Residents of La Poile protested their ferry arrangement June 23-24 in response to the Department of Transportation and Works’ decision to send the community’s regular ferry, the MV Challenge One to service the Francois to Burgeo run.
This would mean La Poile residents would return to the run’s winter ferry, the MV Marine Eagle. The Challenge One, which usually services the La Poile run during summer months, will instead cover the run from Francois to Burgeo so that the MV Marine Voyager, the route’s usual ferry, can undergo a refit.
When La Poile residents found out the smaller, slower capacity Marine Eagle was scheduled to return to their route, they formulated a plan to take decisive action.
Ray Vautier, chair of La Poile’s Transportation Committee, received an e-mail late on Thursday 21, from Joanne Clarke, secretary to Burgeo-La Poile MHA Andrew Parsons, alerting him to the change of ferries.
“So we decided enough is enough,” said Vautier. “There’s no need for the Marine Eagle to come here this time of the year so the Marine Voyager can have a refit. The Eagle has been on the Francois run before. She can do it again.
“They told us if there’s a capacity problem they will complement the service with a helicopter. I said, ‘Yes, we’ve got fog nine days out of 10 in June most years, so that’s no good.’ You know if I had a helicopter myself in the backyard I wouldn’t get anywhere. So I said, ‘No, if you can supplement our service with a helicopter you can do Francois.’ Simple.”
When the Challenge One returned from its run at around 5:20 pm Saturday night, June 23, a group of La Poile residents chained its railing to the government wharf. The residents wanted answers and wanted to talk to someone in charge.
“Now this is the weekend, but we did manage to get hold of (someone from) Transportation,” said Vautier. “Then I actually had a phone call from the head of it, John Baker (Assistant Deputy Minister, Air and Marine Services).
“He was talking the same thing – capacity, more freight in Francois and you know probably more passengers. I said, ‘You know this vessel worked there before, she can work again.’ We’re not against the Marine Eagle if it’s all there is when the Challenge One has her refit. OK, but we’ll have our turn, and Francois and Gaultois will have to do the same.”
Vautier noted that ferry refits tend to take months, not weeks.
“So I said, ‘I don’t think it’s going to happen. If you can commit that when the three weeks are up the Challenge One will return to La Poile…. You do what you gotta do in Francois and I don’t care what that is,” he continued. “I mean you make the Marine Eagle work or you can go and do, you know, whatever.’ So that’s what they said they would do.”
The protestors then had to make the decision whether or not to guard the ferry overnight.
“I spoke to the captain and I said if it looks like you’re going to remove this (the chain) we’re going to stay here all night,” Vautier said.
The captain declined and said the group would have to remove the chain.
Vautier said, “Sundays she don’t depart until 10 a.m. so we went down just before 10. We had a little meeting there on the wharf and decided we’re going to at least hang on until we get some kind of a commitment or answers or something.”
After some more back and forth with Baker, Vautier realized that the La Poile group had no choice but to end the protest and unchain the ferry.
“Three or four people had some pretty important appointments in Corner Brook, like specialists, like doctor’s appointments,” he noted.
The Challenge One was released just before 2:30 p.m. on Sunday, June 24, after Baker sent an e-mail and issued a verbal agreement that the vessel would return to La Poile in three weeks.
“We decided that we probably should let her go so everybody could get out and get to their appointments,” Vautier conceded.
Vautier also made Baker aware that La Poile’s Come Home Year will be held in early August.
“That’s another thing they committed to,” Vautier stated. “They said don’t worry about the Come Home Year — it will be taken care of — the Challenge One will definitely be back.”
Vautier says part of the problem is that the government doesn’t have a swing vessel to take over a route when ferries are pulled off their regular schedule for refit or other issues.
This is not the first time Vautier has been involved in a ferry seizure.
A few years ago he helped chain a ferry to protest proposed drop off locations in Burgeo due to icy harbour conditions in Rose Blanche. Burgeo is over five hours away from Rose Blanche by vehicle, which is where the La Poile residents keep their cars.
That action also led to concessions by the provincial government, which alternated to Burnt Islands instead.
“I hope they stick to their word cause I told them there will be trouble again,” warned Vautier.
On Wednesday, June 27, Vautier had a conference call with Transportation and Works officials Greg Cuff and Jodi Fancy.
Both officials also promised that the Challenge One would return to the La Poile – Rose Blanche run in approximately three weeks, give or take a day to allow for bad weather.
Vautier said he was also advised by the department that his group’s actions are illegal and that they could have been charged.
A spokesperson for the Department of Transportation and Works provided an email response to a list of questions posed by The Gulf News.
“The department is often required to make ferry schedule changes or move vessels from one run to another to accommodate all residents on islands and in remote communities who use the service,” it was stated in the response.
“As the MV Voyager would be out of service for a refit for two to three weeks, the department decided to move the MV Challenge One, a faster vessel, to the Francois-Grey River-Burgeo run to avoid delays on the longer trips.
“The MV Marine Eagle can meet the demand on most trips between La Poile and Rose Blanche. Prior to making the arrangement, the department also committed to making extra trips, when necessary. The MV Challenge One will return to service the run after three weeks, even if the MV Voyager is still out of service.”
“We’ve since had productive meetings with all of the bidders to answer any questions they had before it is re-issued,” also stated in the email. “We now expect to re-issue the RFP in the coming weeks.”
- With files from Rosalyn Roy