Checking the pulse
Community leaders bring local concerns to federal government
Community and business leaders from the Carbonear-Harbour Grace area took advantage of a pre-budget consultation last week to fill the ear of a federal cabinet minister with their local concerns.
Robert Merrifield, the Minister of State for Transportation, was in Harbour Grace Tuesday, Jan. 25 to talk about the upcoming federal budget and hear local views on how the Stephen Harper Conservative government should be spending their tax dollars.
Merrifield is also the minister responsible for Marine Atlantic, the Crown corporation that operates the ferry service between the island of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. The corporation is adding two new ferries to its fleet this year, but some of skeptical, inclduing Harbour Grace Coun. Wendell Hunt.
“ There has been no open discussions on these boats,” Hunt said. She also criticized the “ high ferry rates” for such a critical link to the rest of Canada.
Hunt was among about 25 people from the neighbouring towns invited to take part in the pre-budget consultation.
Harbour Grace mayor Don Coombs reminded the minister that when stormy weather played havoc with the ferry service recently, “ we were three days without anything coming in or going off the island. There is a cost factor there that affects each and every one of us in this province.”
Admitting the Atlantic Vision wasn’t such a good fit for the Port aux Basques run, Merrifield said the Vision will be “a perfect match for the Argentia run. I have no hesitation in saying they’ll work and work very well,” the minister said, referring to the new vessels.
He said the new vessels will mean “over 50 per cent more capacity” for Marine Atlantic in this province, which should provide a big boost for tourism.
Describing the ferry service as this province’s “ umbilical cord” to the mainland, Merrifield said, “ we put a billion dollars into Marine Atlantic, almost $ 100 million of which was spent in onshore retrofitting.
“ We’re redoing Marine Atlantic right from the ground up ... to make certain Marine Atlantic provides services needed for Newfoundlanders and Labradorians.
Conservative Senator Fabian Manning, who accompanied the minister, added, “the only new money spent in last year’s budget was for new vessels for Marine Atlantic.”
Carbonear mayor Sam Slade raised the need for federal assistance for damage caused by sea storms.
While his town did suffer some damage from Hurricane Igor last fall, Slade told the minister a far worst storm in terms of damage took place in December when the waterfront and breakwater were pounded for several days by heavy seas, damaging public and private property.
Federal funding is already available under a Disaster Assistance program to cover damages caused by wind and rain storms like Igor, but nothing for damage caused by heavy seas.
Slade asked the minister if that program could be extended to cover such damage.
Coombs told the minister his town is going to survive on two things — “our harbour and tourism.”
The town has been unsuccessful in its bid for funding to do some dredging to remove a sandbar across the bottom of the harbour that would allow larger ships to enter port. Fisheries research Steniar Ingeset of Harbour Grace CS encouraged the federal government to invest more money in fisheries research.
Referring to his own native Scandinavia as an example of what other countries have done, Ingeset said they can fetch $3,000 a tonne for species like mackerel and herring. In Canada you would be lucky to get $200 or $300 a tonne for the same species.
“And we have some of the richest fishing grounds in the world here,” he told the minister.
Admitting to not having all the details of the various programs that may be available to address the concerns raised during last week’s round table, Merrifield encouraged all the speakers to put their concerns in writing to the ministers of the departments which deal directly with them.
He also said he would take their comments back to his colleague, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty.
On the fisheries and harbour issues, Manning told the group he plans to invite Fisheries and Oceans Minister Gail Shea to visit the area sometime this spring.
Merrifield felt the Harbour Grace session was a good example of “ bringing government as close to you as we can get it and capturing the pulse of the nation.”