Planes, ferries, and cars: Labrador councils want to connect the coasts

For nearly half a century, delegates from communities dotting the Big Land have convened to figure out how to bridge the swathes of space between them.

This year, those bridges were more literal than metaphoric, with transportation — an issue often top-of-mind for those inhabiting isolated communities — looming large.

Amid an ongoing dialogue fraught with butting opinions on the state of ferry service, a fixed link to Newfoundland and a highway to Quebec that's been postponed for years, leaders from communities across Labrador petitioned their causes this week at the 48th annual meeting of the Combined Councils.

Many of those motions hinged on finding ways to fund better transport options, whether by air, land or sea — with the quality of the newest ships to dock at Labrador ports under heavy scrutiny from all sides.

"Everyone has complained about the same thing. They really want to see a change in the ferry service," said Marjorie Flowers, AngajukKak of Hopedale, in reference to the Qajaq W and Kamutik W.

"They are not suitable for our waters."

The ferry to Hopedale, she said, "really didn't service well at all this year. People are very disgruntled and really not pleased."

Alyson Samson/CBC

Flowers had stern words for outgoing Premier Dwight Ball, also the Indigenous affairs minister, who made an appearance at Friday's session.

"I've lost my faith in the premier," she said. "I just hope something can be resolved with this fiasco."

Others tabled similar resolutions. Chad Letto, council president and mayor of L'anse au Clair, said this month has caused disruptions for the south coast — similar to those faced this time last year.

Friday's ferry service was cancelled again due to the sea ice, with a helicopter carrying locals instead.

Dealing with the Qajaq ferry, often criticized for its inability to steer through the Strait of Belle Isle in cold weather, was at the top of his list.

"The stores are getting lower on fresh produce, milk, eggs, fruit are all starting to dwindle," Letto said, echoing complaints from other communities in the months since the two ferries went online.

Jacob Barker/CBC

Labrador Marine, the ferries' operator, announced changes to its service earlier this month, calling the problems it's encountered "teething pains."

Businesses and customers alike have been plagued with problems when moving goods up through the Labrador coast over the past year, with crates of food spoiling en route and protests brewing dockside over near-empty grocery shelves resulting from delays and cancellations.

Peter Woodward, Labrador Marine's president and CEO, told CBC the company was working to address freight issues, and crews have been learning to manoeuvre the new vessels in sometimes violent waters.

Linked by land?

Hopedale's other major resolution, Flowers said, pushed for movement on a land link — a north-coast highway that would end the reliance on unstable seas. 

Like Flowers, Letto said he'd also appreciate a road to fly-in communities north of Cartwright.

"Seeing that the Trans-Labrador Highway is being completed … the next step is the north coast." he said.

Randy Jones, mayor of Gros-Mécatina, Que., also chimed in on land transport.

He joined the Labrador leaders with a pitch: complete Route 138, a highway that would connect the isolated communities of Quebec's Lower North Shore to southern Labrador.  

"We've been lobbying for the last 50 years but now we've gone the full nine yards to try to get the road," Jones said. 

Advocates came a step closer recently, he believes — with "more than what we were expecting" earmarked in Quebec's budget for the road this spring. Jones said he was copied on an open letter from the province's transportation minister, announcing both extra funding and a survey of water infrastructure along the route.

"Perhaps we're dreaming in colour," he said, "but it seems like there is something afoot."

Julia Page/CBC

According to Jones, there are about 360 kilometres of highway to be constructed to connect the Lower North Shore to Labrador. He thinks the cost would amount to an investment in the 15 communities currently not connected to the route, which ends on the Quebec side at Kegashka and from Labrador at Old Fort, Que.

It would also be a lifeline.

"Our communities are dying. It's a terrible thing to see," he said. 

But a road means trucks, and trucks mean opportunities for fish plants, which he's seen thrive in the regions now serviced by Route 138.

"With the road you've got access," he said. Aside from ocean bounties, he added, "there's the wild berries. The mushrooms. The peat moss. The forestry. And not to forget the hydroelectric power."

He anticipates that if the pavers got rolling, the work would take eight to 10 years to complete. 

"We're the last frontier," Jones said.

The combined councils passed 19 resolutions this week, with many of them focusing on the northern coast.

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