The Island Aurora, a new hybrid-electric vessel built in Romania joined the BC Ferries fleet amid controversy in June. (BC Ferries)

The Island Aurora, a new hybrid-electric vessel built in Romania joined the BC Ferries fleet amid controversy in June. (BC Ferries)

UPDATE: Canadian Ferry Association cautions against politicizing BC Ferry operations

Reasonable safety, not politicized safety way to go, Canadian Ferry Association says

The Canadian Ferry Association has joined the discussion about crew size on the new BC Ferries in the region’s waters, saying safety decisions and business operations should not be politicized.

Two new boats joined BC Ferries’ fleet in late June, with slick paint jobs, hybrid engines, automated systems, and one to two fewer crew that the 50-year-old boats they replaced. They sail between Texada Island and Powell River on the mainland, and from Port McNeill on northern Vancouver Island to Alert Bay and Sointula. Each of these remote communities relies heavily on ferry service.

Public reaction to the reduced crew sizes was immediate, raising questions of safety and jobs.

The BC Ferry & Marine Workers Union filed a request for judicial review of Transport Canada’s safe manning certificates, arguing the crew of five are unable to complete the emergency drills in the allotted time. The Texada Island Chamber of Commerce wrote a lengthy letter raising similar concerns of safety, as well as the social and economic impact the loss of jobs would have on the island community.

Taking up these issues, North Island-Powell River MP Rachel Blaney wrote a letter to the federal Minister of Transportation requesting that he review his department’s decision to approve five-person crews.

That’s when Canadian Ferry Association’s CEO Serge Buy stepped in, with his main concern being that decisions made by experts should not be politicized. He wrote a letter to Blaney to this effect. It should be noted here that Buy is himself a political lobbyist.

If there are legitimate questions about safety, they would be better addressed had the MP reached out to BC Ferries and the union directly, saying, ‘This is what I’m hearing, I want to get some information,’ Buy told the Gazette. Putting political pressure on a decision made by experts is disrespectful, he added.

“As Canadian Ferry Association, I would never be pushing for lower safety standards. I just want reasonable safety, not politicized safety.”

READ MORE: MP asks Minister of Transport for review of safe crew levels on new ferries

READ MORE: Concerns raised about crew numbers for new BC Ferries

Serge Buy, CEO of the Canadian Ferry Association is a political lobbyist. The ferry association is a registered as a lobby organization, with a stated mission of liaising with government on behalf of the industry. Buy runs Flagship Solutions, the consulting company that lobbies on behalf of the Canadian Ferry Association.

Buy pointed to BC Ferries’ safety record, saying aside from the Queen of the North incident more than 10 years ago, BC Ferries has a world-class safety record.

“That’s a testament to their focus on safety, so let’s give them a chance to answer these questions.”

BC Ferries already has far higher crew levels than ferries in European countries with strong safety records, he said.

As for the jobs, Buy said, “Ferries are not there to create employment in the local communities – they are there to deliver people and goods.”

In a detailed letter to BC Ferries and several politicians, the Texada Island Chamber of Commerce complained that the loss of jobs, explained as “‘operational efficiencies on an innovative vessel” looks like the loss of two family-supporting salaries for the island.

“We need those families to keep the number of kids in our on-island school. We need people with healthy salaries to keep spending money in our local economy. We need the young working people to support their aging relatives to stay at home for as long as possible, since we don’t have a seniors’ residence on the island,” wrote chamber president Cindy Babyn.

But Buy said, “I get that ferries are a way of life in some places in B.C., just like we love to hate the Toronto Transit Commission, but maintaining artificial crewing levels because of political pressure is not the way to run a business.”

UPDATE: Blaney was in touch with both the union before writing a letter to the Minister of Transportation. The information she received from the union, which included their several hundreds of pages of judicial review filing, is what prompted her to reach out to the minister directly. Her office said “As BC Ferries is provincial we were also in touch with our local MLA’s offices, but the questions Rachel raised in her letter are for the Minister not the ferry corporation or their lobby group in Ottawa.”

The union agreed that European staffing levels are lower, but said that’s possible because their boats are designed to be safely run with less crew.

“[BC Ferries] could have built a ferry for a crew of five, but that’s not what they built,” union president Graeme Johnston said. There is one ferry in Norway that’s similar to the Island Aurora and Island Discovery boats, but it’s more like running the Sea Bus than a BC Ferry through the Discovery Islands and Broughton Archipelago, Johnston said.

The actual safety concern the union has is related to fire-fighting. Buy said the new ferry has automated systems including fire suppression.

“That’s fire sprinklers. When they say automated fire suppression they’re talking about fire sprinklers like you see in schools,” said Dan Kimmerly with the union. The main problem is that there are no fire sprinklers in the passenger lounge.

“That’s where you evacuate from and there are no sprinklers.”

BC Ferries’ crew are prepared with firefighting equipment, much like on land. In the event of a fire, at least two crew members would suit up and fight the fire, but on the Island Aurora and Island Discovery, the crew of five would not allow this to happen, the union claims.

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