CANSO – Standing at the visitor centre for the Canso Islands and Grassy Island Fort National Historic Site is the closest most people will get to Grassy Island, located approximately one kilometre offshore from Canso, this summer. Although the Parks Canada website for the historic site suggests you call ahead, “to ensure ferrying services are available,” it fails to disclose that no ferry has been available so far this season, even though a tender was awarded for the provision of that service.
In January of 2022, this newspaper reported that this national historic site was showing signs of neglect under Parks Canada management.
During the 2021 visitor season, the visitor centre video in Canso was out of order, the interpretative panels on Grassy Island had been removed due to the need of replacement and sites of archaeological significance on the island were overgrown and indistinguishable from the general landscape.
This year, the video is running and new interpretative panels have been mounted on the island, but anyone hoping to see them will have to do so under their steam. And, if you do happen out to the island, as some locals with boats have done, only the trails and not the archeological sites have been cleared of vegetation.
For approximately three decades, a repurposed fishing vessel, the Special K, ferried tourists to the island over the summer months. But, according to Bill MacMillian, president of the Canso Historical Society – the local organization contracted to maintain the site by Parks Canada – that boat needed extensive repairs, which led to the tender for ferry service over the past two years.
MacMillian said he believes the tender for the ferry service this year was awarded to a company in Sydney but, as of yet, no service has been provided and more than half of the site’s season – which runs from July 1 to Sept. 4 – is over.
“I think people need to understand it’s difficult for Parks Canada, they’re operating under so many restrictions. And, of course, we have the need and the desire to have that [transportation] available over to the island…it’s a key element of that visit,” said MacMillian.
He added, “Parks Canada, they had high hopes that we were going to have an operator to ferry people back and forth this summer on a daily basis. And that hasn’t quite worked out yet. We’re hoping it still will.”
Rob Ferguson, a retired Parks Canada archaeologist, spent part of his career excavating sites on Grassy Island in the late 1970s and early 1990s. He told The Journal this week that the potential of the site, “is huge in terms of the story it tells of Nova Scotia. It was one of the main economic centers for Europeans in Canada from the 17th century right through to the mid-18th century… people don’t recognize how significant that fishery was, more than the fur trade initially.
“And, archaeologically,” Ferguson said, “we have barely touched anything of the French period there and that goes back into the 16th century.”
Tourists were especially excited to visit the site when excavations were in progress but, Ferguson said, the natural history walk alone was also a draw for visitors. “The location is spectacular.”
Ferguson told The Journal he understands that the provision of boat service to the island may be difficult due to insurance and maintenance costs and, unfortunately, “nobody wants to put the money into these things anymore. But that was the best thing when they had those boat rides.”
Cape Breton-Canso MP Mike Kelloway sent the following comment to The Journal regarding the lack of ferry service to Grassy Island on Aug. 7: “The Grassy Island Historic Site is a tourism driver for Canso and communities across Guysborough County. It is absolutely imperative that we find a way to get folks to and from the Island. As soon as I was made aware of this challenge at Grassy Island, I reached out to Minister [Steven] Guilbeault’s office, Minister responsible for Parks Canada, and the department to ensure action to rectify this situation. I expect that Parks [Canada] can find a way to work with this individual [company awarded the tender] so the service can get back up and running as soon as possible.”