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Ferry cuts ‘killing’ island communities

John Clarke (right, in cowboy hat) leads a protest song outside a meeting at the Quadra Island Community Centre to discuss BC Ferries service cuts. - Kristen Douglas/The Mirror
John Clarke (right, in cowboy hat) leads a protest song outside a meeting at the Quadra Island Community Centre to discuss BC Ferries service cuts.
— image credit: Kristen Douglas/The Mirror

Emotions ran high at the Quadra Island Community Centre Monday night as islanders pleaded with a panel of BC Ferries and provincial government representatives to stop “killing their community.”

“Jobs in our community are disappearing, our community is disappearing,” said Jim Abram, Quadra Island director for the Strathcona Regional District. “You’re making decisions based on ideology, not common sense. You’re killing our communities.”

Abram said BC Ferries’ planned service reductions, along with increasing ferry fares, are hurting all coastal communities which rely on ferries.

Kevin Richter, the assistant deputy minister with the B.C. ministry of transportation, said the purpose of Monday’s meeting was to hear from islanders as to how potential cuts would affect families, jobs and livelihoods and then take those comments back to the government.

But some were skeptical that what was said would even make a difference.

“I find this a really disgusting thing to do,” said Joe Duprey, owner of the Landing Pub on Quadra Island. “You guys have already made up your mind. My wife said to me, ‘You’re going to a ferry meeting tonight?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, because it’s life or death.’ And that’s what it is.”

BC Ferries plans to eliminate the 10 p.m. sailing from Quadra Island and the 10:30 p.m. sailing leaving Campbell River every day as well as the 11 p.m. sailing leaving Quadra and the 11:30 p.m. from Campbell River on Fridays and Saturdays.

Paul Ryan, chair of the Campbell River, Quadra and Cortes Island Ferry Advisory Committee, said if the proposed cuts go ahead, islanders won’t be able to leave the island in the evenings.

“Shift workers, hospital employees, people who go to night school, BC Hydro, people who want to go to a movie, or go out to dinner won’t be able to do that if you cut that last run,” said Ryan who added there are other ways for BC Ferries to come up with the $18.9 million it’s been ordered by the government to find in savings. “The basic problem is this: The government refuses to fund BC Ferries to the level they fund every other transportation system.

“This is out and out discrimination.”

North Island MLA Claire Trevena – transportation critic for the NDP – said, for islanders, the ferry is part of their highway system and likened the ferry cuts to closing a highway down at night due to low traffic volumes.

“Imagine going to Dease Lake and doing a study and saying ‘there’s not enough people on your road so we’re going to close the road between nine in the evening and six in the morning,’” Trevena said. “There’s people who live in Fernie, who live in Dease Lake, who live in Prince George who are not exploited to use their highways.”

Several people who spoke during the meeting told the panel BC Ferries should be put back under the government’s Ministry of Transportation to reduce the pressure on BC Ferries to raise fares and cut sailings.

Quadra Island resident John Clarke kicked off the meeting by walking in front of the panel while holding a sign that read ‘Highway’ in thick black script. He taped the sign to the back of chair and placed it on the stage to set the tone for the meeting.

Clarke also gathered a small group who broke out in song with a round of My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean, with the words altered to “Bring back my highway to me.”

That spurred on the crowd of at least 500 people who overflowed the community centre, and who were clearly angry.

“We’re all pissed off!” shouted one woman in the crowd during Abram’s speech.

Abram said his community is insulted by BC Ferries’ plan to eliminate sailings to and from the island and was pleased to see so many people show up to take a stand.

“We will continue to shuffle the deck chairs on the Titanic while the ship is sinking,” Abram said. “We will not allow our community to go down with the ship. We had to come, we had to be here and tell you you’re wrong and we did it well. It’s incredible. I haven’t seen the hall this full.

“The plan’s a joke, it’s an insult to our intelligence and it’s a crime against our people.”

One woman, a stay-at-home mom, said BC Ferries is making it increasingly hard to stay on Quadra Island – a place she has called home since she was a child and a place she wants to raise her family.

“If I take my son to the Christmas market and he gets lost, I know in minutes 10 people will take him by the hand and return him to me because they know me, and they know I’m his mom,” she said. “This is a really special place to live but sometimes we need to get off the island but we can’t do that if you raise the cost of fares. How are we supposed to live?

“We choose to live here because my son will know each and every person and that’s a really special thing that someone in a city is never going to know.”

Tom Skillman, human resources manager at Walcan Seafoods on Quadra Island, said rising fares have already made it more difficult to recruit employees.

“We had over 25 people this year change their minds about working for us because of the ferry,” Skillman said. “We were short-staffed all season. We interviewed three times as many people this season than we normally do.”

A teenaged girl also expressed her displeasure with rising ferry fares and the difficulty service reductions will pose on students.

“We’re losing so much of our after school programs, many run until after nine,” she said. “If you cut everything after nine o’clock, I’m going to tell you, a lot of parents are going to move off (Quadra).”

She then gave the panel a lesson in mathematics, explaining that BC Ferries has reached the vertex of its parabola – the highest point, by jacking up fares and still running a deficit.

“If they can’t do the math, I’ll do it for him.”

The meeting wrapped up after 9 p.m., more than three hours after it began.

The session was part of BC Ferries’ community engagement process which is travelling across the province to communities where the ferry corporation is targeting sailing cuts.

Ferries is looking to save $14 million with cutbacks to its minor and northern routes effective April 2014.

Further changes are expected on the three major ferry routes between the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island by April 2016 for a further $4.9 million in savings.

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