Mr. Sean Casey (Charlottetown, Lib.)
Mr. Speaker, when I heard the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Transport speak, he described this motion as the annual Chicken Little motion from the member for Cardigan. While I thought that was a terribly insulting thing to say, I remembered the story of Chicken Little, which was that there was alarm unnecessarily raised over the fact that the sky was falling when, in fact, the sky was not falling. Therefore, when he described it as Chicken Little motion, I thought the Conservatives would support the motion and the ferry service. This is a motion that says that things could go badly, but they will not go badly at all. Then at the end of his remarks, he indicated they would not be supporting the motion. The government's position on this motion will only add to the sense of abandonment that Prince Edward Islanders feel from the government.
I am probably one of the better customers of this ferry service due to the fact that 27 years ago I married a Cape Bretoner. I am the father of two St. Francis Xavier University graduates and I can say, with some experience, that the drive from the soccer field at St. Francis Xavier University to the Caribou ferry terminal is exactly 51 minutes. I have done it on several occasions. I have had more than my share of the Islander breakfast special onboard the Holiday Island, the very fine clam chowder it serves. If one is lucky enough to hit the MV Confederation, there is nothing quite like the COWS ice cream that is served on board.
Up front, I need to declare my personal bias. As a fellow Prince Edward Islander, I am very proud to speak to the motion put forward by my hon. colleague from Cardigan. He has been, and continues to be, a true champion for the ferry service in Wood Islands because he understands that it is a vital service to Prince Edward Island and his constituents, in particular.
There are many things to love about living in Prince Edward Island, although this past winter would not be one of them. One of the things to love about Prince Edward Island is its proximity to the water. Beaches are close at hand, and spending days on the water or near the water is a favourite pastime of Islanders and visitors alike. The only downside to being surrounded by water on all sides is that it makes travel a bit more complicated.
Thankfully, for eight months of the year, there are two options for travelling off island. Many Islanders have family, work commitments or travel plans in Nova Scotia and the Northumberland ferry, which travels from Wood Islands to Caribou, provides an additional, reliable method of transportation.
The motion today calls on the government to ensure a safe, efficient and sustainable transportation system for Prince Edward Island. It is a little troubling that the member for Cardigan has to move a motion in the House of Commons to seek stable, adequate funding for a service that has proven to be necessary and valuable to two separate local economies. In my view, this should be a logical decision.
As I prepared my notes for the motion, it became increasingly obvious to me that this was an issue, and will continue to be an issue, until the government acknowledged that it need not be an issue. In 2010, the five-year contract negotiated in 2005 by the Liberal government expired. At the time, there was a concern in our province that the federal government would cut its funding altogether, which would have resulted in the loss of one of the two ferries or the entire ferry service. With the hon. member for Cardigan leading the charge, support flooded in from the good people of Prince Edward Island, as well as from the communities in Pictou County, Nova Scotia.
The Council of Atlantic Premiers called upon the government to put in place a 15-year funding agreement for the Northumberland ferry service. Of course, in 2010, the premiers of Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia were Liberal and New Democrat respectively. This may have had an impact on why the next funding agreement was for only three years.
The next agreement after that was for just one year, followed by an additional two years in Budget 2014. Perhaps coincidentally, we also saw a Liberal premier in Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island at the time.
The Northumberland ferry provides islanders with one of only two links to the rest of Canada. The other, of course, is the Confederation Bridge, which links Prince Edward Island to New Brunswick. For people living in the eastern end of Prince Edward Island, the ferry service is a faster and safer alternative to driving across the island and back through Nova Scotia to reach their ultimate destination.
I realize that many of my colleagues in this House are not so fortunate as to be from Atlantic Canada. For those who are less familiar with Prince Edward Island, let me try to explain the importance of the Northumberland ferry.
From May to December, the ferry provides a central link from Wood Islands to Caribou, Nova Scotia. In the fall semester, Prince Edward Island students who are attending that fine educational institution at St. Francis Xavier University, Cape Breton University or the universities in Halifax or the Annapolis Valley use the ferry to get themselves to and from university. This also applies to Nova Scotia students attending the University of Prince Island or Holland College. For many students, the fee to walk on the ferry is significantly lower than the cost of driving across Nova Scotia to get to the Confederation Bridge. In many ways, it is much safer to board the ferry and to take a break from driving.
The ferry welcomes approximately half a million passengers travelling between Wood Islands and Pictou; that is half a million passengers on an island of 145,000 people. This includes students, but it also includes visitors who are either from Nova Scotia or Prince Edward Island, or they are visitors who want to see more than one maritime province during their trip to the east coast of Canada.
I look forward to the support from some of our Nova Scotia colleagues from across the aisle. This is not and should not be an issue solely for Prince Edward Island. Besides visitors, students and islanders looking to travel off-island, the ferry transports nearly 160,000 vehicles including 18,000 commercial trucks. Tourism is a major component of the Prince Edward Island economy, and the ability to get to and from the island is perhaps the most important component of our tourism strategy. Year-to-year funding or a two-year funding agreement is just not cutting it for the Northumberland ferry.
The Minister of Transport, who is also originally a Cape Bretoner, is no doubt aware of the importance of the ferry service. The Minister of Justice represents the riding of Central Nova, which includes Pictou County, the home of the Nova Scotia ferry terminal. I can say that I have personally seen the Minister of Justice on board. I have also seen the member for Saanich—Gulf Islands on board the Northumberland ferry for one particular crossing. That probably, again, speaks to her Cape Breton roots. Surely they understand that the ferry service is important, and that multi-year funding would be hugely beneficial to the local service. I am hopeful that the Minister of Transport, the Minister of Justice and their colleagues are prepared to support this motion. These short-term contracts do nothing to inspire confidence or security in Northumberland Ferries Limited. This is a vital service that has proven itself year after year, but the government still refuses to make a long-term commitment.
As the motion reads, the member for Cardigan is seeking a minimum of five years of stable funding. The economic impact of the ferry service to Prince Edward Island is approximately $27 million, and over $12 million to Nova Scotia. The service is extremely important to Prince Edward Island. It is not only important to our economy and to our people who are employed by Northumberland Ferries; it is also important because, as the member for Cardigan mentioned in his speech, the ferry service connects the Trans-Canada Highway from Wood Islands to Caribou, Nova Scotia. The ferry service offers P.E.I. a physical and symbolic link to the rest of Canada.
I have a couple more points. In any business, uncertainty is the enemy. For the people of Northumberland Ferries to be able to properly plan their business, their capital expenditures and their commitments to their employees, long-term stable funding is a must.
I would also add that probably the most dangerous stretch of highway in Atlantic Canada is the Cobequid Pass between Amherst and Truro. This ferry allows people to avoid that stretch of highway, thereby saving lives.
Business travellers have a chance to be much more productive on their travel between provinces as a result of the availability of Wi-Fi on the ferry.
This is a good and sensible motion from my hon. colleague. He is simply asking the government to make a multi-year commitment. I hope the House will support him on this motion. I certainly will be proudly voting for it.
Subtopic: Ferry Services to Prince Edward Island