Graham Steele: Nova Star carries the promise of better days

I'm writing this in Yarmouth, looking out my window at the Nova Star, and beyond to the sparkling water around Cape Forchu.

Reflecting on the decision to cancel the subsidy for the Yarmouth ferry

People welcomed the arrival of the new ferry in Yarmouth mid-April. (Anjuli Patil/CBC)

I'm writing this in Yarmouth, looking out my window at the Nova Star, and beyond to the sparkling water around Cape Forchu.

The Nova Star — the new ferry that will sail between Yarmouth and Portland, Maine — sailed into the harbour here on Tuesday, the first ferry Yarmouth has seen since The Cat slipped away on April 17, 2010.

The Nova Star is big, beautiful and new; it stretched its sea legs by sailing halfway around the world from Singapore, through the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean and across the North Atlantic.

Looking at the Nova Star in the harbour, I am deeply ambivalent about the decision made by the New Democratic government — in which I was a full participant — to cut the provincial subsidy for The Cat.

Without the subsidy, which was $6 million per year, The Cat made no financial sense and Bay Ferries shut it down immediately, just before Christmas in 2009.

It was the worst decision the Dexter government ever made, if you measure the damage against the savings.

We thought we had good information. Ridership on The Cat was falling steadily and looked set to continue to fall. Many factors had combined to undercut the ferry's economic impact.

There was the drastic change in Americans' travel patterns after 9/11, a high Canadian dollar, the loss of the Scotia Prince after the 2004 season and a schedule change in 2007 that meant passengers no longer had to stay overnight in Yarmouth to catch an early-morning ride.

We were a new government in a financial crunch and we were looking for savings. A money-losing ferry with dwindling ridership seemed an obvious target.

There is plenty of room for debate, then and now, about the role The Cat played in the economy of southwest Nova Scotia and in the tourism industry generally.

But our cardinal mistake was that we did not prepare the people of Yarmouth and the southwest for our decision.

Looking back, we announced the decision without notice, without consultation and outside the context of an overall provincial budget.

Most importantly, we made the decision without taking proper account of what the ferry meant to Yarmouth's conception of its place in the world. That's a big thing to miss.

When the decision came, the people of Yarmouth were stunned.

If we could do it over

So why didn't we turn back?

We thought we'd made a tough but necessary decision. We knew more tough decisions were ahead and we didn't want to fold in the face of our first real controversy. Our instinct, then, was to dig in and defend the decision. We believed we had good information but that meant we met emotion with figures and we met stories with statistics — and that only made things worse.

Meanwhile, The Cat sailed away.

It was two and a half years later, with an expert panel report that suggested a cruise-type ferry might work, that the search began in earnest for a replacement.

Even then, it took another year to find and sign a deal with STM Quest, the people who this week brought the Nova Star to Yarmouth.

If the Dexter government had to do it all over again, knowing what we know now, there is no way we would make the same decision. We caused far too much heartache. There is no question that we would have continued the subsidy for The Cat.

But then there would have been no urgency to find a replacement.  

The wrong ship, with ever-dwindling ridership, would still be plying the Yarmouth-Portland run.

And the Nova Star would not be in Yarmouth harbour, carrying the promise of better days to come.

About the Author

Graham Steele

Political analyst

Graham Steele is a former MLA who was elected four times as a New Democrat for the constituency of Halifax Fairview. He also served as finance minister. Steele is now a political analyst for CBC News.


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