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General News · 25th April 2014
Ralph Nursall
The letter printed here was sent to Mike Corrigan, Chair & CEO of BC Ferries, April 21, 2014. He and I had a conversation, reported on following this copy of the letter. JRN

Dear Mr Corrigan,

This is a letter that I began some days ago which I entitled: LETTER TO THE FERRYMAN. I have let it gestate. I have read it over and over. I have broken it into smaller units – and put it all together again. I have 'polished' it, shifted sections, cut out a few bits that seemed to be a little too tonic, and thought about it, a lot! For someone living on an island in the Salish Sea, this is a deadly serious matter. It deals with ferries, with making a living in one's home province, which one hopes to be able to respect, and where one hopes to be comfortable and respected in turn. It is the hopes in the last sentence which are disappearing! Sigh – so please read on.


What sort of profit is a highway expected to produce? By itself, not much! By itself it is a huge expense to build and to maintain. By itself it is a notably destructive intrusion into the environment. But, by its very presence it brings distant areas and populations into contact with each other. In so doing, the highway becomes a magnificent multiplier of ideas, production, exchange, in whatever form these might be present or imagined! So, a highway is worth maintaining and improving because with every improvement it works better, its virtues are multiplied! Without purposeful destinations, now or later, it is improvident to build and maintain highways.

A ferry system is exactly the same as a highway system in function, only wetter. A ferry is an improvement in the wet part of a highway system!

A ferry system provides connection among productive/consumptive areas, all of which both make and use things – and are interdependent to some measurable degree, independent of size differences. Both ends of a ferry route benefit, variously, to the presence of the ferry. It is difficult to imagine anything more self-evident than that. The ferry mobilizes the energies, values and products of the communities attached to it! It is simply ignorant to pretend that a ferry system should, by itself generate profit, and demonstrably stupid to force that idea on people who choose to populate islands and make them productive. A ferry system is a service to productive areas; it is part of the expense of production! That should not be hard to understand.

I have said above that “A ferry system is exactly the same as a highway system in function”, by which I mean that both are designed for the transport of people and goods. A ferry system is very different in construction and maintenance from a highway on land. A ferry system should be less environmentally harmful than a great highway, as long as the ferry does not flush out its mechanical and human wastes in the middle of the sea! A highway invalidates large tracts of land for biological production or support; the sea is largely unmarked by the passage of vessels – except when it is treated as an endless receptacle, an irrational process from which our ferries could easily detach themselves. As a regular practice it is not difficult to bring waste to shore for disposition as garbage: repair, reuse, burn, bury, reduce to elemental form for reuse.

When the cost of using a ferry exceeds the ability or willingness of presumptive ridership to pay, then the returns to the ferry system decline rapidly. The response from BC Ferries has been to put into play all the non-functional corrections that blinkered operators can bring to mind: fares rise (travellers decline); schedules are reduced (travellers reduce their use of ferries), and so on. Every reduction in the functionality of ferries is followed by reduction in the use of ferries. It is a kind of effect that the ferry company seems unable to comprehend, though it is not a difficult concept

We are concerned with travel within our own country, within our own province. In what dimension does one find benefit in restricting travel in our own land? Why does the BC government support the ferry company in grubbing fruitlessly for profit? It is abundantly clear that all this snuffling for truffles is only arousing the dislike of the increasingly infrequent users of the ferries. What sort of idiot would try to turn a service industry into a cash cow, when it is so glisteningly clear that the service is structurally inherent in the foundation and success of the endless number of operations and industries that it supports. Ferries are a support service; they are one of the costs of a successful economy! The operation of a ferry service should be directed to maximizing the number of loads carried, not towards extracting so much from each load that its work and income are reduced. The returns from a successful economy will be much more than enough to pay for a useful support service!

It is pitiable to see the BC Ferry Service become the focus of ridicule and contempt,certainly at the “minor route” level, that is where people live, work and play at the mercy of ferries. We see the numbers of houses for sale soaring, the number selling in decline. People are disappearing from islands, vacationers are fewer, islanders travel far less frequently, or, if they travel, stay away longer. Everything seems to be short-changed or over-priced as the ferry company and its vice-presidents happily do whatever it is they do.

I suppose that it is all right for the big boats (Tsawwassen- Swartz Bay, Nanaimo-Horseshoe Bay, Duke Point-Tsawwassen) to carry gambling parlours, assorted restaurants and extra-cost semi-private areas for the shy, to give tourists a whiff of the glamorous life of aquatic travel, while hoping that locals and transportation outfits who travel of necessity while sparking island economies feel good about supporting vice-presidents and foreign shipyards.

If that be so, let’s say (I dream!) that the “minor” routes, those that are the lifeline to island and isolated mainland communities, be separated from the program for giant boats that steam majestically (and emptily) between mainland and major harbours. Let the “minor” route ferries do their job effectively, i.e. carry residents back and forth between homes and services, and make sure that services and products get to and from islands in something approaching affordable terms. Let me restate the obvious: economies and welfare flourish when people can meet, mingle, treat and trade easily and often. Otherwise, why start a ferry system?

Well, you say, it’s a way to make money!! Absolutely! but money will not come primarily from the boats! It will come from what people can accomplish when they are allowed to get to work places. Accomplishment and profit to the province generally will be improved when there is some sense of what a ferry provides, with schedules that accommodate needs, and with the real possibility of productive development at both ends of the passage. Within a well-formed society, transportation takes many shapes. Within a society that understands what is going on, effective transportation need not itself be a source of cash if it be allowed to do its work in the best interests of its passengers. It need not be free, but its tariffs should not inhibit its use by travellers and shippers – and this is precisely what BC Ferries is trying today, despite the clear disruption of island life and steady loss of travellers. A ferry system that functions with its passengers and freight in mind, a system that understands its purpose, will be a wellspring of profit for every place associated with it.

Surely a ferry system is one of the quiet, respected, publicly treasured and operated functional icons of any society with a marine investment. It is a wet highway, a bit too long for a bridge. What is so difficult to understand in that?

Ferries should not inhibit local travellers and carriers of goods and services. Such an idea should not be beyond the understanding of governments and ferry operators. Government is expected to provide a functional environment for those in its care. Getting about the province might be part of that! Eh??

Come to my island sometime!

J. R. Nursall


I received a telephone call from BC Ferries Chairman Corrigan, Wednesday morning, April 23, a bit after 8:00 a.m. That was the day after he received my note. We had a not unpleasant, sort of exploratory, inconsequential chat. Corrigan said that the letter “was well-written” (it had better have been; I was a university prof for 35 years, writing and reading and marking numberless reports, theses, papers and guff!). He also dropped a few bundles of figures purporting to show how well he was running the semi-private organization, according to instructions from the province. My contributions to the conversation were pretty general and featureless. It was not a place for debate; it was sort of a cautious estimation of each other. I hope we may speak again, maybe even meet and face-to-face our expectations. Since he is earning about six times the biggest salary I ever received at the university, I guess he is more important than than I am, especially since he runs the company that I am dependent on when I want to (that is “have to” under the current tariff) go to town! I’m only a customer while he is the province’s backstop, with mask, chest protector and other defensive devices.

Somebody governmental, somewhere, sometime, somehow, will recognize that the absolute best thing for the well-being of British Columbia will be a ferry system that provides reasonable and affordable connection for that significant proportion of the population that is coastal with the part that is huddled in river valleys on the mainland. People do travel in both directions!