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The Ferry to Nowhere

by Klaus Rohrich

May 21, 2004

Last week The Spirit of Ontario I, the new ferry connecting Rochester NY with Toronto, docked for the first time at its temporary docking facilities near the foot of Cherry St. The key word here is ‘temporary’ as in we haven’t bothered to build a terminal yet. Of course at the other end of the ferry run, in Rochester, the terminal was completed two moths ago.

This is probably one of the best illustrations of the difference between the way Americans approach progress and the way we Canadians do it. While they have already completed the terminal, we haven’t yet begun construction. This isn’t because the ferry was sprung on us as a surprise. The Americans learned about the ferry back in 2000, at the same time that we found out about it. In fact, the planning and negotiations for this new route were carried out jointly between Canadian and American officials.

So why are they ready and we haven’t yet started? Good question. I suspect it has to do with our national pastime, which is dithering, versus the Americans’ national pastime, which is doing.

Of course there is always plenty of time to lay blame. It started with Toronto Mayor David Miller blaming The Toronto Port Authority for not completing the terminal in time for the launch. Not completing? How about starting? Of course the port Authority will find someone else to blame, likely in the federal government, for holding up approvals or financing, or something. But then, that’s the Canadian way.

Saddest of all about this fiasco is that the city of Toronto is spending millions of dollars to encourage tourists to come to the city. Recently Vanity Fair magazine had a large advertising feature urging Americans to visit our world-class metropolis. I suspect what they really meant was "Just send us your money and don’t bother coming", or at least that’s the message I derive from the fact that a vessel capable of bringing nearly 2,400 people to the city of Toronto each day, doesn’t have facilities ready to receive those visitors.

Does Toronto really mean it when they blow millions, encouraging tourists to come here, and then not being ready for them? Of course I understand that the ferry isn’t the only way to get to Toronto, but somehow this fiasco illustrates the way we do things.

In addition, incompetence and dithering apparently have a moral cachet attached, as we never tire of talking about how much better Canadians are, compared to those boorish and pushy Americans. Apparently so does apathy. In February of this year a contest was held among residents of Toronto as well as Rochester, NY in an attempt to come up with an appropriate and interesting name for the ferry. The city of Rochester, with a population that’s only about 10% of Toronto’s, managed to come up with 2000 more entries than Toronto.

Who benefits more from the ferry, Rochester or Toronto? My guess would be Toronto, as the American dollar is worth a lot more than the Canuck buck, meaning that the likelihood of Americans coming here is higher than the likelihood of Canadians going there. While in the initial planning stages, both the Government of Ontario and the Government of Canada staunchly refused to participate financially in this venture. In contrast, the state of New York provided a series of long-term loans to the Canadian American Transportation System, the company who developed the ferry, to bring the project to fruition.

Sometimes our conceit has an element of humour. We refer to ourselves as being world-class, cutting edge, enlightened and tolerant. However, we are getting fairly frayed at the edges, something that most Canadians choose to ignore, much the same way that some titled aristocrats pretend they are not poverty stricken.

To be fair, we have achieved a number of impressive national distinctions. Among these are the world’s tallest freestanding structure and the creation of the Canadarm that’s used by NASA in their space shuttles. We are currently contributing to world literature with outstanding works by authors such as Margaret Atwood and Guy Vanderhaege. Having said that, we also seem to have an opinion of ourselves that exceeds reality by a country mile.

I personally believe that we are no worse or no better than anyone else is, Americans included. I just wish we’d stop talking about how great we Canadians are and start performing to the levels of our imagined greatness.