Sunday, November 20, 2011

Remembrance Day in Corner Brook

Remembrance Day is observed on November 11th in cities and towns across Canada. Each act of remembrance, however, takes on its own character in each locale. The ceremony in Corner Brook is no exception. The mill whistle, which normally marks the start and end of the work day, sounds to mark the customary two minutes of silence observed at 11am.

There is an irony here. While silence falls across communities throughout Canada to remember those who fought in wars, soundwaves spread out across Corner Brook and neighbouring communities to honour those lost and the veterans who remain.

In the past, the mill whistle would sound for 15 seconds at 11am to mark the start of the two minutes of silence and then sound for another 15 seconds after the silent reflection. This November I made a trip home to Corner Brook to confirm whether this was still the case. Would the mill whistle still sound?

As it turns out, the whistle does still sound on Remembrance Day. However, this year things were done a little bit differently (and I'm not sure what motivated the change). At about 10:55am at the cenotaph, the "Last Post" was played on trumpet to begin the two minutes of silence. The silence was broken by the "Rouse." Then about a minute later, at 11am, the mill whistle filled the air. It was the longest I've ever heard the whistle sound -- more than a minute. When it ended, the ceremony continued as expected, with wreath-laying.

Now perhaps I am simply a homesick Corner Brooker, and certainly there is a special place in my heart for the mill whistle, having grown up hearing it daily, but it was the whistle sounding at 11am that moved me to tears more than anything else.

Here's a recording that I made of the mill whistle on November 11, 2011 at 11am. The quality isn't great due to the weather. It was a very windy day, with gusts into the 80s (km/hr). I was standing under a tree, so you can hear the wind rushing through the leaves. At times it was too much for the recorder to handle, so there's some distortion, but it gives a feel for what that moment was like.

Do you know why the mill whistle changed from two short blasts marking off two minutes of silence to one long blast at 11am this year? Email

More photos from the Remembrance Day parade and ceremony can be found at

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Mill Whistle Project

Many people have heard me talking about the Corner Brook mill whistle. I've always been fond of it and certainly have missed it living away all these years. Growing up on Atlantic Avenue, it was part of my everyday life for 17 years. But my passion for it really didn't develop until there was an attempt to silence it. That was four years ago now. I was living in St. John's and my mother commented to me one day during our usual marathon phone conversation that the mill whistle was no more. Having just read R. Murray Schafer's book on soundscapes, I found myself reflecting on his notion of soundmark (a play on the term "landmark") and my investigation into just what was going on in Corner Brook began in earnest.

I found that in August 2007 the mill whistle mysteriously disappeared from the soundscape of Corner Brook. It was first reported as temporary, but as weeks passed community members began to speculate that it may not return. Individuals and groups called for its reinstatement. It sounded on November 11th in honour of Remembrance Day, but then disappeared again. Finally, on December 6, 2007, the mill whistle returned, but only at half its previous frequency.

For the next few years, in my free time I would pick away at the project -- searching the Western Star for references to the whistle, reading about how it has been used by the broader community through time, asking my mother and my friends about their memories of it, and trying to make the case for it and its related folklore, literature, and music to be documented and preserved for the future. You see, I believe that in the near future, the whistle will be lost and when that happens, a special way of knowing and being in Corner Brook will be lost with it.

Fortunately, in April 2011 the project was funded by the Institute for Social and Economic Research at Memorial University. After ethics review, paperwork to establish a research account, moving to a new university, and getting settled in a new home, I was finally ready to begin the project in October 2011. Having relocated to Cape Breton for a job, I knew that I would need to hire a research assistant who would bring the right sensibilities to the project and was well-placed within the Corner Brook network. Following a few emails and instant messages over BBM, Ryan David Butt agreed to work on the project. As Remembrance Day was quickly approaching, we decided to focus our efforts on documenting the role that the mill whistle plays in remembrance (more about that in the next post), but over the next several months there will be an electronic survey, interviews, a visit to Grand Falls to learn how life has changed now that their mill whistle is no more, and further archival research. We also plan to record the mill whistle from several different locations in Corner Brook, since the actual sound of the whistle and its echo changes based on the surrounding landscape.

The questions this project will seek to answer are:
1) how is this whistle unique to Corner Brook?
2) how different does the whistle sound depending on where you are in the city?
3) what are the sonic boundaries of the mill whistle?
4) how do the sounds of the mill interact with and/or impact the surrounding natural environment and other industrial/mechanical sounds?
5) what do these sounds of industry mean to the people of Corner Brook?
6) what would be the long-term effects should the whistle be silenced for a more substantial length of time, or if the mill were to shut down for good?
7) will references to the whistle in literature and song still resonate with the people 20 years from now?
8) how will daily lives and special moments, such as Remembrance Day, change if the mill whistle disappears?
9) how does the mill whistle reflect a community character and how might that change in the future?
10) should the mill whistle be preserved? and, if so, how?

If you would like to participate in this research or you simply want to share a memory or thought about the whistle (good or bad!), please don't hesitate to get in touch at