Residents of NWT communities served by ferries must carefully plan travel for the time being, as services have new operating hours during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The new hours will see ferries in most communities running from 8am to 8pm. That’s down from the 16-hour days river ferries normally operate during the season.
Grant Scott, the senior administrator for Tsiigehtchic, said he wasn’t aware of reduced hours for ferry service. He said the community had asked for an increase to those hours of operation.
“The NWT Association of Communities meeting in Inuvik this past winter had a motion to increase the hours for certain times,” he said, giving the example of an emergency requiring a call to police in Fort McPherson – the nearest detachment.
“If the RCMP from Fort McPherson have to come to Tsiigehtchic when the ferry is not running and they’ve got to call ahead, they gotta fire it up and get across the river to pick them up,” said Scott. “Same way, you have a medical emergency and the ferry is not running.”
Similarly, acting band manager Rose Moses said the community of Wrigley was unaware of a reduction to hours of operation.
Patrick McLaughlin, the Beaufort Delta’s regional manager of marine operations, confirmed services have had hours reduced as part of the pandemic restrictions. He said those hours are a short-term change.
“That’s definitely a short [measure] as a result of Covid and an estimated number of travellers,” he said.
“We’re not going to have any travelling from a tourism point of view until things open up. Local community travellers and commuter [numbers] are reduced as most of them are working from home or staying at home.
“So it is short-term until things move and break a bit, and then we are prepared and ready to up our schedule to its regular 16 hours’ daily sailing.”
Sierra Daley, a Fort McPherson councillor, said reduced hours could affect people trying to make day trips to Inuvik or goods coming into the community. The drive to Inuvik from Fort McPherson is a little under 200 km on the Dempster Highway and can take up to three hours to drive.
“People would be unable to travel to Inuvik and back in the evenings if they are working during the day,” she said. “Possibly a bigger concern would be the possibility that supplies being trucked in may be delayed if ferry service hours change.”
Food security is an ongoing issue in remote northern communities. In 2018, a fifth of NWT households reported concern over having enough money for food.
Daley worried reduced hours may mean increased costs for transporting food and supplies.
Fort Simpson Mayor Sean Whelly said his village, like Tsiigehtchic, had asked for an increase in the local ferry’s operating hours.
“The reason given for why the ferry is only running 8am until 8pm is due to Covid-19 and border restrictions,” he said. “They don’t anticipate as much traffic, I suppose.
“So they’re running from eight till eight until we move through the phases and kind-of see where we’re at.”
Whelly thinks the service reduction may last right through the summer as the NWT moves through those phases of its recovery plan, essentially shortening the ferry season and putting residents on the other side at a disadvantage.
“Normally we go from 8am till midnight,” said Whelly. “We’ll be waiting until next year, that way, [if] we’re going to be running on reduced hours all summer. It’s another hardship on the people of Fort Simpson.”
Kirby Groat, president of the Fort Simpson Chamber of Commerce, said though it’s good the ferry is running, the reduced hours don’t help businesses making eight-hour return trips to Hay River.
“Pat Rowe is an easy [business] to use here because he’s in a business where he travels to Hay River and back,” said Groat, citing the owner of local firm PR Contracting.
“If you get out of here at eight o’clock in the morning … sometimes [the ferry is] delayed until nine o’clock before you cross the ferry. Four hours to Hay River and four hours back. There’s no time to do anything.”
The Department of Infrastructure confirmed ferry service has been reduced due to Covid-19. The current schedule is as follows:
- Liard River crossing on Highway 1: 8am to 8pm. MV Lafferty will operate on demand beginning at 8am from the east side of the river.
- Mackenzie River/N’Dulee crossing on Highway 1: 9am to 11am and 2pm to 8pm. MV Johnny Berens will operate on demand.
- Peel River crossing on Highway 8: 8am to 8pm. CF Abraham Francis will operate on demand.
- Arctic Red River/Mackenzie River crossing on Highway 8: 8am to 8pm. MV Louis Cardinal will operate on demand.
A spokesperson for the Department of Infrastructure said the department will be “monitoring activity and the changing environment surrounding Covid and will modify hours as required.”
‘Most people won’t bother’
Whelly said the reduction could create a self-fulfilling prophecy where people won’t travel because of the increased cost – and the chance they might get stuck missing the last crossing.
“I’m worried that’s what’s gonna happen,” he said. “Most people won’t even bother. Most of them will just try to avoid going to Hay River. It’s going to cost them an extra $300 or $400 to stay overnight.
“And they’re going to be worried about making it back in one day. They can’t go there and do enough things to make it worth their while. They’ll just delay and put it off … it’s an inconvenience.”
The mayor said he’s already hearing complaints from Fort Simpson residents who have been cut off from the rest of the territory during break-up.
“On the one hand you’re told by the government to enjoy more outdoor activities, get outside, get on the land, camp, do things like that,” said Whelly. “But if people are doing that, they like to know that in an emergency or if they need to get back to town, they can.”
And for people in Wrigley, Whelly wonders what the altered hours mean.
“They definitely are not going to be able to make it to Hay River and back in a day,” he said. “So, a more isolated community is now forced to basically do whatever they can in Fort Simpson.
“I don’t like that the reason they’re cutting back on the ferry hours is because of the border restrictions, because that ferry is there for us.
“That ferry doesn’t get run because of tourists. It’s an essential service, and we utilize it by going to other communities where we can access a lot of things we can’t get here.”