Our Ferry Service is an Obligation of 1949’s Confederation

When we joined Canada in 1949, a solid ferry service, to connect us to our new country, was a condition of our union. Marine Atlantic exists today to honour that promise.

We became a Canadian province when railways and boats were how people, mail, and goods got around. While that changed for the rest of Canada with the advent of highways, being an island, we remain quite literally cut off from the mainland, and still rely on this gulf service for everything from importing produce (and tourists), to exporting products made by local companies.

In the years leading up to confederation, Newfoundland was hurting financially. One of its bigger expenses was its ferries. So much so that, back in the 1930s, a “Newfoundland Royal Commission” recommended “an expert inquiry” into ferry services, to make them more efficient and financially viable.

Confederation took that financial issue off our plate: Under the 1949 Terms of Union, the federal government assumed responsibility for transportation links between the island and the mainland. So that link was, without exaggeration, one of the reasons we agreed to join Canada.

“Canadian National Railways” inherited the Newfoundland transportation system. It started out sweet: Confederation removed trade and travel barriers between Newfoundland and the mainland, and a badly needed car ferry was added in 1955 (which was particularly great for travel and tourism). And by the mid-60s, whole train cars could be loaded into ships in this fleet, to transport goods.

But by the late 1970s, cars and highways were the new railroads, and revenue from trains was down so much that Canada eventually separated CN Railway and CN Marine operations, relaunching the latter as Marine Atlantic (in 1986).

The short story since then is that Marine Atlantic saw budget cuts in the late 90s, contemplated privatization in 2004, and changed gears in 2010, when the Feds invested  $900 million into Marine Atlantic to launch some new vessels, renovate buildings, and do ad campaigns to promote perks of traveling aboard Marine Atlantic (like its endless legroom).

Now, Constant Fee Hikes Are Bad for Business and Crippling Consumers 

Today, the importance of Marine Atlantic’s Gulf Service to the province cannot be overstated: it’s still how our food gets here, it’s vital for tourism (look at all the foreign license plates here in the summer), and it’s how our businesses import or export their goods.

Yet, Marine Atlantic has raised rates by 4% in 2012; 4% in 2013; 3% in 2014; 2.6% in 2015; 2-3% in 2016; and 2.6% in 2017. It’s something Steve Kent says simply needs to stop.

Steve Kent is the Business and Tourism Critic for the Official Opposition, and he’s calling on Liberals, both federally and provincially, to speak up.

The ever-increasing tolls at Marine Atlantic certainly put us at a competitive and consumer disadvantage relative to other Canadian provinces, and as Kent says, “In a federation of equals, that’s wrong. It’s wrong to discriminate against us for our geographic location in this country.”

Calling it discrimination is a bit extreme — we are an island, a simple reality that has a financial consequence — but he has a point.

We said yes to Confederation mainly for reasons of financial wellbeing, and such consistently raised Marine Atlantic rates are doing damage to local businesses and local consumers who’ll foot the bill on correspondingly increased costs of doing business with the island. The cost of our produce will go up; what a local business has to charge for its exported product will have to go up.

To quote Judy Foote from 2012, who is now the province’s Minister in the Trudeau Cabinet, “Newfoundlanders will see the effect of the rate increases in their goods and services as all provincial businesses who use Marine Atlantic to import and export goods will simply pass the extra fees on to their customers.”

She went on to say, “I don’t agree with the increases, and I don’t think they are necessary. If they are necessary, I feel the government of Canada should absorb those increases and find another way to make up any shortcomings.”

Gerry Byrne, now a Cabinet Minister in Ball’s provincial government, was also speaking out about these rate hikes alongside Foote in 2012.

Fine fodder for Kent this week: “All that talk was nothing but empty rhetoric if they are not prepared to use their positions now to actually help Newfoundland and Labrador avoid these latest increases. [They’re] shockingly silent now that they are in a position to actually do something about it.”