Chi-Cheemaun sailing season delayed to at least May 10

MANITOULIN—While it is now official that the MS Chi-Cheemaun ferry service season has been delayed, there is a tremendous groundswell of local residents, businesses, politicians and municipalities (as evidenced by a rally of support for the MS Chi-Cheemaun season not to be delayed and petitions that are being eagerly signed by Island and off-Island residents) that all feel the delay of the ferry will be disastrous to the Island’s residents and the economy of Manitoulin.

The Owen Sound Transportation Company (OSTC) announced on Monday that the service would not be starting its 2013 schedule this Friday, May 3. “Due to continued low water levels on Lake Huron, the Friday, May 3 scheduled start to the Chi-Cheemaun ferry season has been postponed until at least Friday, May 10.”

“Water levels have slowly increased over the last week, but are still below the minimum level required for the ferry to operate safely from the existing dock fenders at Tobermory and South Baymouth,” the OSTC release states. “The ferry docks and fenders are owned and maintained by Transport Canada.”

Silvia Di Tiro, Transport Canada Communications Advisor, released a statement on Monday in regards to the ferry docks. “Transport Canada recognizes the role that the Chi-Cheemaun ferry plays in serving communities and providing a transportation link. The department is aware that water levels are currently at significantly lower levels across the entire Great Lakes system. Transport Canada is in discussions with the Government of Ontario and the OSTC to explore options to address the impacts of low water levels on the docking of the Chi-Cheemaun ferry.”

“It is discouraging that the ferry may not run on the first day of the sailing season, and may be delayed this season,” stated Petra Wall of Timberlane Lodge last Saturday. “This will kill a lot of business. We have fishermen from western Ontario and the Northern US who are supposed to be coming up here on the first ferry.”

Ms. Wall was one of about 50 people on hand for a rally in support of the Chi-Cheemaun starting its season on time last Friday at South Baymouth. “I also have a petition and I’m working with Alain Harvey and Nathalie Gara-Boivin of the Auberge Inn.” She said the latter two are organizing a major rally to be held today (Friday) at the ferry docks in South Baymouth.

“The Chi-Cheemaun is one of the major economic drivers for the Island,” said Ms. Wall. “It is important to business, tourism, agriculture—all sectors of the Island.

Gerry Strong, reeve of Central Manitoulin who had attended the rally in South Baymouth last Friday, told the Recorder, “there were over 50 people in attendance, and there is talk about holding a rally again (this) Friday when the ferry should be arriving in South Baymouth for the first time this season. Organizers are hoping to fill the parking lot with cars.”

“Any type of delay in the season affects the whole Island, and it certainly hurts our economy,” said Mr. Strong.

Central Manitoulin council at a meeting last Thursday gave its approval for a letter to be signed by the reeve and municipal clerk Ruth Frawley and sent to Denis Lebel, federal Minister of Transport, Infrastructure and Communities, stating, “I am writing to you on behalf of the council of the Municipality of Central Manitoulin. The municipality and its residents are going to be gravely impacted by the delay and cancellation of the Chi-Cheemaun ferry service for the 2013 season.”

The letter states: “The ferry is a main tourist attraction and mode of transportation for visitors and residents alike. The tourism
revenue generated during the sailing season is the main source of income to many on both the Bruce Peninsula and Manitoulin Island. Elimination of the ferry for the season will ruin small businesses, eliminate jobs and create an economic disaster for the entire Manitoulin and Georgian Bay Circle Route Region. Even the elimination of one month of service would be a very serious hardship to the area.”

“The operator of the ferry, the Owen Sound Transportation Company, say they cannot resume the 2013 sailing season safely unless fenders are added or adjusted on the wharves in Tobermory and South Baymouth,” the letter continues. “This is a technical solution to ensure the ferry can safely dock. The wharves are federal facilities under your ministry. Inaction on your part will lead to the elimination of jobs for thousands of people who depend on the tourism industry for their livelihood. We urge you to act quickly to facilitate the installation of the required fenders to the wharves so that the Chi-Cheemaun ferry boat can operate for its full season, thereby preventing serious economic harm to the entire region.”

Gary Brown, reeve of Tehkummah Township said, “when you look at it, the Chi-Cheemaun is about a $38 million economic driver for the area, with tourism, gas sales, accommodations, food, and the like. And if people drive around it will pull traffic away from the Island, and we will start losing business here on the Island.”

“Look, for instance, at farmers who ship to Keady and Cookstown—they won’t be able to continue this on the ferry if it isn’t running,” said Mr. Brown.

Mr. Brown said the province is keeping up its end of the bargain, it’s the federal government that needs to take action in terms of correcting the problems with the fenders, and looking at dredging.

“Basically, it will be an economic bombshell to businesses and tourism on the Island not to have the ferry running,” said Mr. Brown. “It is crucial, we need the ferry running.”

“It is far beyond my belief that the issues with the fenders and water levels have not been addressed,” said Al MacNevin, mayor of the Northeast Town. “We have seen lower water levels for years, and have known for a long time that with the loss of water depth that it was causing a problem with docking of the ship.”

“I can’t believe we are still waiting for a federal Transport Canada reply,” stated Mr. MacNevin.

“The water levels have been down for quite awhile,” said Ken Noland, reeve of Burpee-Mills. “What I can’t understand is why nothing was being done or at least planned in the winter to address the problems. And why now, just a week before sailing, are we hearing problems with the fenders-bumpers at the docks? It seems the Chi-Cheemaun always struggles in the spring, but I also find it convenient that they are not going to be sailing in the spring.”

“This is more than a ferry service, it is a link to and from the Island,” said Mr. Noland. “Meanwhile the government has been sitting on its collective hands, and nothing has been done.”

“The response from the minister so far, from what I’ve seen on the Parliament Channel and from what has been in the papers, is that they are aware of the problem and are discussing it, they are aware of the problems but have given no indication on timelines or progress on the issue,” said Ms. Wall. She told the Recorder on Monday, “we have had over 575 people sign our petition ‘Action to get the Chi Cheemaun Running Again for Manitoulin Island.’ What I’m looking for is about 5,000 signatures to be able to send it to MP Carol Hughes and MPP Mike Mantha.”

The petition reads: “we need everyone to sign to indicate how important the ferry is to Manitoulin. Tourism is our life’s blood. Up to 80 percent of tourists use the ferry to travel to and from Manitoulin. The ferry is being delayed by the federal government because they will not lower the fenders on the docks. We need everyone to sign to indicate how important the ferry is to Manitoulin. They want to wait until water levels go up. This may not happen for several months or at all! Please sign this petition and we will give it to Mike Mantha (MPP) and Carol Hughes (MP). You can also write to the Honurable Dennis Lebel, Minister of Transport, Infrastructure and Communities, Room 636, Centre Block, House of Commons, Ottawa, Ontario K1A 0A6.

Tom Sasvari with files from Michael Erskine