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B.C. premier, ministers hear calls for more Kwuna sailings

Premier John Horgan heard it, and so did B.C. Finance Minister Carole James.
(File photo/Haida Gwaii Observer)

Premier John Horgan heard it, and so did B.C. Finance Minister Carole James.

Transportation Minister Claire Trevena heard it more than once, as did local MLA Jennifer Rice, local MP Nathan Cullen, and the eight NDP, BC Liberal and Green MLAs who sat in a circle in Old Massett last Wednesday to hear what Haida Gwaiians want most in the next provincial budget.

What did they hear?

Kwuna, Kwuna, Kwuna.

Led by Joni Fraser and Greg Martin, there is a twin-engine campaign underway to get more sailings back on the Kwuna ferry route between Graham and Moresby Islands.

In April 2014, staffing levels for the Kwuna were cut from two crews working eight-hour shifts to one crew working 12-hour days.

Today, people talk about the “Sandspit curfew” — the last ferry home from Graham Island leaves at 6 p.m. — and a surge of summer tourism that saw a record number of overloads this year.

Joni Fraser has lived in Sandspit 32 years, and for most of that time she and her family had no trouble coming and going between the islands.

Since the 2014 cuts, however, she has mostly quit taking the Kwuna, staying on Moresby except for necessary trips like going to the doctor or dentist.

“It’s destroying our community,” Fraser told the MLAs in Old Massett.

Already fed up, Fraser’s frustration peaked this July when an overloaded sailing caused her to miss a dental appointment she had booked four months before.

Fraser got to the Alliford terminal a full hour before the 20-minute sailing, and she still couldn’t get on.

“I was just in shock,” she said.

Later that day, Fraser and her friend Rachel Houston started a Facebook group — “BC Ferries Kwuna Scheduling Issues” — that currently has 445 members.

Armed with smartphones, group members regularly post real-time photos of overloaded lineups, warnings about late sailings, or tips for snagging a lighter-traffic one. The group also organized a flood of negative reviews about the lack of sailings to the Better Business Bureau.

Anyone behind the Yield sign knows they're likely in for a sailing wait. (Joni Fraser/Facebook)

Besides her own story, Fraser came to the budget committee with several letters from affected people living on either side of Skidegate Inlet.

One was signed by five doctors who detailed how much harder it is to do emergency medical transfers to and from Sandspit since the Kwuna cuts. They also said more Sandspit patients are now putting off healthcare visits to Queen Charlotte, meaning more people are late getting treatment.

“When costs are considered more holistically, the financial reasons underlying a reduction in sailings makes less sense,” the doctors wrote.

Another letter came from a nurse who lives in Queen Charlotte and works in the small Sandspit clinic — he now commutes with his own boat in summer. On several occasions, he said he has been unable to board the overloaded Kwuna while transporting time-sensitive vaccines or lab samples, and doctors coming for their weekly visit to the clinic have also been unable to board.

One more letter explained that people in Sandspit are reluctant to call an ambulance after the ferry stops running, partly to avoid getting their neighbours up, but also because of the noisy, uncomfortable trip on the small Coast Guard boat.

“The attendants can’t do vitals for 40 minutes because it’s too noisy and too rough,” Fraser said. “Any machine is just reset every time.”

Greg Martin, the mayor of Queen Charlotte, also spoke to the budget committee as chair of the North and Mid-Coast Ferry Advisory Committee. A week before, he made a similar case for Ministers Claire Trevena, Carole James and Premier Horgan at the Union of BC Municipalities conference.

“They’ve been bit harder than anybody on the coast, out of all the 26 routes,” Martin said.

“It’s killing them. It’s damaging all of Haida Gwaii. We are a little less of a community because of this.”

As well as the Kwuna, Martin highlighted how the 2014 cuts and shortened summer season have led to overbookings on the mainland ferry, noting how it has stranded islanders in Prince Rupert, and caused backlogs of freight that stretch to truck depots in Terrace and Prince George.

Martin also noted that BC Ferries does not track the number of tourists who cancel their trips to Haida Gwaii after arriving in Prince Rupert only to find they’ve been waitlisted.

“It’s absolutely vital here,” he said. “It’s our lifeline.”

Brandon Kallio, a commercial fisherman in Old Massett, said freight delays and overbookings on the mainland ferry have hurt fishers with rented gear and things to ship.

But Kallio said it’s taking a greater toll on local families who can’t always reserve a trip home and wind up getting stuck in Prince Rupert, sometimes for several days.

“It really adds so much pressure that it’ll push some of our community members in the way of wanting to just move off the island,” he said. “We’ve had families that have just moved away due to that fact.”

Islanders who missed the budget committee hearing in Old Massett can give their two cents online at The committee will accept feedback until Oct. 15.