Nfld. & Labrador

$6M ferry service for 114 people: But don't mention resettlement on St. Brendan's

It costs Newfoundland and Labrador taxpayers $6 million annually to provide ferry service to St. Brendan's, a community with a population so small residents wouldn't fill two school buses.

Transportation minister admit numbers 'don't work'

Kevin O'Reilly chairs the ferry users committee in St. Brendan's, an island community in Newfoundland's Bonavista Bay. (Cal Tobin/CBC)

It's late afternoon as the MV Grace Sparkes approaches the dock, her captain expertly spinning the 43-metre passenger and vehicle ferry around and placing the stern to the wharf.

Another successful hour-long crossing from Burnside for an impressive vessel christened just six years ago, at a cost to the provincial treasury of nearly $30 million.

The residents of St. Brendan's live on a small island off Newfoundland's Eastport Peninsula. (Google Maps)

Fewer than 10 vehicles disembark and in convoy-like fashion, climb the gravel road out of Penny's Cove and disappear over the hill.

Free of her burden, the Grace Sparkes floats snug to the wharf, her diesels idling, her ramp extended, ready to ingest another load and do it all over again in about a half-hour.

This time, there is just one vehicle and two passengers in the lineup.

Nearly $42,000 per resident

Welcome to St. Brendan's, an island community on the Eastport Peninsula, in Bonavista Bay, home to Newfoundland and Labrador's most expensive ferry service, by a nautical mile.

The provincial government says it cost more than $6 million to operate the service in 2016, with a per-resident cost of $42,000 and a taxpayer subsidy rate of 93.3 per cent.

The per-resident cost was based on the 2016 census, which put the population of St. Brendan's at 145 souls.

But that number has slipped over the past year.

In October, 114 people called St. Brendan's home, a fact confirmed by residents who routinely do their own head count.

The MV Grace Sparkes prepares to dock in St. Brendan's. (Cal Tobin/CBC)

That would drive the annual per-resident cost of the ferry to nearly $53,000, which is 2½ times more expensive than the next closest run.

"I'd hate to be the person that had to keep the books," says Kevin O'Reilly, sounding almost apologetic, while standing dockside.

I don't know what you're going to do with us all. You gonna chisel us off and leave the Avalon?-  Kevin O'Reilly

O'Reilly is chair of the St. Brendan's ferry users committee. He's also deputy mayor, a retired teacher, and like many here, intensely proud of his island home.

He's uncomfortable in front of a camera, and the topic doesn't help.

"I don't know what you're going to do with us all. You gonna chisel us off and leave the Avalon?" he asks.

Province at edge of financial cliff

The cost of the ferry, the sprawling all-grade school with its nine students, nearly nine kilometres of provincial roads, the health clinic — and more.

It's a touchy subject here, and few want the issue in the spotlight.

But in a province that some say is at the edge of a financial cliff, this ferry service stands out. Two crews of nine, half-a-million litres of fuel, and at so-called "marine prices," even the smallest replacement parts can reach into the thousands — all serving a population that wouldn't fill two school buses.

The once-thriving fishing community is now home to just over 100 people. (Cal Tobin/CBC)

O'Reilly and his committee have fought hard for it, and they've heard the grumblings from non-residents.

But this is their highway, their right as citizens, they say.

"Should I have to defend that? That I want to live here? I don't know any other place to live. It crosses my mind lots. Where would I go? Don't know," says O'Reilly.

'Tough conversations' needed

The round-trip cost for two passengers and a vehicle on the St. Brendan's ferry is $34. But the actual cost to taxpayers? Nearly $500.

The province is trying to bring down the cost. Trips have been reduced from five to three and engines throttled back to save fuel, a move some on the island say hurts tourism and local fishermen trying to move their catch to market.

But Newfoundland and Labrador's Transportation Minister Steve Crocker acknowledged Monday that the numbers for St. Brendan's "don't work."

Passenger capacity is at just 13 per cent, while vehicle capacity is at just 22 per cent. 

Steve Crocker is Newfoundland and Labrador's minister of transportation and works. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

"The time has come in this province that there are tough conversations that we have to have with a lot of our rural communities," Crocker told CBC News. "And that's something we're going to have to do. The reality is upon us."

But Crocker stopped short of saying that the Grace Sparkes will be replaced with a smaller, more economical service

At an overall cost of $73 million annually, Crocker said the entire marine service system is under review.

"Those are not numbers we're going to be able to continue as a province with," he said.

Some residents, including fisherman Paddy Kelly, acknowledge the vessel is just too much.

"A lot of people thought it was a good thing to get this big ferry. But I said to my brother when I saw it the first time. I said, 'I think that's a nail in the coffin for St. Brendan's. Too big. Too much money.'"

Fight to the last breath

But the mayor of St. Brendan's is vowing to go to bat for the community.

"I will fight [with] every breath that's in me," says the pull-no-punches leader, Veronica Broomfield.

Salted cod dries on a flake in St. Brendan's, a centuries-old tradition in Newfoundland and Labrador outports. (Cal Tobin/CBC)

When approached about this story, Broomfield asks, "Are you trying to kill my community?"

The answer is "no," and Broomfield reluctantly agrees to an interview.

Her tone? Iron-rod stiff.

"I'm not worried about what it costs people to live in Burnside. Or what it costs the people to live in St. John's. So why are they worried about us?" she said.

"I'm too busy during the day to even think about how other people live. And I think they should do the same."

'Don't mention' resettlement 

No one wants to pay more, and with the population dropping fast, the per-resident cost is going nowhere but up.

I was told 44 years ago St. Brendan's might last 5 years. It's still going strong. And I love every minute of it.- Veronica Broomfield 

Do the options include resettlement?

Be careful what you say.

"Don't mention the word, or someone will have you in the freezer for lobster bait next spring," O'Reilly says.

"I came here 44 years ago, and settled here," adds Mayor Broomfield. "And I was told 44 years ago St. Brendan's might last five years. It's still going strong. And I love every minute of it."

Mayor Veronica Broomfield stands in the front door of her home on St. Brendan's, forcefully defending her island community. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

Resettlement is not an option for Paddy Kelly, either.

People on St. Brendan's own their own homes. Life is simple, safe, quiet, the Catholic church at the centre of their lives.

"You make someone leave St. Brendan's that owns their own home and put them in a basement apartment in St. John's or Corner Brook or Gander, I don't know how happy they are going  to be," says Kelly.

An exodus of people

But just how strong is St. Brendan's?

The numbers don't lie, and they paint a grim picture.

A young mother and her three school-aged children have plans to leave in November, slashing the school's population by one-third to just six students.

St. Brendan's resident Paddy Kelly, at age 50, is one of the youngest fishermen on the island of St. Brendan's. (Cal Tobin/CBC)

A young couple and their two preschool children left in recent days, heading for better opportunities in Alberta.

Even the school principal, a passionate defender of rural Newfoundland and Labrador, plans to leave with her young daughter in the near future after 10 years on the island.

Dying with dignity

Ruby Kean will also join that exodus.

She owns St. Brendan's Convenience, one of two stores on the island.

After 14 years behind the counter, she now measures her future in business in months as opposed to years.

St. Gabriel's in St. Brendan's is an all-grade school with an enrolment of nine students. (Cal Tobin/CBC)

The doors swing open less and less, and many residents stock up during trips off the island.

She walks past her parents' house during her regular strolls around the cove. The heat is still on in the small bungalow, energized by the constantly droning diesel plant just metres away. But the house is empty. Her parents are both deceased.

Kean is exploring new opportunities, away from her beloved island.

The doors to St. Brendan's Convenience open and close less and less often these days, and owner Ruby Kean says she might have to close the store. (Cal Tobin/CBC)

"I wish some nights … I talk to my sisters in St. John's and they're going for coffee together or they're doing this. I think to myself, I wish I was with them," she says.

So will she migrate to the city, like so many others?

"Hopefully. If everything works in my favour. Yes. Hopefully," she says.

I wish some nights … I talk to my sisters in St. John's and they're going for coffee together … I think to myself, I wish I was with them.- Ruby Kean 

The pricey ferry service is busy taking people away from the island these days, far away from a community that has existed for 175 years.

No one denies the future is bleak, including Kevin O'Reilly.

"We're dying. I have no illusions about that. We're hoping to die with dignity."

While it costs millions to subsidize this island community, St. Brendan's residents say it's their home. (Cal Tobin/CBC)

About the Author

Terry Roberts is a journalist with CBC's bureau in St. John's.