Protesters crowd into government office building in bid to save N.S. ferry

The Canadian Press ~ The News
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HALIFAX - Hundreds of chanting protesters occupied a Nova Scotia government office building Thursday, demanding the province put up money to save a high-speed ferry that links the region to the United States.
Waving placards and calling for Premier Darrell Dexter by his first name, about 250 tourism operators, business owners and ferry employees crammed into two floors of the building.
It houses Dexter's office and the cabinet meeting rooms, but no one from government came out during the 20 minutes they were inside.
Chanting "Save our ship" and "Darrell, can you hear us?", the group said they want the NDP premier to reconsider his decision not to provide subsidies to the CAT high-speed ferry service that runs between Nova Scotia and Maine.
"We want him to re-look at his decision," said Phil Mooney, the mayor of Yarmouth where the ferry docks.
"We're at the second highest unemployment rate in Nova Scotia and you put another 600 jobs on that ... it's going to be devastating to us."
The group wants a commitment from the NDP government that efforts will be made to secure a ferry link with New England in 2011 and beyond.
Bay Ferries Ltd. announced in early December that it was dropping the service because it could not afford to operate without government help.
The province insists it can no longer afford to provide subsidies.
But Dexter, who is out of the country, has said he's open to providing short-term cash to salvage the ferry service, but he wants to see a study on transport needs before committing to anything.
He's awaiting the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency study on transport needs and will consider temporary assistance if it recommends that.
Dexter said his government remains opposed to providing $6 million in provincial cash to keep the boat running and the government - which faces a $525-million deficit this year - can't provide an ongoing subsidy.
Cancelling the service could cost provincial taxpayers millions of dollars if the vessel is not sold before September.
Bay Ferries' agreement with the former Tory government included $3 million in transition payments to help the company meet its debts and maintain the high-speed vessel if the service was shut down.
Six monthly payouts of $500,000 are due to begin April 1.
Mooney says the closure would drain millions out of the provincial economy, possibly closing the main hotel and convention centre and eliminating hundreds of tourism jobs.
Ron LeBlanc, 55, and his wife have worked on the CAT for years and fear they will have to move if they lose their jobs in the small seaside community.
"No ship, what are we going to do?" said LeBlanc, the ship's chief steward. "It's felt everywhere. It's a tragedy."

Organizations: CAT, Bay Ferries Ltd., Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency Tory

Geographic location: Nova Scotia, HALIFAX, United States Maine Yarmouth New England

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