PEI's Fixed Link Opens

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on June 2, 1997. Partner content is not updated.

PEI's Fixed Link Opens

It was a secret that former Prince Edward Island premier Joe Ghiz kept even from his own wife and children. In January, 1988, Ghiz asked Islanders to finally resolve through a plebiscite the century-old debate over whether to build a physical link between the province and mainland Canada. But during the heated campaign, and even after 60 per cent of Islanders voted in favor of the so-called fixed link, Ghiz declined to reveal where he stood on the matter. The premier also kept his counsel at home, where his wife, Rose Ellen, who opposed the fixed link, often engaged in lively supper-table debates with their teenage son, Robert, who strongly supported the bridge. It was only after Ghiz died of cancer at the age of 51 last November that the family learned Ghiz had recently confided to a local political commentator that he voted No in the plebiscite. "I always suspected that," Rose Ellen told Maclean's, "but I never put him on the spot. I thought that if he wanted to keep that to himself, he had the right."

Beyond maintaining the family peace, Ghiz was probably wise to keep his opinions to himself. No other issue has so dominated - or so divided - public discourse in Canada's smallest province as the fixed link. Even now, with the $1-billion, 13-km-long Confederation Bridge set to open on June 1, debate rages on in many quarters over whether the massive concrete span across Northumberland Strait represents the route to a more prosperous future - or a road to social ruin.

To its detractors, the move to build a bridge between Borden, P.E.I., and Jourimain Island, N.B. - and to end the year-round ferry service that has plied those often ice-choked waters since 1917 - represents a potential threat to the environment, a sop to business interests and an affront to what many like to call "the Island way of life." They argue that if the fixed link brings the kind of tourist traffic its promoters claim - a 20-per-cent increase over the 770,000 visitors who already arrive each summer - it could end up spoiling the serenity that attracted many of those tourists in the first place.

To its supporters, the bridge is mostly a matter of convenience and efficiency, promising an end to ferry lineups that during the peak summer months often lasted for several hours. As well, they say, it should attract new business and jobs to the Island - no small matter in a province where the unemployment rate reaches as high as 18 per cent. Proponents also talk proudly about the role Atlantic Canadians played in building one of the world's longest marine bridges, a structure many consider an engineering marvel. And they scoff at suggestions that it will diminish the mystique of living on an island. "I can still have my Island lifestyle," declares Gerry Gallant, president of the province's tourism industry association. "If I let a bridge interfere with that, I've really got a problem."

The common thread in all this is that few of the Island's 135,000 residents are neutral when it comes to the fixed link. "It makes for good coffee-table discussion," acknowledges Paul Giannelia, president of Calgary-based Straight Crossing Inc., part of a consortium that built Confederation Bridge and will own the structure for the next 35 years. During the early 1990s, Giannelia spent many an evening in village halls across the Island being alternately cheered and jeered as he touted the ambitious project. Now, as the fixed link prepares to open in style - with a three-day, $1.4-million Bridgefest, complete with gala concerts, fireworks and a competitive jog across the bridge - Giannelia offers a modest prediction. "I think," he says, "the talk will continue for a little while yet."

After all, why should the next century be any different than the last? Prince Edward Island agreed to join Confederation in 1873 only after securing a constitutional guarantee that Ottawa would provide "continuous" and "efficient" steamship service between the Island and the mainland. But the steamers were often forced to port during fierce winter storms or when thick ice made Northumberland Strait impossible to navigate. At such times, Islanders had to make do with the ice boat - a large vessel with metal runners that was rowed across open water, then hauled over ice floes by men in leather harnesses. Passengers paid $2 for the crossing, or $1.50 if they agreed to get out and pull when the boat hit ice.

With the advent of icebreaking ferries, year-round service finally began in 1917. Even so, many Islanders kept pressing Ottawa for an alternative. In 1965, Lester Pearson's Liberal government agreed to build a combined $148-million causeway, bridge and tunnel. But the project was later abandoned due to escalating costs. It was left to Brian Mulroney's Conservative government - which in the 1980s seemed determined to deliver a megaproject to every region of the country - to make the fixed link a reality.

The federal call for submissions on the bridge project in 1987 spurred into action two opposing lobby groups. The anti-link Friends of the Island was made up mostly of fishermen, environmentalists and academics. The pro-link Islanders For A Better Tomorrow drew support from business, tourism and labor groups. The two sides tore into each other at a series of public meetings during the plebiscite campaign. Some opponents expressed fears that the bridge would make it easier for everything from killer bees to prostitutes to enter the province. Some bridge supporters stooped to labelling their foes - a few of whom were American-born - as people "from away" who could never be true Islanders.

After the Yes side won, the Friends of the Island waged a legal battle against the bridge. As late as March, 1993, the Federal Court of Canada ruled in their favor, stating that an earlier environmental review of the project - including its potential effects on the $200-million-a-year lobster fishery in Northumberland Strait - had not been specific enough. But after another environmental review, Ottawa forged ahead, signing a contract with the consortium, Strait Crossing Development Inc., in October of that year to construct an $840-million bridge. Under its precedent-setting terms, the capital for the project was raised from the private sector. Strait Crossing will recover its costs in two ways. First, it will charge users a fixed toll (the rates were set last week at $35 per car and $40 for a recreational vehicle). As well, Ottawa will provide an annual subsidy of $42 million - the estimated cost of operating and maintaining the year-round ferry service - for a period of 35 years. After that, ownership of the bridge reverts to the federal government.

One of the most immediate effects of the June 1 bridge opening is to put 600 ferry workers out of a job (a separate ferry will continue to run between Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, but only during summer months). Among them is chief steward Paul Arsenault, 53, who has worked the Northumberland run for 25 years. Only a year away from drawing his pension, and with a part-time sales job in the offing, Arsenault is optimistic. But the same may not be true, he fears, for ferry workers with young families to support and mortgages to pay. A jocular man, Arsenault is visibly annoyed by the elaborate celebrations planned for the bridge inaugural. "Why don't they just cut the ribbon and open it?" he said in an interview aboard the ferry M.V. Holiday Island as it sailed alongside its concrete nemesis. "It doesn't seem right when so many people are losing their jobs."

Arsenault has obvious reasons for feeling strongly about the fixed link. But he is far from alone. As a visitor soon detects, the 100-year habit of arguing about a bridge to the mainland is now part of the fabric of Island life, like the red-soiled farmlands that frame the horizon, like the fishing boats bobbing in the sea.

Standing near a heap of empty lobster traps, Mike McGeoghegan gazes upon the shimmering waters of Northumberland Strait where his son, Charlie, is placing buoys to mark the shallow spots. It is the day before lobster season opens, bringing to an end the five-month fishing hiatus imposed by winter. McGeoghegan, who has fished the Strait for two decades from his home in Pinette, 30 km southeast of Charlottetown, is among those itching to get under way. "It's great out there," he says, still contemplating the uncharacteristically serene waters. "There's really no better life. You are outdoors, you are your own boss, there's a sense of adventure. It's quiet and there's time to think."

These days, one of the things on McGeoghegan's mind is the fixed link, a project he spent more than eight years fighting against as an outspoken member of Friends of the Island. In part, he was out to protect his livelihood. McGeoghegan and other fishermen worry that ice will pile against the piers rather than floating away, keeping the water colder longer and shortening the lobsters' breeding season. The potential for disrupting one of the world's most lucrative lobster fisheries just did not make any sense to him. "Why kill the golden goose?" he says. But even if he could be convinced that the bridge posed no threat - and he remains unpersuaded - McGeoghegan would not give his blessing to the project. "God separated us as an island," he says. "If he had wanted to hook us up, he would have done it at the time."

Like many Islanders, the 46-year-old McGeoghegan is anxious to protect a way of life that he has come to cherish. After being raised on the Island, he spent several years working on construction jobs in Boston - until the fast pace of city life made him decide it was time to come home. The father of seven children, ages 8 through 24, McGeoghegan says the Island is "a great place to raise a family. They can horseback ride, learn trades. A kid can really be a kid here." It is also safe, he adds, because "people can spot a stranger 10 miles away." But with the bridge, he fears, things will change: Americans will buy up property; industry titans like the Irvings and McCains will squeeze out independent farmers and businessmen; more kitschy amenities will be erected to appease the new influx of tourists. "It's going to change the whole social structure of the Island," he says.

A half-hour's drive north of Charlottetown, the undulating farmland and oceanfront vistas abruptly give way to a series of miniature golf courses, mock Tudor castles and a Ripley's Believe It Or Not museum. This is the Cavendish strip, a rapidly developing area and one that makes many traditional Islanders visibly wince because of its Coney Island esthetics. It is also the focal point for the ubiquitous Anne of Green Gables, the redheaded and orphaned fictional heroine created by turn-of-the-century author Lucy Maud Montgomery. Anne is Prince Edward Island's unofficial representative: her cherubic image graces countless promotional materials and a play in her honor is about to mark its 32nd consecutive year at the Charlottetown Festival.

Cavendish is the heart of what is known as "Anne's Land," where more than 200,000 visitors - a fifth of them Anne-mad Japanese tourists - make a pilgrimage each summer to see Montgomery's original home and partake of ice-cream socials, barn dances and fish feasts staged on their behalf. On this blustery May afternoon, though, Anne's Land is a ghost town: the fast-food restaurants and amusement parks are still closed for the season and the windows of many of the area motels are shrouded in white sheets. At the Ingleside Lodge, owner Sharron Kirkpatrick, 52, and her daughter Sherilyn, are inspecting the toll winter has taken on their 30 cabins. And as workmen reconnect the water lines, the Kirkpatricks take a few moments to share their very different views on what the future holds for the Island once the Confederation Bridge opens.

Sharron, who has operated the lodge for 17 years, is looking forward to the end of long ferry waits during the peak summer months, which resulted in many of her guests arriving with cranky kids in tow - or cancelling at the last minute because they could not make the crossing. She is hopeful that the bridge will help her make ends meet by bringing in more customers in the "shoulder months" of June and September. Still, Sharron remains skeptical of the hype about a potential tourism boom. "I look at all the anticipation, with people adding rooms, opening new restaurants," she says. "If things don't work out, there could be a lot of people with some heavy-duty mortgages."

For Sharron's 29-year-old daughter, the bridge itself is a dubious venture. A part-time organic farmer, Sherilyn worries about the impact of the bridge on a province that she feels has escaped the worst effects of industrialization. "It comes down to a difference between a need and a want," she says. "Maybe we just put too much stock in grandiose megaprojects."

The rain and a bitter east wind whip against the window of Jim Larkin's wharf-side office in Charlottetown. Larkin, who runs both a seafood export business and a popular restaurant, has been at work since the early hours trying to get his lobster pound in shape to receive the first catch of the season, due later in the day. Lingering ice in the Strait has delayed the opening of the fishery by a week, costing Larkin some precious business. "This ice is a pain in the neck," he says. But the complaint is leavened with a hearty laugh. "That's how life goes in this business," he explains. "You keep on trucking, and hope it works out."

At the height of the fixed-link debate, Larkin served for five years as president of Islanders for a Better Tomorrow. Like many other Charlottetown businessmen, he sees the bridge as a logical, long-overdue transportation link. It will mean, he says, shorter turnaround times to get product to market, more tourists, the creation of some much-needed jobs. During the plebiscite campaign of 1987-1988, Larkin could be heard making those same arguments at standing-room-only meetings in schools and community halls across the province. He remembers well the intensity of those sessions, and that people were not always able to put their feelings aside at the end of the day. "Some friendships," he says, "were severed because of this."

While some of the concerns raised by critics of the bridge struck him as quite legitimate, others bordered on the ludicrous. There was, for example, the fear that the bridge would bring a criminal element to the Island. "One of the best lines I heard was when a guy stood up at one meeting and said, 'Look, there aren't people lurking in the bushes in New Brunswick waiting to come over to rape and pillage.' " On the other hand, Larkin was impressed by the heartfelt arguments of many bridge supporters. "Islanders feel very passionate about their province," he says. "A lot of people said that if the bridge improved the economy it would be a chance for their friends to come back and work."

These days, Larkin believes the passions have cooled and an increasing majority of Islanders share his view that the fixed link is simply a more convenient way to move people and products. "You know, when you look at it from the ferry, it's concrete, piers, spans," he says. "It's just a bridge - and that's how everyone will treat it."

Well, not everyone. As she sits in the book-lined living-room of her farmhouse near Northumberland Strait, about a 15-minute drive east of the Borden ferry landing, Betty Howatt can still muster the passion that she became famous for during a decade-long battle against the Confederation Bridge. A founding chairman of Friends of the Island, Howatt was born and raised in Charlottetown and worked as a teacher before marrying her husband, Everett, in 1952. Together, they run the 75-acre fruit farm that has been in Everett's family since 1783. This farmhouse, she notes, was the birthplace of Cornelius Howatt - Everett's great-great uncle and one of only two members of the Prince Edward Island legislature to vote against joining Canada in 1873. Sometimes, she thinks, it is his rebellious spirit that has inspired her to stand up against the fixed link.

In fact, Howatt first came to local prominence in 1973, the Island's centennial year, when she helped form a group called The Brothers and Sisters of Cornelius Howatt. Its members sought to counter what they saw as the ill-conceived boosterism of the day - a philosophy Howatt describes as "selling the province at any price" and one that she says helps explain the push for the fixed link. Unfurling a tourism poster showing a serene Anne of Green Gables model sitting in a sunlit apple tree - a picture that was taken in one of Howatt's orchards - she asserts that there is a basic contradiction between selling the province as a pastoral retreat and promoting the sort of development that will destroy that way of life. "It's like running a bordello at the same time that they're trying to operate a daily Bible school," she says.

For all of that, Howatt realizes that her fight is over, that the bridge is a reality she must learn to live with. But when the thousands gather for the weekend Bridgefest celebrations, do not expect to see Howatt among them. Instead, she'll be in her backyard, just around the bend - and out of view of the festival site. "I'll probably sit out there and look at the Strait," she says, "and thank God that I don't have to look at that bridge."

Maclean's June 2, 1997