Lighthouses in Canada

With the world's longest coastline and more than half the area on earth that is covered in lakes, Canada is home to more than 750 lighthouses. The Government of Canada has identified some of these scenic landmarks as surplus lighthouses. Working with Parks Canada, we have transferred close to 100 lighthouses to individuals, community groups and municipalities. The new owners will conserve these important heritage sites for the benefit of all Canadians.

Learn about the different kinds of lighthouses all across Canada and their many roles.

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Types of lighthouses

Lighthouses range greatly in size, structure and setting. Some unique examples of these icons of maritime history include:

  • Boat Bluff Lighthouse, a skeletal tower looming on the edge of a Pacific Coast rainforest
  • Cove Island Light, a towering lighthouse built of white limestone in a perilous strait between Lake Huron and Georgian Bay
  • Pointe-au-Père Lighthouse, an immense concrete tower with flying buttresses, standing at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River
  • Cape Spear Lighthouse, a wood-frame structure with an octagonal tower, perched on a cliff overlooking the Atlantic at North America's easternmost point

Lighthouses are found in every province in Canada, except Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Roles of lighthouses

Lighthouses have many purposes. For example, they are used to:

  • sound fog alarms
  • assist in aerial navigation
  • provide weather observations
  • maintain radio communications
  • offer search-and-rescue services and sanctuary
  • issue tsunami warnings off the North Pacific coast
  • "keep the light" – shining a beacon to mark dangerous coastlines, reefs and shallow areas and guide ships to safe harbour

Canada's lighthouse history

The first lighthouse in Canada was built in Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, in 1734. Over the years, the structure was damaged in battle, destroyed by fire and rebuilt several times. The lighthouse known today was built in 1923.

Canada's oldest surviving lighthouse was built in 1758 on Sambro Island, at the entrance to Halifax Harbour.

By the 1800s, growing trade between Canada and Europe led to an increasing number of shipwrecks along our shores. To prevent these disasters, lighthouses were built on:

  • the shores of Lake Ontario
  • the coasts of Newfoundland
  • Seal Island at the entrance to the Bay of Fundy
  • Îsle Verte at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River

The first two lighthouses on the West Coast opened at Race Rocks and Fisgard Island in 1860. After Confederation in 1867, Canada built a vast network of lighthouses to mark the sea routes essential to maritime safety and trade.

Changing role of lighthouses

Over the years, the number of lighthouses in use, including ones managed by lighthouse keepers, has decreased because of:

  • high maintenance costs
  • the trend toward automation
  • and replacement by modern aids to navigation, such as lighted marine buoys and satellite-based positioning systems

But traditional lighthouses are still a big part of Canada's identity, culture and landscape. The Government of Canada has designated many lighthouses under the Heritage Lighthouse Protection Act and transferred them to new owners all across Canada. This special status recognizes the beauty and historic importance of heritage lighthouses to Canadian communities.

We now work with provinces, communities and other partners to ensure that heritage lighthouses are conserved and protected for future generations. We also continue to operate modern aids to navigation on lighthouse properties.

Staffed lighthouses

The Government of Canada continues to operate 51 staffed lighthouses across the country, including:

  • 1 in New Brunswick
  • 27 in British Columbia
  • 23 in Newfoundland and Labrador

The government manages and maintains most of these lighthouses for operational purposes. One exception is Machias Seal Island in the Gulf of Maine, where lightkeepers continue to staff the lighthouse for sovereignty reasons.

Surplus lighthouses

The Government of Canada has identified about 500 traditional lighthouses that are not in use. They can be transferred to new owners who wish to make the most of the heritage value and tourism potential of these sites. Interested acquirers of surplus lighthouses must complete DFO's business plan template. This outlines a set of eligibility criteria that groups must meet, such as a financial plan and organizational structure.

Contact us

For more information, contact Fisheries and Oceans Canada at info@dfo-mpo.gc.ca.

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