This past weekend, the Wolfe Island Ferry faced a number of service delays, disrupting travel plans for passengers on both shores, as crews dealt with high winds and undisclosed mechanical issues. On Saturday morning, Nov. 12, 2022, “high winds and mechanical issues” parked the Wolfe Islander III from 9 a.m. until 10 a.m., at which time the boat was able to return to off-schedule operations.
“The shift Captain is responsible for the operation of the vessel and determines if it is safe to operate the ferry. Due to safety concerns regarding wind speed and direction, and to avoid any unnecessary risk for passengers, the Captain made the decision to hold the ferry on Saturday,” said a representative from the Ministry of Transportation of Ontario, in a statement issued to Kingstonist.
“Once wind conditions improved and it was deemed safe to operate again, the ferry went back into service. The mechanical issue experienced over the weekend has been resolved.”
Saturday’s service delays came after a major disruption was narrowly avoided on Friday evening, when the ministry almost had to cancel service overnight due to “crew shortages.” Early Friday evening, the Wolfe Islander III’s official Twitter account issued a tweet indicating that service would be cancelled from 9 p.m. Friday evening until 7 a.m. on Saturday. But by 7:42 p.m. on Friday, officials were able to find replacement crew members to operate the boat, allowing service to continue uninterrupted through the night.
While Friday’s cancellations were avoided at the last minute, the situation is all too familiar for residents who rely on the ferry to get to and from the Island, as delays and interruptions have become a regular occurrence.
This past June, service aboard the Wolfe Island Ferry was abruptly cancelled for over 12 hours, leaving passengers on both shores scrambling to catch the final boats of the day, if not stranded. Officials attributed the cancellation to “an industry-wide shortage of licensed mariners.” A similar incident was narrowly avoided nearly one month later, when MTO officials reversed a plan to once again abruptly cancel service overnight after a “qualified staff member” came forward just in time to operate the vessel. In both instances, officials cited “staffing shortages” as the reason for the disruptions.
When asked what actions the Ministry had taken in recent months to remedy the staffing issues, a representative issued the following statement: “There is an industry-wide shortage of seafarers which has resulted in staffing challenges for all ferry service operations. MTO is actively recruiting for all its marine services positions and has reached out to local mariners.”
The ministry did not indicate what specific actions it has taken to recruit new marine operators for the Wolfe Island Ferry, or how much longer the labour shortages are expected to continue. As per Transport Canada regulations, ferries such as the Wolfe Islander III require a team of fully-licensed crew members, who are evidently in short supply.
Kingston and the Islands MPP Ted Hsu said the issue is a result of private-sector boating companies offering more competitive wages to local marine operators. “The private sector for vessels on the Great Lakes… pays more because they have that flexibility to [do so]… They’re pulling workers away from the ferries,” he said.
Hsu also mentioned that the Ministry has attempted to fill some of the gaps by hiring temporary workers from agencies, which has left many people questioning whether full-time ferry operators are being paid an appropriate salary. “These unionized MTO ferry workers are working beside temporary workers hired from agencies who are being paid way more than they are. This just shows that the going wage is a lot higher than the negotiated union wage.”
Hsu said he has put forward two written questions to Caroline Mulroney, Ontario’s Minister of Transportation. The first asked how much money the Ministry spent on temporary workers between January 1 and September 30, 2022, “broken down by salaries, accommodation, transportation (including but not limited to taxi fares and mileage), meals, and any employment agency fees.” The second question pertains to the total number of hours served on board the Wolfe Island Ferry by temporary workers.
According to procedures outlined on the Legislative Assembly of Ontario’s website, “the government must file a response within 24 sessional days of the tabling of the question. The response is delivered to the Clerk of the House and to the MPP who tabled the question.” According to Hsu, it could be several months before an answer is received. “Unfortunately, we have a long break in December and January, so my questions should be answered in February,” he said.
The MPP added that he has spoken to the Minister of Transportation directly about the issue: “She is very aware of the problem, and she has a province-wide issue with ferries that have provincial workers.”
Hsu also said he has spoken to Ontario Labour Minister Monte McNaughton about potential funding to train new marine personnel. “At the beginning of November, [the province] opened up another pot of money for the training of skilled trades. And so I have asked [Minister McNaughton] to fund a [grant] for training through the Sheltered Waters Marine Training program.”
Hsu said he completed a grant application form in order to secure additional funding for new crew members; that application is currently in the hands of the Labour Minister.