New ferries, new operators, part of proposed revamp of Maritime ferries

A federal government proposal could see new operators for three ferry services in the Maritimes, new ferries, and big changes to the way the services operate.

Proposal would see operator-owned ferries on the water

The Confederation was left alone to serve the Northumberland Strait, offering limited sailings for most of last season. (Julia Cook/CBC)

A federal government proposal could see new operators for three ferry services in the Maritimes, new ferries, and big changes to the way the services operate.

The government made the announcement at the community centre in Belfast, in eastern P.E.I., Friday morning.

The affected services connect

  • Wood Islands, P.E.I., and Caribou, N.S.
  • Souris, P.E.I., and Îles de la Madeleine, Que.
  • Digby, N.S., and Saint John, N.B.

"I am very pleased that the Government of Canada is seeking to move towards long-term contracts to provide stability and certainty in the communities of eastern Prince Edward Island, which in turn will stimulate our economy," said Cardigan MP Lawrence MacAulay in a news release.

MacAulay said the proposal opens up the contract process in a way it has never been before.

Northumberland Ferries, the current operators of the P.E.I. — Nova Scotia service, welcomed the announcement of a strong, long-term commitment in a news release sent out after the announcement.

"We are pleased, for our customers, our employees, and the communities we serve, that the Government of Canada is making a strong and long-term commitment to the Wood Islands/Caribou and Saint John/Digby ferry services," said Chairman and CEO Mark MacDonald in a statement.

New operating structure proposed

Before that announcement, in the early morning hours of Friday, the government posted a request for information from industry that outlined its plans.

Ottawa is looking to move away from the current model where it owns the ferries and leases them to the companies that operate the services. The proposal is for the operating companies to own the ferries and sign a long-term contract — perhaps as long as 20 years — to provide the service.

Long-term contracts will provide economic stability, says P.E.I. MP Lawrence MacAulay. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The proposal is currently at a request for information stage, with the government seeking feedback from companies.

As it stands, the government plan would see at least of three of the four ferries on the three routes replaced within the next three years. Ottawa is offering up the MV Fundy Rose, which service the Saint John – Digby route. Purchased in 2015 for $44.6 million, the Fundy Rose was built in 2000.

The government says it is interested in leasing out the other ferries for a transition period of up to three years. Those ferries are

  • MV Confederation: Built in 1992, serving the P.E.I.- N.S. route.
  • MV Holiday Island: Built in 1971, serving the P.E.I.- N.S. route.
  • MV Madeleine: Built in 1981, serving the Souris Îles de la Madeleine route.

Vessels new to the routes would be no more than 10 years old.

The most recent federal budget included $278 million over five years for the service, about $18 million more than the previous funding agreement. In August Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his government was committed to supplying the ferry service.

Ottawa is offering up the MV Fundy Rose as an option for the Digby - Saint John route with the new contract. (Roger Cosman/CBC News)

The government will hold an industry day for discussions on the proposals in Gatineau, Que., on June 2, and is scheduling one-on-one meetings with companies between July 10 and 21. It is accepting comments on the proposals until July 31.

Last summer the aging ferries connecting the Island and Nova Scotia struggled to stay on the water. The Holiday Island was in dry dock most of the season, leaving the Confederation alone to serve the route through the busy July-August season.

With files from Island Morning