Committee gets earful at Bell Island ferry meeting

A government committee got a noisy reception on Bell Island on Thursday night. The committee is touring the province to hold public hearings on the provincial ferry service.

Bell Islanders have long been unhappy with the service they're getting. Thursday night's meeting was their opportunity to make that point one more time.

The committee was quite aware that this wasn't going to be a love-in. Bell Island was promised long-term low ferry rates in the election of 1991. Four years later, the government said, sorry, and announced a schedule of hefty increases over the next 10 years. Wabana Mayor Gary Gosine set the tone on Thursday night: "We feel, as a town, this is the final kick at the can. We've been doing it for 30 plus years."

Bern Fitzpatrick, of the local ferry users' committee, explained the mood: "(Here is) correspondence which has been submitted to government in the past three years. Some of the letters have not been answered ... Please take us seriously."

For decades this island has struggled with high unemployment. Island residents have been arguing that high ferry rates and poor ferry service have been hampering efforts to turn Bell Island's depressed economy around.

It was up to Steve Bugden, an official from the Department of Works, Services and Transportation, to catch the flak. One commuter said, "If I decide to leave Bell Island I should be able to do so for my own reasons, and not because the life-line, the ferry, is being deliberately degraded by government to force gradual resettlement on me."

The heavy flak took some time coming. When it did, it came thick and fast. Francis Fitzgerald: "Vultures, buzzards ... they prey on the weak ... Mr. Government, don't try to play games with me ... This is not 1899, this is 1999, soon to be 2000. Government doesn't get away anymore with the crap."

The committee knew better than to argue. The best course of action here was just to take notes and pass them on.

By this morning, Transport Minister Rick Woodford had been fully briefed: "This is what it was meant to do. Give them a forum to vent their frustration."

On Thursday night, it looked more like determination - determination to stop any further rate increases.