Ferry Commisioner gets earful from islanders

  • Sep. 2, 2011 8:00 p.m.

Islanders had the chance to get their feelings about BC Ferries out in the open at four public meetings earlier this week, Jeff King writes.BC Ferry Commissioner Gord Macatee and his deputy Sheldon Stoilen are touring communities served by Ferries, reviewing the provincial legislation governing BC Ferries, and held meetings in Sandspit, Masset, Port Clements and Queen Charlotte. In Queen Charlotte Monday evening, the commissioners heard a variety of concerns.”We look at this as our highway. (It’s difficult) for families to get off, even for vacations,” said Jo-Anne MacMullin, while Evelyn von Almassy said “(Merchants) here have no choice but to raise prices., which is difficult for the people who live here. Why are the ferries not seen as an extension of the highway, because they are our highway. Remember we are hard-working people who live here. Restaurant owners and store-keepers would like to continue on.but it is getting harder and harder”.Joanne Ames complained that Ferries is top heavy in management. “(The company) shouldn’t be paying bonuses to people who are cutting staff in terminals. It is not operating in a business-like manner to overpay executives. If Mr. Hahn were to depart, would his replacement be governed (by new provincial pay rules)? Let’s buy the bugger out and get rid of him,” she said.Ms Ames also talked about a federal subsidy that was initially to go only to northern routes, but has ended up being used, in part, in the south as well.”The people of the north believe that $27-million subsidy belongs to them. The company has been playing a shuffle board game with that revenue. It should be put to northern routes. It’s a shell game they have been playing with us for 25 years. Ms Ames is also unhappy that tourists from other countries pay the same as BC residents on subsidized routes.”I cry foul. If you are coming from outside the country, you should not be paying the same fare. I am tired of subsidizing tourists. The fare structure should reflect that for the residents of BC.” And she argued for lowering fares by saying a ferry is just a giant freight trailer. “Lower the fares. You’ll find your ridership is going to go up. For $500 I could go to Paris for a week, instead of going to Terrace,” she saidNatalie Fournier referred to the Alaska ferry as one to emulate.”I have a lot of acquaintances who have traveled on the Alaska Marine Highway, a very successful system. They have a well-run reservation system. The reservation system up here is actually failing us.””(The Alaska ferry system) will wait for people, they manage to be adjustable and accommodate-able and still have a healthy system,” she said.”My other suggestion,” Ms Fournier closed by saying, is that “.BC Ferries needs to have a community relations mandate. There needs to be an office to hear grass-roots ideas. It is a requirement to have open houses.”Jacques Morin called the ferry essential.”When we talk about this as our highway, we are saying is ‘this is an essential service’. Like hospitals, like energy, like roads. We are being penalized because we live on the islands,” he said.”The basic core of the agreement is nonsensical. (There is) no way the northern routes are going to be profitable. How much does it cost a person to drive from Vancouver to Hope. Maybe the (ferry) cost should be based on highway travel,” said Duncan White. “You can never have an economic argument for this (service). It’s a highway system. Just because it is a ferry shouldn’t make it different. It is a marine highway system.”Sean O’Neail was concerned that Ferries is not serving the communities because its prices are too high.”The business model is supposed to be serving the community. When you charge $100 to take a pick up and a trailer (to Sandspit), you are not building community. Ferries still exists to provide the service. It’s as if it’s being run by accountants,” he said.Jody Bissett said ferry fares are cutting off the mainland to islanders.”I haven’t been to Rupert for seven years because it is ridiculously expensive. If it was more reasonable we would be in Rupert two or three times a year for sure,” and Morgan Bristol said well done advertising on the mainland would attract droves of visitors.”They call this the rock because we are rooted here like abalone. BC Ferries should have a special lower rate for northerners, for us who are stuck here,” said Jenny Cross. “Sure, we are living in God’s country, but we would like to go see concrete buildings. You need to consider we are stuck here. We have to accept what you are offering us. That is not right. That is really not right. It’s OK to reiterate. The ferry price is way too high. We need to consider some sort of isolation (allowance).”Christine Martynuik said ferry prices are too high.”It’s a lot of money to go across to Prince Rupert. Hotel, food, it all stayed about the same (over the last few years). What’s their justification?” she said.Sue Brown also is unhappy with the high fares.”Some of us do not have the choice where we live. My husband, my daughter are Haida. This is their home. We can’t afford to go off-island anymore. BC Ferries does not care about us. All they care about is their schedule and their pay cheques. And it’s true,” she said. Ms Brown also said high fares was behind her decision to close her garden shop in Skidegate.”We changed over to a coffee shop because our freight bill was so high. We lost money running a business because we couldn’t swallow the price of freight. It’s crazy what we pay. These are the questions that need to be taken to BC Ferries,” she said.Dick Bellis was among the last to speak.”I own the island,” he said, to general laughter. “I also run a little guiding tour business. This year is down because people can’t afford to come over unless they own a $250,000 Jaguar.Ferry Commissioner Gord Macatee said he’s learned several things in the public meetings so far, including that many people in ferry-dependent communities believe Ferries should have a mandate that includes economy and community building, not just providing ferry service and making a profit. “We’ve heard a lot of things that we haven’t heard before,” he said. The meetings in the islands attracted about 30 people in Sandspit Sunday night, 36 in Masset Monday morning, another 45 in Port on Monday afternoon and over 30 in Queen Charlotte that evening. The commissioner also met with municipal officials in separate meetings. The commission plans meetings in the south later this month.Mr. Macatee said there’s time for input from islanders, who can write or email him at the BC Ferry Commission.You can reach the commissioners at BC Ferry Commission, RPO Box Hillside, Box 35119, Victoria BC, V8T 5G2 and at info@bcferrycommission.com.