Protesters keeping the MV Legionnaire at dock on the Bell Island side of the tickle Monday say they will not let the provincial government move the vessel to Fogo Island as was announced last week.
The protest began Saturday afternoon as fears spread on social media that the new boat — that only came into service in July on the Bell Island run — would be sent to Fogo Island to fill in for the Veteran that was coming out of service for repairs.
The protest grew in numbers like a swell rising in the bay, with some staying at the dock overnight to ensure the boat did not sail away under the cover of darkness.
Valerie Ryan organized the protest. She said residents have been complaining and discussing the issue on social media for days and when someone suggested they organize a protest, she volunteered to head it up.
“I’ve complained myself on Facebook and we’ve all bitched and complained on Facebook but we’ve never done anything about it as a group,” she said. “I’ve never (organized) anything like this in my life, so we started calling people.
“We tried to find out when the Legionnaire was actually leaving and we couldn’t get an answer, so a bunch of us boarded the ferry on Saturday and rode back and forth on the ferry and when were finally told at 5 p.m. it was coming over here, off-loading and leaving, we got as many people as possible to meet down here and park vehicles on the ramp and block the ramp, and we’ve been here ever since.”
On Friday, the province’s Department of Transportation and Works announced changes for ferry users of the Fogo Island, Change Islands and Bell Island routes. The Legionnaire was to begin servicing the Fogo Island-Change Islands-Farewell route, while the Beaumont Hamel would join the Flanders to service the Bell Island-Portugal Cove route.
The changes were to go into effect on Sunday, but were foiled by the protest.
The changes were needed, the government said, to maintain service while the MV Veteran undergoes repairs to its port thruster. That vessel is expected to return to service on the Fogo run in early January, and then the Legionnaire would return to the Bell Island run.
Monday morning at “the beach” on Bell Island, fire barrels provided some warmth and sent a smell of wood smoke among the protesters who were bolstered from the response and support they have received from the rest of the community. Two vehicles were parked on the ramp to the Legionnaire and two trucks blocked the entrance to the ramp. Food and coffee were plentiful as protesters say they were determined to stay until they get assurance from the provincial government that the Legionnaire was staying put.
“We’ve made it known we are accepting no concessions,” Ryan said. “We want the Legionnaire to stay and that’s the bottom line. We are accepting nothing short of that. We will stay here and protest until we are physically removed.”
Wabana Mayor Gary Gosine and area MHA David Brazil were trying to arrange meetings with the department and its minister, Steve Crocker, to try to find a solution.
Crocker agreed to meet Monday afternoon.
Meanwhile, Crocker was asked about the ongoing protests in the House of Assembly by Brazil, who accused the minister of not having meaningful dialogue with ferry users.
Crocker said multiple options were considered for ferry assignments before a decision was made and announced, adding the province is also offering 18 trips on the Bell Island-Portugal Cove run starting on Tuesday at 5 a.m. to help address concerns. It’s an addition of two trips and starting with a run earlier than the first run on Monday morning.
Crocker also said that cost had to be considered in deciding which boats would go where.
Outside of the House, he was asked to speak further to the ferry situation, ahead of a meeting set with the ferry users’ committee.
“We’re going to have a conversation … the reality is here we have to find a way to accommodate both services, but also we have to be mindful of the costs to the taxpayers of the province,” he said.
In terms of repair work on new vessels, Crocker was asked about warranties on the Veteran and Legionnaire. They were both purchased with a one-year warranty — something the minister noted while in the House.
An extension of one year was added for the Veteran, to make it a two-year warranty, but only through negotiations with builder Damen following early breakdowns.
There has been no similar extension for the Legionnaire, although it is not facing the same problems as the Veteran right now.
Crocker said an out-of-service elevator on the Flanders that prevents people from using that vessel is expected to be repaired by noon on Tuesday.
A statement from the department early Monday evening stated that “meetings with the Bell Island ferry users committee and some protesters have been productive. Both parties have agreed to continue discussions. In the meantime, the MV Flanders will continue the enhanced service again (Tuesday).”
As the protest went ahead Monday, the MV Flanders continued to work the Bell Island run on a load-and-go basis.
There were a number of concerns raised on the dock about disabled and ill people not being able to take the Flanders. Two issues pointed out were that the elevator was not working on the Flanders and because of a newly enforced policy, passengers are not allowed to remain in their vehicles during the approximately 20-minute ferry ride between the island and Portugal Cove.
People were relating stories of residents with dialysis and mobility issues who were unable to board the Flanders and one person who was scheduled for surgery but would likely have to go by ambulance on the ferry (a patient does remain in the ambulance during the crossing) or by air ambulance.
“The elevator on the Flanders is broken. Anybody who is disabled who cannot use the stairs cannot board that ferry,” Ryan said. “Because of this ludicrous rule that you have to exit your vehicle, regardless of your medical condition, regardless if you can barely walk, we have dialysis patients and patients receiving chemotherapy that have to exit their vehicles for a 20-minute ferry ride.
“When the new ferry came (in July), we thought we’d died and gone to heaven. Your workdays were now a nine or 10-hour day instead of a 16- to 18-hour day. People used to spend three hours waiting in the ferry line.”
Resident Henry Crane said there are about 400 people on Bell Island who use the ferry during the first three trips each day to commute to St. John’s for work. He said the Legionnaire can take up to 70 vehicles and 200 passengers per trip, meaning that in those three trips the ferry moves 210 vehicles and 600 passengers.
“If the Legionnaire goes, the government wants to put the Beaumont Hamel on the run,” he said. “The Beaumont Hamel takes 26-28 vehicles per trip which comes to about 78 vehicles and 106 passengers over three trips.
“A man or woman who is going to work at 8 a.m., they have to come down (to line up for the ferry) at 4 a.m. to get a ticket to get on that boat.”
The protesters point out that in 2015-16, Bell Island moved 474,600 passengers and 231,000 vehicles, while Fogo Island moved 177,900 passengers and 8,930 vehicles.
Crane says it just makes common sense to keep the ferry with the highest capacity on the busiest run, particularly when Fogo Island is not demanding that the Legionnaire be assigned to that run.