Canada’s northern harbour sees its fair share of seamen. Weeks or months away from home can be a challenge for those who are separated from their family.
For the past eight years one couple have taken on the duty of welcoming sailors to the city and inviting them to a homelike space.
Bill and Connie Burh helped start the Seafarers’ Mission in 2012 to offer seamen a warm place for them to kick up their feet, have a cup of coffee, connect with their loved ones back home and give them an introduction to Canada’s North Coast.
“It’s a place for those guys to get off the ship. When they come here we have free Wi-Fi for them so they can Skype with their families, or we have phone cards,” Connie said.
In 2007, before the mission opened its doors at 275 Third Avenue West, Bill would go on the ships when they first came into port but he couldn’t get the timing quite right. He was never sure what their shifts were like, and when they were sleeping or working.
“We’d be able to talk to a few guys and share our information about Canada and Prince Rupert specifically,” Bill said.
But what they really needed was a place to allow the men to get off the ship where they would have access to the Internet or Wi-Fi.
The Seafarers’ Mission is complete with couches, computer monitors and even a pool table. Volunteers keep it open from Monday to Saturday, 4 p.m. until 9 p.m.
Near the entrance, there is a wall covered with paper bills from countries across the globe. Many of the visitors pin their money and sometimes a photo of themselves or their family on the wall, leaving a piece of themselves behind as a token. When space runs out the volunteers take some of the money down only to watch the wall fill up again.
There are photos of other hallmark visitors marking another wall. In January, the 13,000th visitor stopped by the mission from the COSCO Pacific ship.
Bill and Connie’s interest in helping travellers from afar comes from their own history. The couple have been in Prince Rupert for more than 19 years, when Bill came to work as a helicopter pilot for the medevac. Connie found a position with Air Canada Jazz at the airport.
Before flying in Prince Rupert, Bill flew all over the world and retired a few years ago with 44 years experience as a pilot. Throughout his career he would spend up to five months away from Connie and their family to fly in regions across Canada, Thailand, India and the United Arab Emirates.
Bill knows what its like to be away from home and his family, which is one of the reasons running the mission was so important to him. He is also a great conversation piece for the visitors he’s met at the mission over the years.
“I was talking to one captain, and I said, ‘I was a captain too,’ and he’s like, ‘What ship?’ I was like, ‘No, it was a helicopter. The big Sikorsky offshore Thailand and India’,” Bill said.
The mission has grown over the years. There are now two vans that drive out to the ships. The volunteers have security passes at the port, and they help the seamen with their shopping in town.
All the time and money spent is on the shoulders of the volunteers like Connie and Bill. They get donations for gasoline, and some people donate their time as translators. They are currently looking for someone in the area who speaks Mandarin to help out occasionally.
The majority of the visitors speak Filipino, which may be one of the reasons the Burhs helped pastor, Zetho Ante, from the Philippines, immigrate to Canada. It took two years of paperwork but Ante finally returned to Prince Rupert, this time as the only paid employee at the mission.
“The rest of us are volunteers. We have people that speak several languages, Mandarin, Cantonese, Filipino and we can get by in French if we have to. We get East Indians, Russians, Czechoslovakian. The world really comes to Prince Rupert,” Connie said.
Bill reflected on a time when they had a sailor from the Ukraine come to the mission. When he heard that Russia was invading the Eastern Ukraine he was so worried about his family that he abandoned his ship and flew straight back to Europe.
On Monday, March 14, Bill and Connie moved back to Alberta to spend the rest of their years with their grandchildren.
It has been a fulfilling experience for the Christian couple who wanted to help out coming from a mutual understanding of what it’s like to be away from home.