Strathcona Regional District Chair Jim Abram has presided over a number of protests of service cuts, fare increases and general management of B.C.’s coastal ferries system in recent years. So the casual passerby could be forgiven for thinking the old lion had been tamed last Friday during a rally outside the annual Association of Vancouver Island and Coastal Communities (AVICC) annual general meeting in Comox.
“Rather than just a protest rally, which we’ve had a number of, we decided to have a rally in support of AVICC and UBCM (the Union of BC Municipalities) for doing the work of the provincial government, which they shouldn’t have had to do but did because the provincial government didn’t do it.”
Abram was referring to a 93-page socio-economic impact analysis prepared for UBCM and presented to UBCM during its annual meeting last September. That analysis indicated that, had the government and the quasi-private BC Ferries Corporation simply raised fares by the rate of inflation each year since 2003, “instead of the outrageous 4.9 per cent annually,” he said, they would have raised $2.3 billion for the provincial economy.
“They cut service, raised fares, and it did exactly what we told them would happen,” Abram said. “Ridership is lower than it’s been since 1992.”
Clearly, this is not a kinder, gentler Abram. But in addition to the usual complement of signs among the dozens involved in Friday’s rally — “Grim ferry tales” and “Coastal communities are sinking” — were many designed to provide an atta-boy to the 57 local governments that make up AVICC. Such as “Thank you, AVICC” and “Local government rocks!”
People protested outside the AVICC convention at the Florence Filberg Centre in Comox.
Those local governments, collectively, renewed their call for the Liberal government to take three steps to revive a ferry system Abram said no longer works for residents or visitors: reduce fares, restore service cut in the last two years, and place management of BC Ferries back into the Ministry of Transportation.
It was the same call made by UBCM last fall in a virtually unprecedented — and non-binding — vote.
“Everything that happened there with BC Ferries was unanimous,” said Abram. “We never get unanimous votes at UBCM; it’s almost unheard-of.
“A lot of those people are coming from places that don’t have a shoreline. But they understand what fairness is. They know you don’t treat one system one way and another system another way.”
Cancelling the Coastal Ferries Act and making ferries part of transportation infrastructure, he said, would mean it is treated like all other infrastructure — without the Board of Directors, Ferry Authority and Commissioner currently in place. “And you don’t have over 400 high-paid executives running the system,” he added.
Opposition leader John Horgan, who spoke to the delegation on the final day of the AVICC conference, said his NDP government would tear up the Coastal Ferries Act upon taking office.
But when Abram strode to the microphone to ask if the NDP would put ferries back into transportation, Horgan gave a double-edged answer, saying his government would explore putting ferries into the Ministry of Transportation, but also explore making it a Crown corporation.
“He told me, ‘You get two answers, Jim,’” said Abram. “I said, ‘That’s great. We want one.’”
Abram said he was pleased that attendees at least got a reasonably solid commitment from Horgan to a ferry system that works. He was just as pleased that those who attended the pro-AVICC ferries rally managed to hold up through high winds, heavy precipitation and cold temperatures that raked the Comox Valley during their stand.
“Everyone stayed there,” he said. “And we managed to keep the signs upright and keep the people upright.”