Lesson Plan No. 5: Escuminac, 1959

What can we learn about the history of work in the fisheries from the Escuminac Disaster of 1959?

This Lesson Plan is designed to help students understand several themes related to an event that is remembered as the worst workplace accident in New Brunswick history. This story helps students to understand the history of work in the parts of the province that have depended on the fisheries, one of the province's major natural resource industries. It reveals conditions as they existed half a century ago, including the dangers of work in the resource sector and the importance of family connections within the workplaces and communities. The story also points to the ways in which tragic events may be remembered, including the creation of a major work of public art by a famous New Brunswick sculptor.

This Lesson Plan contains material suitable for use at a variety of class levels and in a number of courses, including history, social studies, art and English.

The Lesson Plan is based on one of the features on our website. On our home page, go to Labour Landmarks and choose Escuminac, 1959. Teachers will find all the relevant information for the various activities in this feature as well as references to other sources.

The Lesson Plan will assist in meeting several curricular goals. One goal is to study how single-industry and natural resource-based communities interact with their environment and how that environment can at times be dangerous. Another goal is to understand how tragedy can affect a small community and families within it, and how people both close to and far from the tragedy choose to respond and memorialize it. Another goal is to understand the changing conditions of workplaces in history and how tragedies such as Escuminac have contributed to changes. In the process of fulfilling these goals, the Lesson Plan also offers students experience in utilizing the sources located on the website, including newspaper articles, photographs and song lyrics.

Students will be assessed on their participation in group discussions, class reading and exercises, and creative writing and art projects.

Suggested Activities:

  1. To begin, teachers should ask students to spend some time locating Escuminac on a map of New Brunswick. Teachers can ask students to take note of Escuminac's surrounding geography, indicating the role of water in Escuminac's location and its proximity or distance from other population centres. How would this geography influence the economic activities of the community? Teachers should point out that Escuminac itself was the site of the main wharf for the fishing communities in this area on Miramichi Bay, including Baie-du-Vin, Baie-Sainte-Anne, Manuels and Hardwicke. Students may also be encouraged to think of other communities in the province comparable to Escuminac. Are there fishing areas within your own community or district? Have students visited these areas?
  2. At this point teachers may want to ask what students know about the work of commercial fishing in the coastal waters. Do students have family members involved in the fishing industry, in the past or in the present? In discussing this topic, teachers may find it useful to have some limited economic information about the fishing industry in New Brunswick at the time of the Escuminac Disaster. In 1959 there were 6,200 people working in the province's ocean-based fisheries. Although their annual catch was valued at $8.8 million at the time, most fishing families lived in relative poverty and most Canadians knew little about their way of life.
  3. Teachers should now introduce the basic outline of the story of the Escuminac Disaster to the class. Students can read the general account on the website in order to follow the timeline of the event and understand the scope of the event. Students may be asked to identify actors and factors that might have affected the outcome. Students should be asked about the human element to this story. How many people were involved in this tragedy, both directly and indirectly? What was the general reaction, and how widespread was this reaction?
  4. This can be followed by taking a closer look at the event by using the newspaper account on the website. This will give a more immediate perspective on the event and what those involved did to survive and to assist others. After reading the article, teachers may organize students to participate in some forms of role-playing, such as preparing a news report, writing a letter to the editor or even preparing a diary entry by a survivor or relative of one of the fishers. French immersion classes could make use of the newspaper article in French, both to test reading ability and to compare its contents to those of the article in English.
  5. For a closer look at the impact of the disaster, teachers should ask students to examine the list of those who lost their lives. Students should take note of the ages of those who died, which range from 13 to 70. What does this say about life in a fishing community at this time, especially about the role of young and elderly people in the workforce? Students should also take note of the surnames of the deceased. They will notice several recurring surnames (27 of the 35 who perished were related to at least one other person on the list with the same surname). Students should examine the surnames and ages in combination to gain a sense of the role of families in the fishing industry. How is it obvious that fathers and sons, brothers and uncles and other relatives worked side by side? Why would this be the case? What does this suggest about the way of life in a fishing community? What would be the impact of the loss of so many family members?
  6. For another way of testing reading comprehension, the teacher may wish to ask students to identify some of the people whose names appear in the accounts of the events, including those who expressed sympathy in response to the disaster or were present at the unveiling of the monument ten years later. See Exercise No. 1 below for a list of names for the students to identify and discuss.
  7. As part of a discussion of the causes of this tragedy, teachers can ask students to think about the role of weather forecasts in the Escuminac Disaster. How did the way in which people got weather forecasts in 1959 differ from today? Could the sort of mistake regarding the accuracy of the weather forecast on the eve of the disaster occur today? This question could be extrapolated into larger questions about the role of changing technology in the fishing industry, or other resource extraction industries.
  8. Teachers may ask students to think about any recollections they may have heard from parents, grandparents or other relatives about either the Escuminac Disaster or other significant disasters in a workplace environment. If the class is spending several days on the subject, this could be a question to ask of grandparents or other seniors, who may have stories of their own to share. What do students know about workplace disasters that have taken place in Canada, or elsewhere in the world, that they recognize from recent news reports? What can or should be done to make the world of work less dangerous and more secure?
  9. This question could lead into a more advanced activity as well. How would students investigate an event such as the Escuminac Disaster? In small groups, students should review both the general account of the disaster and the testimonials from survivors. What role did a lack of technology play in the disaster? What role, if any, did workplace safety laws play? Is there any evidence that the fishers were members of unions that could represent their interests? What improvements or changes would the students recommend? The groups could present their findings to the class as a whole, and students should try to reach a conclusion on the question of whether this disaster could have been avoided. Teachers could plan to conduct this activity more formally by organizing the class into groups for the purpose of holding a mock coroner's jury investigation, with students playing different roles. This investigation could try to reach a verdict on whether the Escuminac Disaster was a disaster that could have been avoided.
  10. At this stage teachers can move the class discussion towards the theme of remembering historical events. One can click on the website “More Sources” link and find the lyrics to two songs written about the Escuminac Disaster. Note that one of the songs was composed and performed in 1959 by a 13-year-old girl. After analyzing the lyrics, students could also compose their own music to the songs, or write a set of lyrics of their own. A larger question that should be explored in this activity is why music was used as a means of mourning and memorializing the Escuminac Disaster. What purposes do music or poetry or other forms of remembrance serve for a community in mourning?
  11. Teachers may now want to move on to a discussion of the Escuminac monument, the modernist sculpture known as Les Pêcheurs - The Fishermen. Introduce the sculptor, Claude Roussel, to the class. What do we know about him? What can students find out about him? It should be pointed out to the class that Les Pêcheurs - The Fishermen was the second monument erected to victims of the disaster. A modest and more traditional limestone monument was built outside a church in nearby Baie du Vin in 1960 to memorialize the people lost in that community. Why was a second monument erected, and why in the location that it was? The images of Les Pêcheurs - The Fishermen could either be projected on a screen or printed out and distributed, but students should be given time, perhaps in groups, to observe and comment on the monument. Why does the monument look the way it does, with little facial or bodily details on the three figures? What sort of impact is it supposed to have on those who view it? Why is it facing towards the land rather than the sea? Questions about artistic style and emotion can be raised, as can issues about public memory. Why is there a need for communities to erect monuments in recognition of disasters?
  12. Students can think about monuments and memory and how artists seek to memorialize tragedies by thinking about creating their own monument design, either for the Escuminac Disaster or for another event of the student's choosing. This activity would be useful in art classes, where students are learning to work in several media. This activity could be restricted to drawing or expanded to include materials such as clay or craft materials. Students are encouraged to explain why they chose to design the type of monument that they did.

Exercise No. 1: Who Am I?

Who were these people, and what part did they play in the story of the Escuminac Disaster or afterwards?

Credits: Patrick Webber.

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