The BC Coastal Ferries Community Engagement began its tour in stormy waters last week, visiting Port Hardy on the first of 20 stops to discuss changes announced last week to the coastal ferry service.
With one route out of Port Hardy cancelled outright and the other slashed by 32 per cent in the latest round of cuts, the representatives from BC Ferries and the Ministry of Transportation came under relentless fire from local government, businesses and residents during a 90-minute question period at the Civic Centre Nov. 20.
Port Hardy Mayor Bev Parnham set the tone with her opening broadside, asking the group, “Why are they here? What is that BC Ferries wants from us? Consultations listen to what people say. Where on earth in the consultation last year did you hear that cutting Route 40 (Port Hardy – Mid Coast – Bella Coola) was a good idea?”
Kevin Richter, Assistant Deputy Minister, MoT, responded that in the last round of consultations, the Ferry Commissioner heard “loud and clear” that there was concern about rising fares, and service reductions were part of the strategy to cut expenses and halt that rise.
These service reductions were roundly criticized as local residents and politicians —including Alert Bay Mayor Michael Berry, Port McNeill Coun. Gaby Wickstrom and NDP transportation critic Claire Trevena — queued up to express dismay at the cuts and dissatisfaction with the lack of consultation.
“To call this a consultation… shame on you for bringing these people out and making them think they could make a change,” Port Hardy Coun. Jessie Hemphill said to applause.
The panel was criticized for the lack of research into the impact these cuts could have on local communities and tourism, accused of “smoke and mirrors” for focussing on changes to the seniors’ discount and a gaming pilot scheme, and dismissed as “whipping boys,” there to take the public’s blows in the Minister’s stead.
A slew of alternative measures to save the $18.9 million that the cuts aim to save were put to the panel as residents questioned why cuts were preferred over measures like lowering costs to boost ridership, cutting free sailings for employees or reducing executive payouts. The recent installation of a dock at Klemtu, at the cost of $20 million, was seen as mismanagement, particularly in light of service reductions to the community.
Impacts on First Nations communities were also raised, residents pointing out that the ferry was the only public method of transport to the traditional territories of local band members.
Several speakers reiterated that the coastal ferry service was “our highway,” and should be funded and managed as such.
Second only to the service reductions, the biggest bone of contention was the engagement itself. The panel was repeatedly asked what was the point of the consultation, coming after the announcement of cuts and seemingly without anything open for debate to North Islanders.
Panellists said tweaks could be made to some schedules, and the proposed changes to seniors’ fares and gaming pilot were up for discussion. This was cold comfort for locals who had come out to protest the cuts and express concern over their impact.
“This is a total waste of time, this gathering,” said Coun. John Tidbury. “This is so the government can say, ‘We consulted with the people and that’s what they want.’ Well it’s not.”