In South East Bight, a single issue dominates this election — the ferry

·4 min read

It took just over two weeks for the first election signs to appear in South East Bight.

For the first half of the campaign, as placards popped up at intersections and on lawns across Newfoundland and Labrador, the tiny Burin Peninsula town didn't play host to a single candidate.

But it wasn't for lack of trying. Despite the best intentions, the town's ferry — the community's only link to the rest of the island — played havoc with the parties' plans.

"They tried setting up meetings," said Tracey Brewer, chair of the local service district, in a recent interview. "The weather hasn't co-operated and [the candidates] were worried they wouldn't get back in."

In South East Bight, a fishing community of about 70 residents, this election's inescapable issue is the ferry — a topic made all the more explosive by the provincial government's soaring debt load and series of structural deficits.

The future of subsidized ferry services is one of the most contentious issues in Newfoundland politics — and no one knows that better than the residents who rely on them, said Brewer.

Patrick Butler/Radio-Canada
Patrick Butler/Radio-Canada

"It's hard to get your point across without sounding like you want more from everybody, but we just want something that's reliable," she said, adding that about 200 runs were cancelled in 2019-20.

Tied up five days straight last month

During one week in January, the Marine Coaster III didn't run for five days straight, paralyzing the fishing town. Several residents told CBC/Radio-Canada they're often forced to take fishing or speedboats across the bight to Petite Forte when the ferry, a barge-like catamaran, is stormbound or needs repairs.

Since 2019, when the ferry came into service — replacing a vessel that was larger, but also more expensive to operate — residents have raised concerns about the boat, which Brewer said isn't powerful enough to handle windy conditions on the nine-kilometre crossing.

"I get it, there's always going to be wind and the ferries can't operate in high winds. No one understands that better than people who work on the water and have their whole life," Brewer said. "But to have people say [the cancellations are] normal…. The people here know it's not OK and it should've ran on those days."

The South East Bight ferry is one of the 14 ferry services operated or paid for by the provincial government. South East Bight's vessel costs about $1.3 million each year — about $18,000 per resident.

Since the beginning of the campaign, the three main party leaders have promised no drastic cuts to public services after the election. But in the last budget, the Liberal government compared the province's fiscal troubles to a "blinding storm."

Union leaders have since warned that the premier's economic recovery team, an independent panel tasked with recommending ways to restructure the province's finances, has placed rural services and public sector jobs squarely in its cross hairs.

A town in decline, but lots of life left

Those warnings weigh heavily on a place like South East Bight.

At St. Anne's School, which straddles the divide between the two harbours that make up the community, the youngest student is in Grade 3. Principal Elena Whyte said she recognizes the town's days are numbered.

Patrick Butler/Radio-Canad
Patrick Butler/Radio-Canad

"This will be our last generation of students," said Whyte, a teacher in South East Bight for more than 30 years.

But Whyte also said that for now, there's lots of life left in South East Bight.

Unemployment is virtually non-existent, according to residents. The fishery remains lucrative and the town is relatively affluent. It's a reality that contradicts the stereotypes that cling to rural towns that rely on ferry services, Whyte said.

Patrick Butler/Radio-Canada
Patrick Butler/Radio-Canada

Services are already limited. South East Bight doesn't have a police presence. The community has no full-time doctor. People drive ATVs, not cars. The only way to get cash is to e-transfer money to the owner of the town's sole convenience store.

"We see a nurse practitioner once a month. I don't think we're sucking the funds out of government with regards to that," Brewer said. "And we don't expect a brand new ferry worth billions of dollars to come in here and service this community. I mean, some of the ferries we've had in the past were quite capable of doing what needed to be done."

Since the Marine Coaster III's entry into service in 2019, provincial government officials have said the ferry is capable of serving the South East Bight route and that the vessel passed all Transport Canada inspections.

Residents like Elena Whyte said their complaints about the boat seem to be falling on deaf ears.

"If government's gonna pay money to provide a service, then provide a service that's sensible," Whyte said. "As far as I'm concerned, government thought they were saving money by putting in a less than reliable ferry service."

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