People of Labrador frustrated by disruption to ferry service: Dempster

Cory
Cory Hurley
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The holiday season has officially ended, and the tales of joy coming Lisa Dempster's way have also stopped.
The stories are being replaced by ones she calls nothing short of sad. The people of Labrador, whom she represents in the provincial House of Assembly, have found themselves isolated once again. The ferry run from Blanc-Sablon to St. Barbe has been disrupted because of ice conditions.

There are people who left home to visit family and friends during the holidays who have not been able to get back. There are those who have gone to parts of Labrador to visit, who were not able to go back on the ferry. Some people have chartered flights, and left their vehicles behind trying to find a way to get them.

Included among the many who have been stranded for up to five days, says Dempster, are students and workers.

Most seriously, the MHA said, are the people awaiting transportation to the island portion of the province for medical appointments.

Not wanting to downplay the crisis happening with power outages across the province, Dempster said the isolation of Labrador communities could reach a critical stage if a resolution is not found.

"We have sad stories here that are going to become very serious stories if something isn't done," she said.

The icebreaker, Henry Larsen, had been keeping the channel clear daily. With the extreme cold temperatures, Dempster said it was well known that if ice clearing stopped there would be problems.

People are frustrated with the lack of communication throughout the situation, she said. Dempster also claims information that has been provided has been inaccurate - particularly pertaining to reasons why there is not an icebreaker on the run.

The MHA also says the MV Sir Robert Bond, the assigned ferry for this run that is docked for maintenance, could be ready much sooner than government officials claim.

Dempster said she called for a subsidized air service to be provided for the stranded passengers, similar to what was done in Fogo Island this summer when the ferry was out of commission. But government immediately rejected the notion, she said.

The MV Apollo finally left Blanc Sablon Sunday morning, but was re-routed to Corner Brook - a run that is not scheduled to begin until later this winter. She said unsuspecting passengers were charged the extra rate for the longer run, and are calling for a reimbursement.

"My constituents are telling me they were on that boat like a crowd of refugees," she said. "They sent me pictures of children sleeping all around the dirty floors. They feel like they are being treated like trash, like third-world citizens. When we speak up, it is like we are whining."

The situation has sparked the ongoing debate over an alternative port for the Labrador ferry service. The run has been going through Corner Brook in the winter months due to the poor ice conditions. Dempster said the infrastructure needed to dock the larger ferry in Port Saunders should be provided by government.

The Liberal MHA said her party also supports the establishment of a fixed link to Labrador. But even if that was approved today, it's still at least a decade away, she said, adding a short-term solution needs to be found.

Meanwhile, Transportation and Works Minister Nick McGrath, who represents Labrador West, said he and his officials have been monitoring this situation since the ferry was disrupted. He said he continues to ask the Canadian Coast Guard for an icebreaker to allow the run to continue.

McGrath said it is a minimum of three-to-five days before one will be available. The Apollo will remain in Corner Brook during that time.

"I would much rather deal with an inconvenienced customer on dry land where there is heat, food and lights than deal with an inconvenienced customer sitting in the Strait of Belle Isle for 15 hours where they are not sure if they are going to have enough food, where they are not sure if they are going to have enough fuel, have enough heat, or not sure how long they are out there and with nowhere to go," the minister said.

On Dec. 23, the Apollo was stuck for 15 hours with 60 passengers on board, the minister said. He does not want that to happen again.

There are alternatives for travel for people in Labrador, he said, including driving through Quebec and the Maritime provinces or flying. He said customers are aware of the possibilities of disruptions to the ferry service - even if the ice conditions now are not typical for this time of year. He said subsidizing alternative transportation in this instance is not an applicable, or fair, option. He also pointed out the run from Blanc Sablon to St. Barbe is already 84 per cent subsidized and the run to Corner Brook is 96 per cent subsidized.

McGrath said the provincial government wants the ferry service to Labrador to be as close to a year-round operation as possible. With the recent extensive request for proposal for a completely new ferry system to Labrador - including passenger, freight, ferries, and a call centre - that continues. If that avenue leads to the possibility of an alternative port, the minister said he would consider its viability.

As for a fixed link, McGrath said it is more of a federal government responsibility, but that he is always interested in talking about it.

Organizations: Canadian Coast Guard

Geographic location: Labrador West, Corner Brook, Fogo Island Port Saunders Quebec

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