Listen to Honourable Lawrence MacAulay

Bold = Honourable Lawrence MacAulay

Italics = sound effects

Regular = Fiona Steele (narrator/storyteller)

The history of the ferry (and Lawrence MacAulay’s involvement)

I remember one time Vic Toews, who was the Harper's Minister of Justice at the time, come over and said, 'Lawrence near time for you to bring up that ferry issue again.' Which is a, he was doing it as a joke but the fact is, it was on their mind.

Sounds of waves crashing

Since 1988, Lawrence MacAulay’s been the Member of Parliament for the Cardigan riding. He won his 10th consecutive election in 2019. That’s 33 years. And in political life, that’s a really long time. If there’s one thing he’s cared about in all that time, it’s the ferry at Wood Islands. That ferry transports all sorts of products and people between PEI and Caribou, Nova Scotia. To Lawrence, the ferry is a pretty big deal for Islanders, visitors, and the people who work on it. In fact, he’s kind of known for his fight to keep the ferry running.

Lawrence even once said to former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, “Just remember one word – ferry. No ferry, no me. No ferry, no me.”

Lawrence laughs

That's absolutely correct. And I…yes. No ferry, no me is absolutely true and I..yes. No matter what the political stripe is in Ottawa, you know when you form government, it's the responsibility of the members who represent different ridings to make sure the vital issues of the area are protected.

Sounds of waves crashing. A voice comes over a loudspeaker. Ferry announcement: “Attention, please. The vessel will be arriving shortly.”  

Welcome to Island Digital Voices. Today we’re looking at the history of the Wood Islands ferry, and where Lawrence fits into that story.

Even before he got into politics, the ferry played a key role in Lawrence’s life. As a potato seed farmer from the 1960s to the mid-90s, Lawrence relied on the ferry.

The first thing I can tell you about the ferry was many years ago, when we were digging potatoes with an elevator digger. Long time ago, we broke a part, and we could not get it on Prince Edward Island. Back then, I was able to arrange it from, to get something – I think it was from Halifax or somewhere in that area – an International dealer delivered the part to the ferry. I went down when the ferry come into Wood Islands, I picked it up. It was a windy, wet, awful night. That was my first remembrance, and my heavens, it looked awful to me. But I tell you, we got the part and we dug potatoes the next day.

Lawrence would’ve been in his 20s when that happened. But the story of the ferry began long before Lawrence came along.

It starts in the 1930s, with the Great Depression. When Prime Minister Mackenzie King came into power in 1935, he wanted a good finance minister to help Canada out of the Depression.

Mackenzie King persuaded Larabee to step down…

That would be James Larabee, a politician from Eldon, PEI who was just elected.

…and have Charles Dunning come from Regina, Saskatchewan and run in the byelection here.

When Islander James Larabee stepped down, the riding had no Member of Parliament. So, a byelection was needed. Enter Charles Dunning from Saskatchewan. It sounds weird to have a politician run in a riding, or even a province, they don’t live in, right? But technically, it’s not against the rules and it happens all the time.

So, Charles Dunning ran in that byelection.

He was a financier. In 1935 he won the seat here and became Minister of Finance. Mackenzie King needed him.

Charles Dunning got to work. And one of his finance goals was to bring a ferry to Wood Islands.

Sounds of the ocean and water. Sound of the ferry docking at Wood Islands.

There were some hiccups along the way because many in Nova Scotia thought the ferry terminal should be in Pictou, not Caribou. But funding was approved, and the project was well underway by the time Charles Dunning retired from politics in 1939.

The ferry officially opened in 1941 with one boat: the MV Prince Nova. The captain for its first season running was John Dicks. At 66 years old, he’d already had a long career of commanding boats. However, Captain Dicks was most famous for his time in the 1920s and 1930s, when he and his brother commanded the Nellie J Banks. The Nellie J Banks was arguably the most popular rumrunning boat in Island history. Rumrunning involved transporting illegal alcohol from one place to another.

But that’s a side note.

Sounds of cars driving off the ferry and onto the ramp at the Wood Islands terminal.  

By 1945, traffic on the ferry had almost doubled. One boat wasn’t enough anymore.

So, in 1946, the SS Charles A Dunning was added.

It was smooth sailing for decades. The ferry had funding. There was always two boats running, and traffic was steady. Boats came and went, some lasting for 5 or 10 years and others – like the Lord Selkirk – lasted decades.

Then, in the early 2000s, the Wood Islands ferry was about to change. And not in a good way.

Sounds of cars driving off fade out.

Lawrence tells a story about the night he went to a community meeting at the Belfast school. The atmosphere was tense because the Wood Islands ferry was going to be reduced to only one boat. For over 50 years, the ferry had always run two boats every season.

I went as I was the Member of Parliament at the time, and I remember walking into the Belfast school gymnasium, full right to the rafters, and I guess I was kind of the guest speaker or whatever. I remember so well, and will never forget, going to the podium…

And this story might go down in history as the moment when Lawrence MacAulay declared his dedication to the ferry.

…and I remember I also indicated that I said, ‘the buck stops with me whether this happens or not.’ And there was a reporter – I wouldn't say who, but who cared a bit about me – said, 'Why would you say that? Because you're putting your neck on the block.' And I said to him, 'if I don't say that, it won't be as easy to get the funding.'

Even though it was a risk, Lawrence put his reputation on the line to keep the ferry running.

I remember when I was going up to speak, a lady showed me – they even had the schedule for the one ferry in place – and I said to the dear lady, I said, ‘in about two minutes that won't be worth the paper it’s written on.’ And thank God for that.

Since then, the ferry’s been running two boats as usual every season. While many give Lawrence the credit, he believes that it’s the responsibility of the MP in Cardigan to make sure the ferry keeps running.

I think it's up to the Member of Parliament, who represents this riding in particular, to make sure that the funding is available for that ferry service. Because it's a government decision whether it's there or not.

And Lawrence will tell you, government works for the people. And people care about the ferry.

I would like to emphasize that no matter who – I happen to be the Member of Parliament at the moment – but whoever the Member of Parliament is in in Cardigan: never forget, whoever represents this riding. You have to watch that.

A voice comes over a loudspeaker. Ferry announcement: “Thank you for sailing Northumberland ferries.”