting my present position, library-technician, with the College of the North Atlantic (former Vocational Schools).

September past at the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples in Ottawa I met for the first time Rene Chartrand a spry, gently spoken elder who has deep roots in Saskatchewan's education system. But unlike me, Rene is in the trenches, teaching mechanics Grades 7-12. He says the girls show great enthusiasm for the course. Based on a quick lesson he gave a group of us (atmospheric pressure and mechanics) I can easily understand how Rene's knowledge and ease of presentation is able to fire up his students.

Rene enjoys teaching at Father Gamache Memorial School, Fond Du Lac, Sask. The place and the school were unknown to me prior to my meeting Rene. The school is located on a far northern reserve where most of the people are decedents of Dene or Metis.

At 72, I am the oldest of my siblings to be still in the workforce. But I more than met my match at the Congress in Ottawa where, appropriately so, you could have knocked me over with a feather when Rene told me was 79 years old; 80 in the spring. And with a twinkle in his eye he said they are asking him about a five-year contract. I told Rene, he has to be the oldest full-time teacher in Canada; bar none. Rene quietly noted my observation with a smiling, imagine that look. 

Rene is indeed, a rare bird!

Meanwhile, in Newfoundland and Labrador we all have become canary like (or sitting ducks) as we are surrounded by all sorts of toxic issues including: challenging cod, caplin, crab, shrimp, stocks; a ballooning provincial deficit; stagnant oil prices; high costs of everything; an aging population; and too few immigrants to offset our extremely low birth rate. Not a pretty picture! 

One possible short-term solution is to better utilize our aging population, seek out the Renes amongst us, talented older men and women, our rare birds; and have them engaged in the workforce to the best of their abilities in these troubling times.

Rare birds obviously have a best before date. But with some luck they could help keep things afloat until better economic conditions entice a younger generation to stay here, come back, or settle here, in order to grow our population to keep it a vibrant, worthwhile, place to live.



 Andy Barker at

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