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Pam Frampton: Conversations we can’t afford not to have

['<p><strong>OUT OF SERVICE – </strong>The MV Grace Sparkes will be out of service for at least a week after hitting a submerged rock just outside Burnside yesterday.</p>']
The MV Grace Sparkes — Telegram file photo

 

You could understand why St. Brendan’s Mayor Veronica Broomfield sounded defensive.

 

Pam Frampton
Pam Frampton

 

When she was asked by CBC reporter Terry Roberts recently about the high cost of the ferry service running between St. Brendan’s and Burnside, the topic clearly struck a nerve.

“I’m not worried about what it costs people to live in Burnside. Or what it costs the people to live in St. John’s. So why are they worried about us?” Broomfield said.

To answer her rhetorical question, we’re all worried these days, or we should be, given our stagnant economy and crushing debt.

St. Brendan’s is in the spotlight because its publicly funded ferry service costs $6 million for roughly 115 people — about $53,000 per person.

On its winter schedule, the MV Grace Sparkes runs three times a day between St. Brendan’s on Cottel Island and Burnside on the mainland of the Eastport Peninsula.

There are other subsidized ferry services in the province, of course, but St. Brendan’s is by far the priciest. The ferry cost $27.5 million and can accommodate 16 vehicles and 50 passengers, though it sees nothing near that. CBC reported passenger capacity is at 13 per cent and vehicle capacity 22 per cent.

To give you a sense of just how heavily subsidized it is, a round trip for an adult in a vehicle costs $25.50. If the service had to pay for itself, that return fare would have to increase to $145.20 and every single person on St. Brendan’s, and a car, would have to make the trip 365 days a year.

This isn’t the first time the ferry service to St. Brendan’s has made headlines.

In an August 2013 Telegram column (“Ferry service doesn’t come cheap”), Russell Wangersky wrote, “So what’s the tipping point for the St. Brendan’s ferry? … how long can we be expected to do this?”

The service to St. Brendan’s is too much for too few.

The MV Grace Sparkes arrived on the St. Brendan’s run courtesy of the same Progressive Conservative government that gave us Muskrat Falls.

Speaking to an Atlantic Forum on Transportation in 2015, then transportation minister David Brazil lauded his Tory government’s “holistic” approach to the ferry service, finding “the correct balance between competing needs and demands of the communities and the travelling public against the mandate of reasonable service levels and … resources.”

The service to St. Brendan’s is too much for too few.

So, what can be done? Clearly the residents of St. Brendan’s can’t be expected to pay ferry fees high enough to recoup the cost, and they’re certainly not clamoring to shut their community down.

Both my parents came from communities that were resettled — one by Joey Smallwood’s centralization scheme and the other through unforced migration as people moved to find work.

I know what it’s like not to have the option of living where your roots run deepest.

Writing in The Public Policy & Governance Review in 2014, academic Jennifer Mutton says at least now the Newfoundland and Labrador government is offering incentives for relocation; these are not the old days of people being moved around “like pawns in a chess game.”

The province will pay families up to $270,000 to leave a remote community in cases where at least 90 per cent of the residents agree.

Mutton writes: “From an outsider’s perspective, it is hard not to see the appeal of a policy that leads to better access to resources and employment opportunities, even if it means abandoning one’s traditional way of life.”

From an insider’s perspective, the practical reasons for moving from a tiny place to a larger centre with better services are also clear.

But first you have to get past the pain of imagining a life somewhere different, away from all that is comforting and familiar; a life in a place where you are no longer surrounded by those closest to you, both living and dead, and where you’re left feeling rootless and shifted.

It’s a very tough call. But these are the kinds of blunt conversations we will find ourselves having more and more, as we sit around our collective — and increasingly bare — table.

 

Pam Frampton is The Telegram’s associate managing editor. Email pframpton@thetelegram.com. Twitter: pam_frampton

 

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