Campobello Island – After his groundwork helped build a successful Supreme Court of Canada case forcing P.E.I. to provide French language schools in small communities, Ulysse Robichaud is thinking of taking the same tack to get a year-round Campobello Island ferry.
Robichaud, a Campobello resident who’s part of a small committee pushing for a permanent ferry to connect the isolated New Brunswick island to the province, was hopeful after a Zoom meeting with Premier Blaine Higgs in May that there would finally be another option to get to the Canadian mainland other than traveling over a bridge to Lubec, Maine, and crossing the border with passports in hand.
The COVID-19 pandemic put Campobello in the spotlight as the Canada/U.S. border shut in mid-March 2020 to all but essential travel. The odd accessibility predicament already had been grabbing international headlines in the months prior amid reports U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials were opening and examining mail and packages destined for the island’s 800 permanent residents.
“We were excited. We were smelling the champagne,” Robichaud says of the meeting with Higgs to discuss the potential for a year-round ferry.
Robichaud say his group, the Campobello Island Year-Round Ferry Committee, was led to believe the province would inquire about federal funding and contact Coastal Transport Ltd., the operator of year-round ferries for other islands in the area, for a proposal.
Instead, Higgs has come-up with a stop-gap measure amid the COVID-19 pandemic by funding an extended run for the summertime ferry. But that private operation run by East Coast Ferries Ltd., essentially a barge towed by a fishing boat-sized vessel, has spent more time tied-up than ferrying passengers because of wintry weather and high winds.
Robichaud says island residents have a constitutional right under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to be able to get on and off Campobello without having to travel on foreign soil.
“We are willing to go to the Supreme Court of Canada if we don’t have any other choice,” says the Saint-Charles, NB, native, who moved to Campobello with is wife, Mary Helen Robichaud, so they could care for her ailing mother.
He took that path in the mid-1990s when he worked for Parks Canada in Cavendish, PEI. His children didn’t have the option of going to a French school, so he launched a parents’ committee which worked toward changing that. The effort eventually led to a successful Supreme Court of Canada ruling in 2000.
“It was a long battle,” he says. “We organized from the roots up with meetings in kitchens.”
PEI argued there weren’t enough francophone students to justify the cost. The Supreme Court of Canada disagreed.
Robichaud says the Higgs government is offering the same unjustifiable excuse of budget constraints.
Robichaud and ferry committee head Justin Tinker, a Saint John resident who grew up on Campobello, say they’re only starting to weigh the potential for legal action.
“A court challenge is still very preliminary and we have not had formal consultations with a lawyer – the extent so far has only been phone calls,” says Tinker. “Unfortunately, it seems to be a logical next step as government has not been willing to discuss in good faith and has reneged on their commitments.”
Newly elected Fredericton North MLA Jill Green says she’s still getting up to speed in her role as the province’s transportation minister.
Green consulted with the federal transportation minister and expects to have meetings with the federal minister of infrastructure in the coming weeks to discuss the ferry.
While there could be some federal funds available, she says the province would have to foot the bill to operate a year-round ferry – and her government sees no need since residents have the Lubec bridge option.
Green says the only thing that’s changed is the coronavirus pandemic. To get on and off the island through Maine, Campobello residents risk exposure to the deadly virus and must register to travel onto mainland New Brunswick.
Green says that’s why the province has been extending Campobello’s seasonal ferry to Deer Island, which costs $22 for a one-way trip for a car and driver, plus an additional $5 per passenger. She says the province paid a $60,000 subsidy in October and November and has been paying a higher rate since then because inclement weather has meant fewer crossings and tickets sold.
“My belief is we’re going to come out of this at some point and have a vaccinated population and get back to normal life with a bridge,” says Green.
Tinker says Campobello’s woes extend far beyond the complications generated by COVID-19.
He says since the border crackdown following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack, the island’s economy has suffered and its population shrunk.
Residents looking for simple things, like a refrigerator repair, often have to wait until the summer when the ferry is running. If they take the bridge, they face limits on what they can bring home.
“If you measure economic activity before government transfers, such as employment insurance and old-age money, as recently as 2001, Campobello was ahead of the average for New Brunswick. Now it lags behind to the tune of $4,000.”
When he was growing up, Tinker says it was normal to cross the border as many as three or four times a day.
“It was an imaginary line and nothing more,” he says. “But the barriers have continually been going up. You can’t bring in supplies to plant a garden without a mound of paperwork.”
Tinker says “a back-of-the-napkin” estimate he got from Coastal Transport pegs the cost of buying an old ferry and installing a rudimentary slip at $5 million, with annual operating expenses for a free ferry coming in at roughly $1.3 million.
He says the $5-million estimate could easily triple, depending on the infrastructure and cost of the ferry itself, whether purchased or leased.
He says Coastal Transport and Eastern Ferries have each indicated they’d be bidders for the job. Neither company responded to requests for comment from the Courier.
Robichaud says less expensive options could be pursued, such as having Coastal’s Grand Manan ferry – an operation paid for by the province – make stops at Campobello, as it did in the 1960s, delivering mail, picking up passengers and winching cars aboard.
While the Higgs government isn’t in favour of funding a year-round ferry, the notion has plenty of support from other politicians, including Campobello Major Brett Newman, Saint Croix MLA Kathy Bockus, New Brunswick Southwest MP John Williamson, and Green party leader David Coon.
The federal government’s new transportation minister, Omar Alghabra, wasn’t available for an interview. His spokesperson signaled the department won’t be wading in with funding.
“While the ferries must meet federal safety regulations, Transport Canada does not determine when East Coast Ferries provides its seasonal services between Campobello Island and Deer Island, New Brunswick,” says Allison St-Jean. “Discussions between the provincial government and the community for a long-term solution are ongoing.”
One obstacle the ferry committee faces with a legal challenge is how to pay for it.
Robichaud says the PEI French-language school challenge was supported with grants from the federal government, funding that wouldn’t be possible for a ferry case.
He’s hoping NB businesses or wealthy individuals with ties to the island might contribute.
The ferry committee says a crowd-funding campaign could be another option. That’s the path being taken by landowners at Black Point, who are asking the Nova Scotia Supreme Court to rule against the province’s OK of a rock wall that blocks access to the beach along Nova Scotia’s Northumberland Shore.
“We should have done this five years ago,” says Robichaud. “We had a plan. The slip could have been built that Coastal Ferry could use. Instead, nothing was done.
“I feel comfortable in saying that the constitution of Canada guarantees our right to travel to New Brunswick without going through a foreign country. We’re the only Canadians that don’t have that right.”
“Half of the bridge is in Canada. Half of the bridge is in the United States. U.S. Customs officers decide if we get to continue or not.”
Janet Whitman is an investigative journalist who operates out of our Halifax office, contributing to the Advocate family of newspapers.