Canada

Cut off by geography and COVID-19, this Canadian island is calling out for a link to the rest of Canada — to no avail

On a small Canadian island in the Bay of Fundy, a scant 14 kilometres from the coast of mainland New Brunswick, frustrated residents, effectively cut off from their country for months at a time, have a question for their elected leaders.

Are we not Canadian?

Campobello Island, home to scenic lighthouses, lush green forests and dramatic ocean scenes — not to mention those huge Bay of Fundy tides — is one of the jewels of New Brunswick’s Fundy Islands. But for many of its 872 year-round residents, it can at times feel like living in exile: like Napoleon in Elba — so close and yet so far away from their country.

Ulysse Robichaud is one of those frustrated Canadians.

From his house on the water in Welshpool on Campobello, Robichaud can look out across Friars Bay and, were it not for a few trees, peer right into Roosevelt Campobello International Park.

It was there, he says, that his wife’s grandfather played with future U.S. president Franklin Delano Roosevelt at the Roosevelts’ summer mansion. It was there, when his wife was a child, that she met the first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt.

And past that park, at the westernmost point of the island, is the bridge named for FDR — a joint project of the U.S. and Canadian governments — and the reason all roads in Campobello lead to America.

For some 60 years, since the bridge between Campobello and Lubec, Maine, opened, it has been the only permanent link for islanders to the mainland, an hour’s drive through the States to get to Canada and avail themselves of their country’s amenities.

A seasonal ferry that runs from June to September offers some relief from the international traverse. But for years people on Campobello have been begging for a year-round ferry link. For years those pleas have been in vain.

“Are we real Canadians, or are we fake Canadians?” asked Robichaud. “I think we’re real Canadians. We should be treated with dignity. We should have a road to our own country, like everybody else in Canada. We shouldn’t need to have a passport to go to the hospital.”

For Campobello residents, it has been a dicey scenario at the best of times, especially with ramped-up security measures post-9/11.

With the onset of a global pandemic and soaring COVID-19 case numbers in the U.S., the trip has literally become dangerous, residents say.

Pandemic travel restrictions don’t give Canadian visitors much of a way of getting to the island, either. Mainlanders heading that way can’t cross the U.S. border unless they supply an essential service — Campobello residents are exempt — so visitors have to rely on the ferry … while they can.

In deference to the pandemic, the provincial government has this year, at the cost of some $60,000, extended the seasonal ferry into January. But the ferry is unsuitable for the heavier weather that comes when fall turns into winter.

“We’re bleeding and they’re putting a Band-aid on, and it’s not stopping the bleeding. It’s very, very discouraging,” Robichaud said.

For Campobello residents, he said, it’s an ordeal to access all the privileges other Canadians take for granted.

Even putting gas in his car — there are no gas stations on Campobello — involves either an international gas run into Maine — with border control on the way out and on the way back — or, when the ferry is running, a $44 return fare, a 70-minute drive and two ferries.

Curiously, the same situation is playing out in mirror-image on the other side of the country, in Point Roberts in Washington state. There, located on a peninsula south of Vancouver and just south of the 49th parallel, sits a community of 1,200 U.S. citizens, whose sole land access to the rest of the U.S. is by road through Canada.

When the coronavirus pandemic closed the border between the two countries, Point Roberts residents were stuck; none allowed to leave or enter except those carrying essential goods or services.

The shared misery is of small comfort to the residents of Campobello Island.

“That island’s part of New Brunswick, and right now they’re feeling especially frustrated and isolated, because of the pandemic and the restrictions that have been imposed on them just by their choice of residence,” says Kathy Bockus, the provincial legislature member for St. Croix. “I understand their frustration.”

Bockus, along with local MP John Williamson and Green Party leader David Coon have been among the politicians championing the big ask from Campobello residents: a reliable, year-round ferry that will link them to the mainland.

The other three Fundy Islands — Grand Manan, White Head and Deer Island — all have year-round ferry services operated by the province. Any plans for Campobello to have the same have been put on the back burner indefinitely, largely because of the island’s bridge to the U.S.

But the coronavirus pandemic had made travel through the States more difficult, more dangerous and far less desirable.

“We’re not Canadian,” says Kathleen Case facetiously. “We are 100 per cent dependent on the mercy and generosity of the U.S. government.”

Case, the postmistress for Campobello Island, said by and large, pre-COVID-19 personal travel was relatively painless; it was commercial goods and services that were most heavily affected, and have been for years.

If a furnace needs fixing, if your satellite TV is down, if a well needs drilling, if you need firewood; all those things have to wait until the seasonal ferry once again begins its run in June, she said.

“People who would have routinely came to provide services to the island have become increasingly hesitant to do so. And some of the services that we were getting regularly, those providers have actually started refusing to come unless the ferries are running,” said Case.

In one instance, when she needed a home inspector for a newly purchased house, the inspector refused to make the trip to Campobello through the U.S.

“Anything that’s coming to Campobello on a regular basis, the grocery truck, the mail, electricians — the few that will come — anything that’s coming back and forth to Campobello on a regular basis is coming through the U.S. That is our link to the rest of the world,” she said.

“My province, my country gives me no way on and off this island.”

And as the weather worsens, the extended seasonal ferry becomes less reliable, and people taking that ferry back and forth run the risk of being stuck on Campobello for an extended time. Many potential visitors can’t afford to take that risk.

Case’s daughter, for example, is studying to be a licensed practical nurse. Part of her studies include clinical work, but the facilities in which she does that clinical work won’t allow her access if she’s travelled through the States.

That means at the moment, she runs the risk of being stuck on the island every time she visits by ferry — she can’t return through the U.S. — and when the ferry stops running in January, she won’t be able to visit at all.

And it’s not just the individuals who suffer for lack of a permanent link to the Canadian mainland, said Justin Tinker, chair of the Campobello Year-Round Ferry Committee. It’s a problem for the entire island.

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“The community’s viability as a whole is dangerously close to circling the drain,” he said.

Since the U.S. tightened up border controls following 9/11, the population of Campobello has dropped by 25 per cent. The market income per capita — a gauge of the economic engine of the island, independent of government transfers — has dropped by about $4,000 per person.

“Even something as simple as garbage pickup that you or I would take for granted — that once a week or once every other week, the garbage man comes and takes your garbage away — on Campobello, it’s an international affair, where the garbage truck has to cross the border four times to pick up garbage.

“And if there’s fewer people to share that burden, the cost to each remaining individual is going to go up.”

In May, Tinker met with New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs and then-Department of Transportation of Infrastructure minister Bill Oliver to pitch the idea of a year-round ferry.

What Tinker had in mind was a permanent ferry that ran directly from the mainland to Campobello. It could cost as little as $5 million in capital — the boat itself and the infrastructure for a landing slip in Campobello — and about $1.2 million per year in operating expenses. The costs, according to the proposal, could be split between the provincial and federal governments.

The benefits, according to Tinker, would be in employment, both on Campobello and on the mainland, boosted tourism and its benefits for both mainland and island tour operators and general improved quality of life for islanders, including more reliable access to medical, government and other essential services.

At that May meeting, Premier Higgs suggested reaching out to Coastal Transport, the company that operates the province’s ferries to the other Fundy Islands, to get a proposal and cost estimate on the year-round ferry, that could be taken to the federal government.

Both Tinker and Green Party leader David Coon, who helped arrange the meeting, left it feeling optimistic.

Since then, little progress has been made. Tinker said Higgs hasn’t responded to subsequent calls or emails, and that when he talked to Coastal Transport a few weeks ago, they said they had not received a request from the province with regard to Campobello.

Had Higgs got the ball moving right after that May meeting, Tinker believes, a year-round ferry could be running to Campobello right now.

But current Transportation Minister Jill Green, who took the job following the province’s September election, says she had not been directed to reach out to Coastal Transport for a study. The problem with trying to set up a year-round Campobello ferry, she said, is the cost.

“It’s a lot of money. And I can tell you, we’re trying to balance the needs of all of New Brunswick, and they do currently have a link in that they have a bridge. So, it’s not like they’re completely shut off from the rest of Canada.”

“There’s no plan right now to install a permanent ferry between Campobello and New Brunswick.”

That’s a hard pill for islanders to swallow, especially since their MP, John Williamson, said his conversations in Ottawa left him with the distinct impression that the federal government was prepared to consider infrastructure funding for the ferry.

In 2019, the revelation that U.S. Customs and Border guards were going through Canada Post mail that was destined for the island sparked a debate in the House of Commons over privacy and sovereignty rights.

“What was interesting in that debate was one of the parliamentary secretaries opened the door for the first time to assisting the province of New Brunswick with ferry service to Campobello,” said Williamson.

“This was in response to all of these pressures, pre-COVID-19, of families having to cross, and then the mail challenges. And, I think perhaps, consideration that the Campobello residents are Canadians as well, and perhaps are owed direct ferry service.

“I think we’re in a position that some infrastructure dollars could be made available once the province has a plan and proposal ready to submit.”

For now, though, it appears Campobello residents will have to find their own way through the winter and the COVID-19 restrictions until that plan becomes a reality.

And that will leave Ulysse Robichaud still peering west, toward the bridge and a foreign country, rather than north to his own.

“It’s not just COVID,” he said. “It’s about living. You have to live there to see how bad it is when you don’t have a road to your own country.”




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