Feb. 13, 2009
EDITOR'S NOTE: The following is the fifth in a series of five feature articles prepared for Heritage Week, Feb. 9 - 13, 2009. For more information on Heritage Week activities throughout the province, visit the Heritage Week 2009 website.
The Escuminac Disaster
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the worst work-related disaster to occur in New Brunswick. This catastrophe, known as the Escuminac Disaster, took place during the night of June 19 - 20, 1959, when 35 fishermen, young boys as well as adults, perished in a violent storm off the east coast. Escuminac Wharf, at the entrance to Miramichi Bay, was at that time the centre of fishing for several nearby communities.
On that day, when fishermen went out to sea in pursuit of the lucrative salmon fishery, the forecast from Halifax predicted nothing out of the ordinary, nothing more than light winds. It was only later on that evening that warnings of a violent storm were issued. Unfortunately, none of the fishing boats was equipped with a radio. The fishermen, who had already cast their nets, tried in vain to brave the storm. The winds reached 120 kilometre-per-hour (75 mile-per-hour) gales, and 15-metre (50-foot) waves reduced 22 of the 32 boats to kindling; the same happened to many of their trawls and lobster traps. Although 16 fishermen were spared, 35 could not escape the ravages of the brutal storm. The youngest victim was only 13.
The tragedy brought severe social and economic hardships to those affected in the region. It also shed a sudden light on the impoverished condition of the fishing communities. The most visible response to the Escuminac Disaster was the launching of the New Brunswick Fishermen's Disaster Fund, established by Brigadier Michael Wardell, publisher of The Fredericton Daily Gleaner. During the months following the tragedy, donations were received from all parts of Canada, and even Pope John XXIII and Queen Elizabeth II, who was on a royal tour in Canada, donated o the fund. More than $400,000 was collected, enough to provide limited but valuable relief to the 24 adults and 83 children who were the widows and orphans left in distress by the tragedy.
Acadian artist Claude Roussel was living in Edmundston when the tragedy hit. He was moved and decided to create a work of art in honour of the fishermen. He prepared a wood carving 60 centimetres (24 inches) tall, a model for a sculpture to be entitled Les Pêcheurs - The Fishermen. The quality of his model was recognized when Roussel won the first prize at an exhibition at the New Brunswick Museum in 1962. In 1969, thanks to financial support from the Beaverbrook Foundation, Roussel sculpted his work in stone. Residents of the Escuminac area organized a fundraising campaign to cover the cost of a base for the monument, as well as the bronze plaques on which the names of the victims and survivors were inscribed.
Roussel and his assistants laboured for six months to complete this remarkable work of art, which shows three stylized human figures 2.3 metres (seven feet) in height. The imposing stone monument weighs nearly five tonnes (10,000 pounds) and stands on the wharf in Escuminac. The figures may be seen from the sea as well as from land, and their appearance changes depending on the light and the fog in the bay. Rather than representing particular individuals, the monument shows a group of fishermen, in their work clothes and bearing their fishing nets, about to venture on the sea to take up their duties. A modernist in his style, Roussel aimed to produce a monument that would honour the dignity and courage he witnessed in the daily life and work of the fishermen. In other words, he wanted to evoke feelings of compassion for these working men.
The monument was unveiled on June 19, 1969. It was a major event, drawing 2,000 people, including then-premier Louis J. Robichaud and former premier Hugh John Flemming. Since that time, anniversaries of the disaster have been marked by public activities at the site. In addition, the Government of New Brunswick declared the Escuminac Disaster Memorial a provincial historic site in 2001. To mark the occasion, a commemorative plaque was unveiled at the Escuminac wharf during a public ceremony on July 8 of that year.
For many fishermen, the monument is a reminder of the perils of the work at sea, a warning to use care and show respect for the ocean because nature is more powerful than anything else. As long as there are fishermen, it is said, the Escuminac Memorial will not be without a purpose.
For more information on the history of unions and workers in New Brunswick, visit the New Brunswick Labour History Project website, www.lhtnb.ca.
MEDIA CONTACT: Danielle McFarlane, communications, Department of Wellness, Culture and Sport, 506-457-6445.