BAR HARBOR, Maine — The future of ferry service between Maine and Nova Scotia has become a political issue in Canada, where early voting has begun in national elections that are expected to conclude early next week.
Michael Ignatieff, the Liberal Party candidate for prime minister, said last week at a campaign appearance in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, that, if elected, he would restore governmental subsidies for ferry service across the Gulf of Maine. Yarmouth has suffered economically since Bay Ferries canceled The Cat ferry service at the end of 2009, after Nova Scotia’s provincial government decided not to provide $6 million in annual subsidies to the company to keep the service going.
During the April 20 appearance, Ignatieff encouraged local voters in Yarmouth to cast ballots for Liberal parliamentary candidate Robert Thibault, according to the Chronicle Herald newspaper of Halifax.
“You put this guy back in the House of Commons and Yarmouth’s gonna get a ferry,” the paper quoted Ignatieff as saying. “He will let me have no peace as prime minister. That voice, like 40 miles of country road, is going to be in my ear until we get it done.”
The lack of ferry service between Yarmouth and the Maine ports of Bar Harbor and Portland has been felt on the western side of the gulf as well, with business leaders on both sides of the border saying that permanent loss of the service will have an adverse impact on tourism in Maine and Nova Scotia.
Patricia Samuel, chairman of Bar Harbor’s economic development task force, said Thursday she is “not surprised” the lack of ferry service across the gulf has become an election issue in Canada. She said the ferry brought valuable business to Bar Harbor and Yarmouth by providing passengers with places to eat, shop or stay before boarding the ferry or after they got off.
Samuel said if the service were to be restored, it would be more practical to use a vessel that has a broader customer base, rather than one that targets just the tourist market. The former Bluenose ferry, which operated between Bar Harbor and Yarmouth before 1997, played a role in transporting goods between New England and Atlantic Canada, she said.
“Personally, I’d like to see a vessel that can take trucks,” she said. “It would be fabulous to have an efficient vessel that could take trucks as well as passengers.”
Chris Fogg, executive director of the Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce, said Thursday that local officials are interested in having ferry service between Bar Harbor and Nova Scotia, but are not sure how it might be done. He declined to comment specifically about Ignatieff’s promise, but said Bar Harbor has taken steps to help protect the permitted status of the local ferry terminal, in case a viable scenario does present itself.
“It’s always been an important part of bringing people to Bar Harbor,” Fogg said of the ferry. “[Restoring the service] definitely would help.”
Nicole Clegg, director of communications for Portland, said Thursday the city has looked into what might have to be done for ferry service to be restored. She said business groups in Yarmouth have had discussions with the provincial government about bringing some type of ferry service back, but so far have not been able to put together any successful proposals.
“It’s certainly something the city of Portland would like to see happen,” Clegg said. “A subsidy is one avenue to achieve that.”
Ignatieff faces a significant challenge to being able to make good on his promise, however. The provincial government in Nova Scotia is controlled by the New Democratic Party, which has drawn criticism in the southwestern part of the province for ending the ferry subsidy.
But nationally, the Liberals are polling in third place, behind the Conservatives and the NDP. It is an unusual position for the Liberal Party, which — with the Conservative Party, led by current Prime Minister Stephen Harper — traditionally has been one of the top two parties in Canadian national politics.
According to Canadian press reports, the Conservatives are polling in the mid-30s, in terms of percentage of likely votes, while the NDP is closer to 30 percent and the Liberals are in the low 20s. The NDP is led by Jack Layton, who would become prime minister if his party garners the most votes.
The Nova Scotian government started funding the seasonal ferry service in 2006, when Bay Ferries added Portland to its route schedule and a year after fuel prices rose internationally to unprecedented levels. In 2006 and again in 2007, Bay Ferries received $1.25 million to help keep the high-speed catamaran ferry running. In 2008 and 2009, the annual subsidy rose to approximately $6 million. The service was canceled in December 2009 after the provincial government decided it no longer could afford the subsidy.
For many months afterward, with its fate in limbo, The Cat ferry sat tied up to the pier in Bar Harbor, which Bay Ferries had been renting from Marine Atlantic, a Canadian crown corporation that operates ferries from Nova Scotia to Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island. Marine Atlantic, which between 1956 and 1996 operated several versions of the monohull Bluenose ferry between Bar Harbor and Yarmouth, has said it has no plans to operate its own ferry between Canada and Maine.
In January of this year, the 320-foot Cat sailed out of Frenchman Bay, south along the East Coast, through the Panama Canal and across the Pacific Ocean to China, where it reportedly has been sold to a company that is using it as a ferry between mainland China and Taiwan. Bay Ferries has notified Marine Atlantic that it no longer has any use for the property.