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Islands leaders optimistic about restored ferry sailings

BC Ferries won’t run an evening walk-on ferry to Sandspit, but local advocates are now hoping for something better.
(Archie Stocker Sr./Haida Gwaii Observer)

BC Ferries won’t run an evening walk-on ferry to Sandspit, but local advocates are now hoping for something better.

The ferry corporation recently reviewed a request to pilot an evening walk-on ferry or water-taxi service between Alliford Bay and Skidegate Landing.

On Sept. 28, the corporation said its review showed the service would lose too much money, partly because it would require major upgrades at Alliford Bay.

But after meeting with B.C.’s new transportation minister, islands community leaders hope the province will do one better by restoring the evening sailings the Kwuna ferry used to have before a series of ferry cuts in 2014.

“I’m actually kind of cheered after talking with Minister Trevena,” said Greg Martin, the mayor of Queen Charlotte and co-chair of the North & Central Coast Ferry Advisory Committee.

“I’m really optimistic that by next April, we’re going to have the cuts reversed on the Kwuna and have evening service back.”

Together with other islands community leaders, Martin spoke late last month with B.C. Transportation Minister Claire Trevena at the Union of BC Municipalities conference.

Trevena spoke about some of the promises the BC NDP made before they were elected in May — reducing ferry fares by 15 per cent on northern routes, and restoring free Monday to Thursday passage for seniors 65 and older.

While Trevena made no promises about restoring sailings for the Kwuna ferry or the Prince Rupert route, her government is reviewing all the BC Ferries route contracts this winter with an eye to undoing negative impacts on communities most affected by poor service.

At an earlier meeting with Minister Trevena and all 13 Ferry Advisory Committees, Martin said complaints from other coastal communities were on the order of, “Oh my gosh, my island was cut from 12 sailings a day down to ten.”

“I was trying to keep a straight face,” Martin said.

“When it comes to the negative impact on a community, Sandspit is in absolutely first place.”

At the UBCM conference, Trevena received a copy of a ferry service survey co-organized by every village on Haida Gwaii.

Of the 669 islanders who filled it out, 98 per cent said the number-one issue is returning ferry service to pre-2014 levels. That would mean a two-shift Kwuna ferry that doesn’t stop at 6:30 p.m., and at least three, year-round weekly sailings between Skidegate Landing and Prince Rupert.

Among the survey comments left by Sandspit residents, several people noted that anyone with an after-hours medical emergency in Sandspit is taken to hospital not by ambulance, but on a stretcher loaded into a Coast Guard boat.

“We feel extremely secluded on Moresby Island,” said one parent whose high school-age children can’t join after-school events or sports teams in Queen Charlotte because there are no sailings after 6:10 p.m.

“It’s like we have a curfew.”

In 2014, the B.C. Liberal government reduced the Kwuna ferry to a single, 12-hour shift rather than two eight-hour shifts. It saved money on a money-losing route, but also led to a 35 per cent drop in annual sailings between Graham and Moresby Islands.

At the same time, the government reduced winter sailings between Skidegate Landing and Prince Rupert from three to two per week, and extended the “winter” period so it now runs from mid-September to mid-June.

Earlier this year, the province agreed to add a third winter sailing on the mainland route every second week, but Martin said he and others now hope the old schedule will be restored in full.

“It is Haida Gwaii’s lifeline,” said a briefing note to Minister Trevena from leaders of every community on the islands.

Islanders who responded to the recent survey said ferries to the mainland are critical for medical and business travel, and several complained that post-2014 backlogs for truck transport and standbys for tourists are strangling islands businesses, especially during the spring construction season.

While some survey respondents did have some praise for BC Ferries, particularly for the customer service at Skidegate Landing, others said it was high time the company offered guaranteed bookings for people with medical appointments, discounted cabins for seniors, and Haida language on its signs.

Other popular requests included removing noisy vending machines, switching off the lights, and turning down the “freezing” air-conditioning in the open areas where people sleep during overnight sailings.