By Sharon Weatherall
Beausoleil First Nation is in danger of losing its vehicle ferry if the vessel is decommissioned during dry dock later this year. The 61 year old Sandy Graham is long past its prime and has become a “safety and health priority”’ says Chief Roland Monague.
“This aged ferry has been here too long. Four years ago we were advised at the last dry dock the vessel needs a refurbishment of the hull and panels because it’s under too much stress. Wind waves and ice are all challenges … while continuing to operate in these conditions we are taking a big chance,” said Monague.
“It would cost millions of dollars just to rectify. As well Transportation Canada has ruled no aged vessel will be certified. If the ferry is decommissioned this year the situation will have to be prioritized. If the vessel goes out of service all we have is a passenger ferry.”
The Sandy Graham is crucial to life of BFN members who live in this Georgian Bay community. It is capable of transporting up to 25 vehicles including service vehicles back and forth from Cedar Point to Christian Island hourly throughout the day and evening. The people rely on this vessel to transport supplies and get to important appointments on the mainland. Students and teachers are transported daily. There are about 800 people living on the island full time, a number that more than doubles in the summer time.
The aged ferry has been a topic of concern for many years as members of BFN chief and council have continued to bring it to the table. It got as far as consultants being hired in 2004 and went to a design stage in 2007 but then the Conservative government put the project on hold.
Monague says the more time that goes by the more money it will cost. In 2004 the cost of a new ferry would have been $21 million. That cost rose to $26 million in 2010.
“The cost of a new ferry today is not known but I am estimating it would be around $31 million to replace the Sandy Graham and the longer it is prolonged the more costly it will be,” said Monague who recently sent two letters to the Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs.
“I haven’t met with or received any response from the letters. I hand delivered those same letters to our Regional Chief to ensure that the Minister got them.”
Monague is optimistic about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s vow to reform Canada’s relationship with Aboriginal People but timing is crucial for BFN and its island residents. Monague says the situation is down to the crunch.
“The Prime Minister is very ambitious with what he wants to do with First Nations but how we don’t know…it could be in education or other areas which wouldn’t help us,” he said.
The Sandy Graham which was purchased initially by the government as a temporary solution in 1998 is now docked at Christian Island due to ice. In the meantime Christian Island residents, visitors and staff working on the island will get back and forth on the Indian Maiden passenger ferry. There is also an 18 passenger hovercraft to be used for emergencies or when both boats are down. In winter there can be an ice road across the water when the ice is thick enough, but unfortunately is not safe this year so people are relying on the ferries.