Life and death interrupted

Lack of ferry service causing problems for residents of Rencontre East

Published on July 6, 2012
Becky Gillard boards the helicopter shuttle with newborn daughter Paige. — Photo by Krystal Gillard/Special to The Telegram

For weeks, residents of Rencontre East have been without ferry service, making the remote little village in the Coast of Bays even more isolated.

The community of 140 people has no major roads connecting it to the rest of the province, and usually relies on a ferry to reach basic services like hospitals and grocery stores in neighbouring towns.

But the regular ferry, the MV Northern Seal, is out of commission for annual repairs. And the backup ferry, the MV Marine Voyager, is not expected until later this month. Instead, a helicopter shuttle service is running six days a week.

Unlike a ferry, the 1978 Long Ranger helicopter cannot transport many goods — passengers may bring only one bag each. And the helicopter needs calm weather to fly, which can be rare on the windswept Coast of Bays.

Becky Gillard, nine months’ pregnant, was hoping the ferry would be back up and running by her due date July 10 to take her to hospital in Burin.

But her baby had other plans.

On June 29, at about 10 p.m., Gillard went into labour.

“I was panicked because there was no way to get back (to hospital),” Gillard said.

Since the helicopter shuttle service doesn’t run in the evening, she had to rely on a longliner — typically used for farming salmon — to bring her to a doctor in Harbour Breton.

“You can’t imagine what it was like being in labour and being in a longliner,” Gillard said.

“It was not comfortable,” Gillard said.

She arrived at one in the morning, and Paige Gillard was born around 3 a.m., healthy and happy. Mother

and child then travelled to Grand Falls-Windsor, to stay overnight in a maternity ward.

On Monday, July 2, Gillard boarded a helicopter with baby Paige, headed home to Rencontre East.

Despite the roaring of the chopper, Paige slept soundly in her mother’s arms.

“I think I was more panicked then she was,” Gillard said.

Although the town is able to keep its daily rhythm almost normal with the helicopter shuttle and grocery deliveries on longliners, it’s the life-and-death surprises — like Gillard’s pregnancy — that strain the fragile system.

When John Caines got a call from his mother at about 5 a.m. Monday, June 25, he learned that his father, Reginald, had died in his sleep. The loss of his father was tragic, but the lack of ferry service turned a family’s sorrow into a logistical nightmare.

With no undertaker in town. The family needed to get the body to the funeral home in Harbour Breton. Caines’ father’s body would have to go in the helicopter, and after waiting almost eight hours, the helicopter finally arrived.

But the three-seater cockpit couldn’t accommodate the stretcher, so Reginald Caines’ body, zipped into a body bag, was strapped into a passenger seat.

“Stuff like that hurts.” Caines said. “It’s like a movie you see.”

There was no room in the helicopter for family members, only the mandatory RCMP escort, the funeral director and the pilot. So Caines’ sister met her father’s body in Harbour Breton, and she was the one who put the body back on a longliner to ship to Rencontre East for the funeral service that Thursday.

Transporting their father’s body was difficult, but the hassles didn’t end. Without a ferry to take them, many family members had to miss the service. Caines personally had to shuttle about 25 people on his small, open boat, in order to get them to the service on time.

Instead of comforting his mother, he was going back and forth along the bay, making five trips in total.

“This is ridiculous, right?”

After finally putting his father’s body to rest, Caines said that he’s fed up with the province’s lack of care for the community’s residents. He and many other members of the community have complained to officials, but they feel their complaints are falling on deaf ears.

“It’s almost to the point where they’re saying, ‘just put up with it,’” Caines said.

Tracey Perry, the MHA for Fortune Bay-Cape La Hune, just returned to the area from the House of Assembly. She said she’s pushing to get the service running again as soon as possible, and appreciates the residents’ patience.

The Department of Transportation and Works said the backup ferry, MV Marine Voyager, should be making runs this weekend. The MV Northern Seal should be ready July 17.