Residents, tourism operators, farming operations, cottagers and visitors are scrambling to book passage to and from the mainland terminal in Leamington due to extremely limited ferry capacity. A staffing issue at Owen Sound Transportation Company, on top of COVID-19 restrictions, are cited as the specific reasons for the service reduction.
The current crew shortage requires the smaller Pelee Islander to remain in service every other week while the larger Pelee Islander II runs intermittently and on the opposite week, as the Jiimaan remains docked.
The Pelee Islander has a capacity of just nine cars, with no walk-on passengers currently allowed, and is running throughout the Canada Day long weekend June 28 – July 4. The three ferries meant to service Pelee Island present a combined capacity of an estimated 80 cars or trucks, and over 800 walk-on passengers.
Excitement over the potential associated with the launch of the new Pelee Islander II on April 6, 2019 has waned as the level of service promised has not been delivered.
The Pelee Island 20 year Transportation Study conducted by The Ministry of Transportation in 2012 provided a suite of 12 recommendations with multiple caveats.
The main recommendations of a new ferry and improved notification to the public of service interruptions have been actualized, but recommendations around a two-ferry service system, early spring season vessel preparedness, and improved stakeholder communications have not yet come to pass.
At time of writing, MPP Rick Nicholls had not responded when asked to comment on the current situation and its impacts on Pelee Island residents, though in 2019 he indicated support for the service as a lifeline for the island.
“The ferries travelling to Pelee Island and the mainland are in fact a much needed lifeline for the residents of the island as well as for economic growth through agriculture and tourism,” said MPP Nicholls in a 2019 Ontario Newsroom news release.
The frustration from residents and property owners is palpable. Separated families that navigate inflexible custodial agreements are having trouble scheduling mainland trips. Dozens of tractor trailers full of wheat and canola will be ready to move off island soon, leaving Pelee Island farmers without a way to move heavy equipment.
Tourism operators that have survived COVID-19 restrictions for months now will face longer delays in economic recovery. People attempting to visit the mainland for vaccines or routine medical appointments are being accommodated when they can be.
A letter from Susan Schrempf, president and CEO of OSTC, asks residents for flexibility and advises that “if a Pelee Island resident has an urgent appointment on the mainland, and is unable to get on the ferry, that resident should contact the Pelee Island Transportation Manager directly. Every situation is evaluated on a case by case basis.”
Residents having to disclose the nature of their need for travel presents privacy issues and makes equitable access to this essential service impossible.
In a recent CBC interview, Deputy Mayor David Dawson comments on the long history of unreliable ferry service noting they need to dig deeper. “I just think the whole ferry system has to be opened up and have a third party review and find out how we can fix this thing for the long term.”
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