Village of Gagetown residents continue to fight for ferry, meet with Opposition leader

WATCH ABOVE: Residents of Gagetown, NB rallied on Saturday over their discontinued ferry service. Adrienne South reports.

Residents in the Village of Gagetown, N.B., are continuing to make waves about the cable ferry that was taken out of service in their community. More than 100 residents gathered outside the village’s legion Saturday to meet with Conservative opposition leader Blaine Higgs.

Andrew MacInnis was in attendance and said residents remain unhappy with the Gallant government’s decision to discontinue ferry service.

“The loss of this ferry service has had a detrimental effect not only on this community… but on neighbouring communities nearby and also on New Brunswick as a whole,” MacInnis said.

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READ MORE: Future of Gagetown ferry unknown

MacInnis said the community feels that the Gallant government has given up on their community, which led them to show up to the legion Saturday to meet with the opposition leader before he headed into a party nomination meeting.

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“It was important to show Mr. Higgs how critical this particular issue is to our communities,” MacInnis said.

MacInnis is a member of the Save the Gagetown-Jemseg Ferry group, along with area-resident Wilf Hiscock.

Hiscock said the large turnout highlights how much of an impact the loss of the ferry has had, and said they won’t forgive the Liberals for taking away the vessel.

The provincial government decided to discontinue the ferry in 2015, citing the second lowest ferry ridership in the province and costly upgrades in order to meet registration and certification requirements.

“The government of the day has not listened to us. Although we had a meeting, their mind was made up before the meeting what they were going to do, and I find that Mr. Higgs is willing to listen to us. This is the second time that I’ve talked to him formally,” Hiscock said.

Owen Davey told Global News the hurt runs deep in the community.

“The aspect that concerns me the most is the psychological and emotional distress to the inhabitants of this small village that’s been engendered by this decision. I think that people are hurt in a way that I have never seen before,” Davey said. “We feel that this was calculated in a way to send a message to this community, and the message that it sent, that ‘You don’t count, you’re not important,’ and that has hurt people.”

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Higgs said he was aware residents would be waiting for him prior to his official business Saturday and said he admires the passion of the residents.

“It’s exciting in many ways because the community is very passionate and they’ve shown a continuation of their passion and I think the passion for rural New Brunswick runs deep in many communities and this is a symbol of that, so I actually am quite impressed with the diligence of the team here,” Higgs said.

He spent time speaking with residents and listening to their concerns and formally addressed the group from the steps of the legion, alongside area MLA Ross Wetmore.

Higgs was careful not to make any promises about the ferry if he were to be elected as premier in the September 2018 election, but said he believes it’s important to work in collaboration with rural communities to find solutions to problems. Higgs said the ferry issue is one example of the government’s unwillingness to work with rural communities to develop collaborative solutions.

“[The solution] isn’t buying a $5-million ferry, it’s finding a solution that works for our communities and I want to work for each of you to find that solution and that’s what I will say here today that I will work with this community. I know how dear it is to small communities, but I know how dear rural New Brunswick is for us as a province and we need to rebuild our rural communities,” Higgs said.

He said it’s important to look at all the factors before making decisions that impact communities, and cited the province’s covered bridges as another example.

“I feel that we don’t look at all the factors when we consider making a decision and in this case, with the ferry, I’ll use it as an example. So all of a sudden, it was condemned and it was going to be $5 million to replace it… You could work to rebuild the ferry or find a whole lot better solution to work with the community,” Higgs said.

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Higgs said there isn’t a current government commitment to rural New Brunswick.

“There’s no tourism strategy, there’s no real working with communities and saying, ‘OK, what’s important and how do we start to strengthen,” Higgs said.

He said there need to be solutions that build sustainable futures for rural communities like Gagetown so they can continue to be long-term tourist areas.

“As a tourism strategy, how many ferries can you cross, how many covered bridges can you cross versus how fast can you get through New Brunswick on a four-lane highway. There’s got to be a different philosophy and we have to stop throwing money at construction projects is kind of what it is — just make work projects and then we’re left with a long-term liability of something we didn’t need,” Higgs said.

READ MORE: Residents fighting to bring back the Gagetown ferry

In an email statement to Global News, New Brunswick Transportation and Infrastructure Minister Bill Fraser said the ferry has been sold and will not be replaced.

“We recognize that there are those in the community who disagree with the decision, however, as part of the Strategic Program Review, we faced many difficult decisions,” Fraser said. “We are committed to working with the municipality to promote other positive aspects in the community, including the reconstruction of a major intersection in the village through the Municipal Designated Highway Program.”

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Hiscock said he was happy Higgs took time to speak and listen to members of the community.

“We had a meeting with him before the committee and at that time, he stated basically what he said here today — he’s willing to work with the community on restoring ferry service in this area, he wants a solution to this problem,” Hiscock said. “So I think this is the most we could expect and we’re more than willing to work with him or anyone else because we definitely have ideas on having a ferry back here and how to cut back costs.”

He said the community would be willing to work with any government or party to find an economical solution that works for everyone, including taxpayers, and said they would be happy with having a ferry that only operates from spring to fall during the tourism and farming season, with limited hours of service or scheduled crossings.

MacInnis told Global News the community will start reaching out to other rural communities in the province experiencing similar issues and concerns and lend support to their fights to maintain tourism and rural infrastructure.