When New Brunswick Premier David Alward was elected in 2010, his campaign promise to eliminate tolls on the Grand Manan ferry drew skepticism on the island, and when residents voted on the issue in last year's municipal election, opinions were strong and divided. However, when the provincial government announced on April 8 that ferry service would be reduced, islanders were united in outrage.
Citing 40%‑of‑capacity runs and a need to reduce costs and improve efficiency, Transportation Minister Claude Williams announced that service would be cut from four daily round‑trips to three in the winter and from seven to six in the summer. According to the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure, "The operation and maintenance of ferry services to all the Fundy Isles costs taxpayers $13.8 million per year exclusive of fuel." To save money on fuel, which costs $4.5 million annually, the ferry will use shore power when docked and reduce its crossing speed, extending the 90‑minute trip to two hours. The proposed service cuts would save $1.5 million annually; using shore power could save another $400,000. Ferry tolls reportedly generate $1.7 million per year.
Islanders reacted swiftly, taking to social media to express their anger and recalling Alward's promise to remove fares with no reduction in service. Some confusion about the new schedule followed, and it is still being negotiated. Currently the proposed schedule has the last departure from Grand Manan at 8 p.m. in the summer and 5:30 p.m. the rest of the year, and the last trip from Black's Harbour at 8 p.m. year round.
"We are trying to remain positive" until the village learns what the province intends to do, Mayor Dennis Greene says.
On April 13 MLA Rick Doucet held a public meeting with several hundred residents at the community rink. He said he was delighted to see Grand Manan on the cover of this year's provincial tourism guide and shocked by the announcements regarding the ferry and closure of Anchorage Provincial Park, which followed the same week. "Over the past couple of years we've been dealt some bad blows," he said. "This week it was a one‑two punch. I'm here as your voice, your representative. I'm here without colors. I'm not blue, orange, red." He wants to see "all the people in the same boat rowing the same direction."
"People on the mainland don't understand the meaning of proper [ferry] service because they've never had to live it," he said, citing its value to travelling hockey teams as one example. "It's about building awareness."
"I'm not pointing fingers," he said. "It's happened. As a team, let's figure a way out of this. When Grand Manan gets together and wants to get things done, they do it. I'm behind you 100%. You people have done some amazing things" by pulling together on other issues.
A petition campaign was started, and Doucet stressed the importance of collecting as many signatures as possible from mainlanders as well, to show that the concern reaches farther than one small island. He said he had already received five e‑mail inquiries from Saint John businesses that are supported by Grand Mananers. Over the following week, volunteers distributed petitions around the community and others were started online. The audience was also urged to write letters to all the MLAs, the premier and the transportation minister.
Doucet said that the legislature does not accept electronic petitions but the transportation minister can. "If the minister won't, I'll be out in the hallway with the press" to see that they are counted, he said. He planned to meet with the transportation and tourism ministers.
On April 15, the mayor and several village councillors met with the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure in Saint John. They returned with an update for the rest of the council. Then transportation officials came to Grand Manan on April 17, but no agreement was reached. Greene feels that the village can offer cost‑cutting suggestions without reducing ferry service. "The schedule they have just doesn't work for the people of Grand Manan," he said. It also does not coincide with that of the William Frankland. "I want people on White Head to know their concerns have been brought to us. Our main goal is to keep the schedule we have; as far as we're concerned there are no [other] options." He was pleased to hear that federal MP John Williamson had spoken in Grand Manan's favor last week in Ottawa.
A statement provided by Judy Cole, director of communications for the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure, reads: "Transportation and Infrastructure Minister Claude Williams said his department must find $26 million in savings in this fiscal year. All aspects of the department are under review including ferry services. ... We have been meeting with the community before any changes are made." Williams continues, "We have been discussing the changes with the service provider, Coastal Transport. We will also be meeting with companies who use the ferry for the transport of their product. We understand the concerns and will listen to any ideas that will help us achieve the efficiencies required. ... In order to achieve the savings, the changes in ferry service to Grand Manan will have to take place in a few weeks. The longer crossing times will stretch the day, but there will always be an evening trip year round and two in the summer season. The exact timetable is being worked out with the operator and the final schedule will be shared with the community before any changes are made."
Williams also added that the "ferry schedule for White Head will be adjusted to fit any changes made to Grand Manan ferry service."
Village officials are still waiting for a meeting with the transportation and tourism ministers to address both ferry service and the Anchorage closure. On April 22, Greene said he had just made another call to the premier's office. He's been told that aquaculture industry representatives will be consulted, but no dates had been set. The new schedule may begin on May 1; Greene wants the meeting before that. "This is urgent. We can't discuss it after [it's been implemented]. I don't care if it's the middle of the day or the middle of the night," he said. "I can be in Fredericton with two hours' notice."
As of April 22, about 1,400 signatures had been collected on the island and another 263 at a Saint John flea market. The petitions were sent to Doucet on Monday. Some forms were still circulating; Greene estimates that when all have been collected they will have 1,800‑2,000 signatures. He was particularly impressed that the island's kindergarten students had also signed a petition.
The legislature resumed on April 23. The government must respond to a petition within two weeks.