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Pelee Island Ferry Strike

Friday, June 16, 2000 at 9:08 AM

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Pelee Island, Canada in the western basin of Lake Erie is considered by many to be a natural paradise. Still largely undeveloped, the island - with its astounding wildlife, wine-making heritage, and close-knit community - is a growing tourist destination for Americans weary of miniature golf, McDonald's, and Mickey Mouse. This year had promised to be especially prosperous for Pelee's 275 year-round residents. But a recently-ended ferry strike nearly cost the island its livelihood. 90.3's Karen Schaefer has this report.

Karen Schaefer- For many summer tourists, Pelee has just about everything: pristine beaches, two nature preserves, friendly inhabitants, and wines made from grapes grown on the island. Its 10,000 acres give the island’s 50,000 annual visitors plenty of room to enjoy peace and tranquillity in relative privacy.

But for the 275 people who make the island their home, Pelee has another face. This is an island with no ferry in winter, no high school, no doctor, and no bank. For two years, there wasn’t even a grocery store. Pelee’s ferry is operated by Ontario Northland, under contract to the Canadian government. And for five and half weeks this spring, a strike between dock workers and the company left the islanders with no ferry service at all.

Dave Hodare- There two different entities there battling over wages - a three percent increase - and they took the whole island hostage.

KS- Dave Hodare is the owner of Scudder’s Marina. He says Americans continued to bring their private boats to Pelee, but most Canadians didn’t cross picket lines.

DH- We had 40 people who held us at bay for almost six weeks. Our island conference was canceled, the amount of revenue we lost with that is incredible. And now it’s over and everybody says it’s back to normal. Well, it’s not back to normal.

KS- Apart from private craft, during the strike the only way on or off the island was by plane. But a nine-passenger airplane doesn’t carry much cargo. Kim Garno, the island’s grocer, says she coped with shortages of fresh produce, milk and other essentials.

Kim Garno- Our wholesalers were used to coming in our truck, which has a freezer and a cooler and stuff like that, so we had produce that sat in like 89-degree weather for a day. Fish tugs were helping us out. It was just a lot of work, I mean, just to get stuff over and survive - you have to live through it to understand.

KS- But while the strike affected some essential services, the real damage was to the island’s primary industry. Over the last decade, tourism has become Pelee’s mainstay, accounting for about two-thirds of the island’s economy. Amanda Derrig runs Pelee’s reservation system.

Amanda Derrig- My phone started ringing in February, which was great, and then the strike hit us just at peak time. We had two whole holidays that we missed, Canadian and American alike, that to go walk down the strip here - it was dead.

KS- At the Pelee Island Winery, manager Michelle Krestel says it will take time for the visitors to return.

Michelle Krestel- We lost a lot of business. Our groups, the whole month of May and most of June canceled, because there wasn’t any way they could get here. So I have, out of the whole thirty tours booked for June, I have four.

KS- It’s estimated that lost revenues could top three million dollars. Al McIninch, Pelee’s reeve, says islanders want the government to make sure it can never happen again.

Al McIninch- It is our highway, it’s our only link and it’s essential one way or another. It doesn’t matter how you look at it, the ferry is an essential service - it has to be run locally with our needs in mind.

KS- While it may be this winter before restaurant and bed and breakfast owners know whether they can sustain the year’s losses, there are signs that the islanders are ready to move on. A week after the strike was finally settled, CBC radio aired a long-delayed live broadcast from the island, inviting residents to talk about what makes their way of life unique. For islanders, it was welcome publicity.

But long after the effects of the strike are forgotten, what islanders say they will remember is the way the community pulled together. At one point residents and business owners together raised $20,000 to offer dock workers to break the strike. While the offer was refused, bed and breakfast owner Maeve Olmstead-Johnston says the islanders’ support for the strikers - and their resilience under adverse conditions - won the admiration of Canadians and Americans alike.

Maeve Olmstead-Johnston- They say that the dollar speaks - it didn’t speak. It wasn’t accepted by Northland or the union, but it spoke to many, many other people, because they couldn’t imagine us doing that. And they couldn’t imagine these businesses that were suffering - and we were all suffering - couldn’t imagine that we would stand behind the workers. I think that’s something that is an accomplishment in today’s world.

KS- Islanders hope that a proposed hovercraft or other private ferry service might ease transportation concerns in the future. But right now, the sound of the ferry whistle is enough to make most islanders smile. On Pelee Island, Karen Schaefer, 90.3 WCPN, 90.3 FM.

Additional Information

* Pelee Island
* Pelee Island Winery
* Ontario Wineries
* Ontario Northland (ferry)

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