Red Bay (Canada): Labrador Basque site vying for UNESCO heritage status

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'Everything that tells how [the whaling] industry started is there in the record in Red Bay and it's been undisturbed, for the most part, in the last, between 400 and 500 years.'—Trudy Taylor-Walsh, Parks Canada


A Canadian bid for a new World Heritage Site will go before a special United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) committee later in June, and international researchers are recommending recognition of the Basque whaling station in Red Bay, Labrador.

The International Council on Monuments and Sites has provided research to submit to the committee with its findings, recommending the UNESCO designation be assigned to Red Bay for its significant Basque history.

Hundreds of Basque whalers ventured across the Atlantic Ocean and settled in the Red Bay area more than 400 years ago to hunt whales for their oil.

The Basque travelled up and down the Quebec and Labrador coast in the 1500s, but Red Bay proved to be the richest site for artifacts, including a cemetery, rendering facilities, piles of red clay roof tiles, and the oldest known shipwreck in Canadian waters.

Trudy Taylor-Walsh, acting field unit superintendent for Parks Canada, said there have been a lot of people working very hard for a number of years to get the application process completed, including the residents of the community of Red Bay, who signed a declaration of support.

"If the site gets designated, the boundary takes in the community of Red Bay, so the community in fact would actually be living within the boundaries of a UNESCO World Heritage Site so it's not like that community next to it — they are the site," Taylor-Walsh said.

According to Taylor-Walsh, there is major historical significance in Red Bay.

"Everything that tells how [the whaling] industry started is there in the record in Red Bay and it's been undisturbed, for the most part, in the last, between 400 and 500 years, so that's amazing," she said.

"It's the best example of the beginning of the worldwide whaling industry anywhere in the world."

Taylor-Walsh will be in Cambodia when the committee makes its decision about whether or not it should give Red Bay the UNESCO designation.

'So important to world history'

Cindy Gibbons, who was born and raised in Red Bay, said her family was a part of the group of original permanent settlers.

"When we were kids, we used to play with the red roofing tiles that the Basque left behind," Gibbons said.

"We didn't know what they were at the time, but they were great for sort of writing on things and people used to grind them into a powder and make some paint out of them. So it was always part of our landscape there, but we really didn't know what it was all about until Selma Barkham and Jim Tuck arrived in the late 70s."

Selma Huxley Barkham is a historian who discovered the 16th century Basque archaeology site in Red Bay, as well as other Basque sites.

Jim Tuck, an archaeologist, led a team that uncovered many artifacts, as well as human remains, from the Red Bay site for study.

Gibbons said she worked with the Parks Canada underwater and land teams when she was a student to help uncover artifacts. She said it was an integral part of her life.

"It wasn't until I came back to Red Bay after having gone to school and worked away for a while that I really sat and thought about the whole thing and I thought, 'This is important — this is so important to world history,'" Gibbons said.

"It's amazing that we have this incredible story here in this little tiny community in Labrador that meant so much to the development of the history of the world, really, and the role that it played in bringing Europeans across the Atlantic Ocean for resources, and the eventual establishment of European settlements over here," she added.

Gibbons said the community is full of excitement and anticipation about the possibilities.

If approved, the designation will be the third for the province, but the first for Labrador.