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New ferries will cost millions

A fleet of BC Ferries managers sailed into Skidegate Wednesday (April 14) to hear from islanders about what kind of ferry service they would like to see after 2010, when the Queen of the North and Queen of Prince Rupert must be retired.
The one-day consultation session was designed to collect information for a report on northern services, which must be done by June 30. However, before discussing new service options, BC Ferries staff laid down some strict rules. No questions or discussion would be allowed on a series of issues, Gary Leitch, manager of stakeholder consultation, said. To make his point perfectly clear, Mr. Leitch showed a slide listing the banned issues - nine in total - including the wisdom of the Coastal Ferry Act, philosophical questions on the nature of ferries and highways, the $24-million federal grant, and past history.
This did not sit well with the islanders who attended the all-day meeting at the Homemakers Building. As it turned out, several of these issues were exactly what they wanted to discuss.
Irene Mills of the Council of the Haida Nation told Mr. Leitch that perhaps he should have scheduled two days in Skidegate, so they would have time to go over past history. Reviewing what has already happened is vital in deciding how to move forward, she said.
"We are an oral history, we do need to talk about the past," she told him.
The Skidegate Band Council's David Crosby said that as far as he was concerned, the federal government contribution to BC Ferries is a huge issue which he is not prepared to ignore. Ottawa gives BC Ferries almost $24-million every year, and many islanders believe the grant was meant to be spent entirely on the northern routes. However, BC Ferries disagrees and divides it among all its money-losing routes, so the north gets only a portion - just over $4-million last year.
The grant should not be spent in the south, Mr. Crosby said. Port Clements mayor Dale Lore agreed, saying that when he met with federal bureaucrats in Ottawa last month and asked why islanders don't qualify for the full northern residents deduction, the bureaucrat pointed to the $24-million grant as an example of federal assistance meant to offset the high cost of transportation here.
Regional district administrator Janet Beil said she didn't want to hear BC Ferries downplaying the importance of the Skidegate-Prince Rupert routes as a marine highway. Unlike some other BC Ferries routes, this one is the only way other than air to move people and supplies.
"For us, it is our highway," Mr. Crosby agreed. "You guys are more catering to tourists. This is how our food gets here."
There were a few other parts of the presentation which didn't sit well with islanders. One slide showed the islands population as 3,700, which is less than the usual estimates (the 2001 Stats Can number is 4,935). Staff said the number would be corrected. And on another slide, showing projected population growth along the northern routes, offshore oil and gas development was cited as a factor which could affect local economic growth.
Ms Mills said offshore oil and gas development would not be going ahead, and should not be referred to as a factor which could influence population growth.
"I would like to know if you're going to remove that for your next presentation, because that's offensive," she said.
According to Mr. Leitch, the existing northern service is guaranteed until March, 2008. After that, there are several options, all depending on how many ships BC Ferries buys to replace the three which now serve the northern routes (besides the QPR and QN, there is also the smaller Queen of Chilliwack, which serves the mid-coast in summer). The Kwuna service is not under review.
Ferries staff showed how winter and summer schedules would work with three options: two new ships, three new ships or four new ships. The decision about how many ships to buy must be made relatively soon - by 2005 - because it takes three and a half years to design, build and test a new ship.
The cost of the new ferries is estimated at $75-million to $78-million each, and the northern routes already lose $20-million a year. This loss is made up by the provincial and federal governments, but it's not yet clear how much more the province is willing to fork out to cover the cost of the new ferries, and how much will have to be made up by fare hikes.
Islanders raised several issues for BC Ferries to consider. They would like to see a better reservation system, so that tourists aren't told they are on standby when the ferry almost always has space. They would like more staterooms, so people don't have to sleep on the floor. Some would like to see a higher fare charged to huge RVs which arrive loaded with groceries and supplies and therefore do nothing for the local economy. They would like to see an opportunity for onboard presentations to tourists. And a couple of people suggested a route directly between Skidegate and Port Hardy, which would make access to the Lower Mainland much easier for islanders, attract tourists straight from Vancouver Island, and save on freight costs.
BC Ferries is now consulting with other communities affected by the northern service like Bella Bella, Port Hardy and Williams Lake. Comments from the public are welcome. They must be received by May 28. E-mail to