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Across ‘the Tickle’

To and fro: Coastal commuting between Bell Island and mainland Newfoundland

Part of a special feature showcasing Memorial's leadership and expertise in cold ocean and Arctic science, technology and society (COASTS).


By Danielle Devereaux

Commuting conjures images of crowded buses and multi-lane highways, but what happens when your daily commute includes ocean travel?

That’s what Dr. Sharon Roseman, an anthropologist and recently appointed associate dean (research and graduate programs) in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, and Diane Royal, a master’s student, are examining in their study of people’s current and past experiences of using ferries to commute to work between Bell Island and mainland Newfoundland.

‘Down to the boat’

The distance between Bell Island and Portugal Cove is five kilometres. While living on Bell Island and experiencing the ferry commute first-hand, including some long rush hour lineups, Dr. Roseman and Ms. Royal discovered those five kilometres contain a lot of activity.

“Many of the Bell Islanders we spoke to talked about the important networks they’d formed with other commuters,” Dr. Roseman said.

“They often assist one another with the logistics of the ferry commute — giving each other rides “down to the boat” or calling with updated scheduling information.”

Diane Royal
Photo: George Gmelch

Ms. Royal says these relationships are further solidified by the social aspects of riding on the ferry itself. Many commuters sit with other passengers across tables in the ferry lounges and chat or play cards, she says.

“A sub-sample of those we interviewed had travelled daily to work back and forth across the Tickle for 20, 30, even 40 or more years. They spoke fondly of the commuting friendships they’d formed.”

To and fro

This ferrying to and fro is an excellent fit for the larger research project within which Dr. Roseman and Ms. Royal’s work is situated.

The On the Move Partnership is headquartered at Memorial University as a project of the SafetyNet Centre for Occupational Health and Safety Research.

A national research initiative with international links, the project is investigating workers’ extended travel and related absences from home for, and as part of, their employment.

Led by sociologist and SafetyNet co-director Dr. Barb Neis, On the Move has multiple research projects based in Newfoundland and Labrador and across the country, and is supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, the Newfoundland and Labrador Research and Development Corporation, the Canada Foundation for Innovation, Memorial University and numerous other universities and partners.

In the field

Ms. Royal travelled from her home in California to join On the Move and Memorial’s anthropology master’s program. She appreciates the opportunity to collaborate with her supervisor — an experience she says enriched her graduate studies and fieldwork “greatly.”

“Because our research required us to live on Bell Island, we shared a house,” Ms. Royal said. “After conducting an interview, we would often sit at our kitchen table, review notes and discuss techniques. Sharon would provide me with feedback and tips, but I was also simultaneously able to experience first-hand her approach. As this was being modelled for me in the field, and later discussed, my fieldwork methods became more honed.”

CBC Radio documentary

Since beginning their research in 2014, the pair’s Bell Island study has caught the eye, and ear, of CBC Ideas host Paul Kennedy, a media partner of On the Move, and is the focus of the radio documentary Crossing the Tickle.

“We hope that our research will contribute to the kind of improvements that are key for achieving mobility justice for those who rely on ferry transportation in N.L.” — Dr. Sharon Roseman

In many parts of the world – Dartmouth-Halifax, New York City, San Francisco, and London, U.K. – commuting via ferry has been increasing in scale and visibility, and express and high-speed boat travel are being integrated with other forms of public transit, such as buses, subways and trains. A new ferry, MV Legionnaire, has recently been added to the Bell Island service.

Dr. Roseman notes that in the interdisciplinary field of mobility studies, aquamobility is discussed alongside automobility, velomobility (for cycling) and aeromobility.

“We hope that our research will contribute to the kind of improvements that are key for achieving mobility justice for those who rely on ferry transportation in Newfoundland and Labrador, and to an appreciation of how the province’s intra-provincial ferries fit into this broader context,” Dr. Roseman said.

“As elsewhere in the world, travelling by water is certainly as much a part of our future as is our rich coastal history.”


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