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General News · 29th March 2014
Ralph Nursall

BC Ferries sent some of its staff to Quadra on Friday, 23 March, to discuss changes to its connection to Campbell River and Cortes. They don’t much like doing it, but they have to, to keep vice-presidents on the move and to show the government how busy they are.

Paul Ryan, Chairman of the Campbell River/Quadra/ Cortes Ferry Advisory Committee invited a number of people with interest and past experience with BC Ferries, including me, to join the meeting. The current Cortes members of the FAC were well and vocally represented at the meeing. We assembled at the Heriot Bay Inn at 9:00 a.m.; the meeting went on until the Cortes contingent left on the 1:05 p.m. ferry (for which we got passes)! A healthy contingent of Quadra Islanders showed up to watch proceedings – and to slip in the occasional pointed comment.

Quadra Island was well-represented by its members of the FAC. Paul Ryan chaired the meeting well. Jim Abram and Michael cogently expressed Quadra viewpoints. The requirements of Walcan Seafood Ltd., were well and co-operatively expressed by Cam Pirie, General Manager.

The opinions I express in this commentary represent my thoughts and mine only. They may or may not be shared by other ferry users or by those at the meeting. My background is that I have lived on Cortes full-time since 1988, on property of which I have had shared ownership since 1977. I have been active in island and Regional District affairs. I am quietly happy here, with the Salish Sea providing a glorious front yard!

The meeting at Heriot Bay began with discussion in general of ferry service to Quadra and Cortes; the ferry representative quickly made it apparent that he was there only to discuss modification (reduction) of ferry travel from Campbell River to Quadra and adjustment with Cortes. He had no licence to discussing the rightness or wrongness of changing the current schedule or level of service!

Nevertheless, the meeting persisted in bringing to the fore the matter of ever-increasing fares and decreasing passenger numbers. What is central to residents of the inland passage islands and its isolated shores is recognition that they live in an integral part of British Columbia, which apparently is something not well-established government minds! These islands and shores are positively unique, attractive and productive places.
They provide much of what brings visitors and settlers to BC, summer and winter! The mountain-girt, inter-island complex, with >15% of the provincial population, shimmers as a grand facet of this jewel of a province! Why should we try to hide it from the world, and even from ourselves, by discouraging people from living there, or even visiting it?

In part, it is the way policies work in the left-over theories of the grossly misnamed BC Liberal Party, a weird mixture of Social Credit, Progressive (and non-progressive) Conservatives, Reformers and minor breeds that appear like mushrooms when the climate is right. The story of the Party itself is interesting and full of meaning. The BC Party declined in the ‘50s and merged with the Socreds in the ‘70s. In 1987 the BC Liberal remnants separated themselves from the Liberal Party of Canada, to the relief of the federal party. Revivified by Gordon Wilson in the ‘90s, BC Liberals were joined by most of the non-NDP leftovers of assorted stripe, who then managed to rid themselves of Wilson (a whole other story of giggly interest). Wilson himself, eventually joined the NDP and became a relatively successful Minister of Transportation. It helped that he lived in Powell River and understood what ferries were supposed to do. But I digress. I return to the meeting on Quadra.

The people at the Quadra meeting were vigorously attentive, but one listened with deepening depression and disinterest as the ferry company representatives stoutly resisted talking about anything other than their attempts to maintain a sequential pattern of travel between Campbell River and Quadra while dismembering a regular pattern that has served well for more than 30 years. We know that the pattern is pretty badly strained during the summer, but relieving that strain was not a matter of their concern here.

Sympathy was expressed by locals for the plight of the ferry company people present. The ferry agents were certainly not comfortable in the face of the expressed opinion that fiddling with ferry times was not the solution for the problem. But that was all they would do at the meeting. God knows what they told the people in the office when they got back home! As a result of the stickiness of the ferry people, some of the observers left the meeting then, with at least one clear expression of grave dissatisfaction with the attitude of the company and its shareholder, i.e. the provincial government, whose interest is profit to itself, not service to the maritime coast.

Jim Abram made the point that Islanders were at the meeting under duress. Islanders have expressed their needs and opinions on several occasions jointly and separately. These have been set aside invariably by the provincial government as irrelevant to their greater purpose – which remains hidden.

So we proceeded, willy-nilly, to consideration of schedule changes – 5 minutes here, 10 minutes there – ooops! – maybe 10 minutes here and 5 there. Or, let’s think about this – is it better to consider time here, or maybe more there? So, with tiny chunks of time being jostled this way and that, and less and less interest on the part of potential passengers present, some sort of deformed pattern seemed to emerge – at which point it was determined that we’d better now see how the Cortes ferries can be attached. So a new round of ooops! and aahs! took place. And so it went for a couple of hours. The guy punching the computer kept busy, with his machinations shown on a screen. Four or five island people took part in the discussion with the four ferry representatives. The remainder of the islanders sat back, with varied expressions of dismay or disbelief and the cadre of observers declined from 10 or 12 to 1 or 2. There was constant flow away from the meeting. You will have seen the result posted here in Tideline and The Marketer, clearly marked “DRAFT”. There must be some uncertainty that this draft will ever appear in the ferry schedule; there are bound to be more Minute Managers in the system who can “improve” it. After all, this was just a meeting of users, not operators, and with the plethora of Vice-Presidents in the ferry organization, there are bound to be better ideas floating about somewhere. Even commercial users expressed their dismay at corporate (shareholder) attitude. Fish plant operators are not beyond considering establishment of their own barge service and abandoning the ferry system entirely if it continues to reduce services and raise prices. I do not think that adding gambling facilities will be a persuasive argument for Walcan!

There was a telling statement made at one time; I wish I had noted who spoke: “We have to work within the box we’ve been put into!” It was a telling statement. Somebody with an expense account job has to recognize that schedules and tickets should work to encourage traffic as needed, not for money as wanted! Ferries, as any highway, do not provide cash flow, but traffic flow to sites of commerce, education, entertainment, holiday, law and repair, from all of which profits flow. That is not a difficult concept to entertain. Get people to and from the mines, factories, farms, schools, stores, service centres, camp grounds, resorts, any venue of interest, and profit will accrue! Hinder such travel and the exchange of product and profit will wilt and fail. It is depressing to realize that we have a government that clearly has no sense of what a ferry can accomplish: that a ferry extends the highway system to areas otherwise not easily reached by large numbers of people or by vehicles or machinery of large size. Nor does this BC Liberal government recognize that on islands and isolated shores there are productive people of skill, energy, imagination and the courage to venture out of crowds – but with the need to explore to express their energy, to export the products of their skills, to import things not available where they are, to seek advanced education and medical care (or have it come to them), to take their part in the activities of their province and nation, wherever held!

Then there is the recognition that the timetable activity of the session of March 21, fiddle a bit here, twist there, trim and whittle, is simply a matter of slicing and dicing – the usual consequence of which is loss of blood. That is how the system becomes anemic and loses its way. We can now expect ever more bad sailing days. Wait until summer tourist traffic comes around!

Perhaps that is the plan of the BC Liberals! If ferry traffic problems are bad enough next summer, much of BC will lose its coastal charm, tourists will find other places to enjoy, so maybe the government will not have to spend money on ferries for years to come!

The ferry system is now being run on political fantasies, which ultimately will cost much more than fuel, vessel maintenance and planning for useful expansion.

Is there a solution? There is if one understands what one is doing. I believe that a case can be made that ferry schedules should be made to work for traffic, not for profit. If the ferries are putting people and what they need in the right places, then the productivity of the people will more than cover the costs of moving them. The analysis of that requires a bit more than equating the income from ticket sales to the cost of running the ferry. But I do not wish to get lost in the details of Economics 1. The ferries with which island residents are concerned are not amusement rides! They are for purposeful and time-limited travel. It seems to me that “purpose” and “time” should be within the understanding of government, even one firmly rooted in the Nineteenth Century! It seems to me that “purpose” and “time” should be the main pillars of a ferry timetable. When that is understood, the benefits of a ferry system not devoted to the direct intake of tubsful of money will quickly be evident. There will be growth, profit and contentment on the Coast, with the ferry system, kept up to date, as the quiet, effective servant.