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Repeated cancellations blow BC Ferries into rough political waters

NDP facing criticism about staffing, reliability and executive salaries and accountability

BC Green House Leader Adam Olsen says the state of BC Ferries is and will continue to put Vancouver Island at an economic disadvantage in calling for additional investments into the service and the provincial marine industry at large.

“There is no doubt about it,” he said. “I don’t know if we can put a number on it, but that disruption and that lack of certainty is going to cause, and is causing, problems,” he said. “Businesses are going to choose to invest elsewhere if they can’t get their product in or out of their businesses based on the island.”

Olsen made these comments Wednesday (Oct. 18) morning after BC Ferries had to cancel two sailings on its route connecting Metro Vancouver and Greater Victoria because of staffing shortages. The cancellations led to long waits for would-be travellers without reservations, impacting personal and professional appointments, including people going to work.

Olsen, whose riding of Saanich North and the Islands includes the Swartz Bay ferry terminal near Victoria as well as several ferry-dependent islands, said BC Ferries finds itself under what he called “incredible tension right now” to deliver the service, but questioned its spending priorities.

“They can hire vice-presidents, they can hire people within the administration, that’s not going to put working in the engine room or people working in the wheelhouse,” he said. “Clearly, what is needed here, BC Ferries needs to be competitive with the marketplace.”

Olsen added that it also makes sense for B.C. to have a marine-focused economy, whether it is building large vessels or investing in other aspects. “It’s one of those untapped areas,” Olsen said.

United BC Leader Kevin Falcon echoed Olsen’s criticisms, questioning the recent hiring of four new vice-presidents. Falcon said all of them are earning between $300,000 to $460,000 and the introduction of “weak little puny” fines for missing sailings starting next fiscal year will not make a difference.

“They (vice-presidents) should be getting a daily fine of $7,000,” Falcon said. “That’s how you focus attention.”

Falcon said the current troubles of BC Ferries go “directly back to when they (NDP) decided to politicize the ferry corporation by installing the architect of the fast ferries disaster.”

Falcon was referring to Joy MacPhail, who was appointed as chair of BC Ferries’ Board of Directors. She held several cabinet positions during the late 1990s, early 2000 when the NDP was in power and in charge of BC Ferry Corporation, when the province decided to sell off a trio of fast ferries built in B.C. in the mid-1990s.

While they cost $470 million to build, the government wrote down their value to $40 million each after they essentially proved to unusable. MacPhail, at the time, called the fast ferries a “failed project.”

RELATED: Improvements at BC Ferries a ‘top priority’ of government: Premier Eby

Transportation Minister Rob Fleming acknowledged BC Ferries needs additional staff. While 99.1 per cent of scheduled sailings sailed since September, these figures mean nothing for individuals impacted by Wednesday’s cancellations, Fleming said.

“It’s just not good enough.”

Fleming also acknowledged the potential economic impacts of service disruptions, adding that he is worried about the reputation of BC Ferries.

“Yes, because what we want to avoid is driving up the cost of business or driving up the cost of transporting people and goods to and from Vancouver,” he said, adding that government is working with BC Ferries to improve reliability.

Fleming also shot back at critics. When asked about the criticism concerning the hiring of vice-presidents, Fleming said the the emphasis is on hiring crews.

“On the subject of executive compensation, I heard (Falcon) talk about that,” Fleming said. “It was under his watch when he was the transportation minister that the CEO of BC Ferries got paid $1 million a year, ” Fleming said.

Wednesday’s cancellations also came up during Question Period.

“No amount of NDP spin is going to take away from the fact that you’re spending record amounts of money and getting record low results for the travelling public,” Falcon said.

Premier David Eby said both he and Fleming agree it unacceptable that people are not able to get to where they are going.

“I’ve made very clear to the leadership of B.C. Ferries, the Minister of Transportation has, that we expect them to meet the needs of the people of British Columbia to get around this province,” Eby said.

He also questioned Falcon’s opposition to help BC Ferries with $500 million for fuel. “If that member thinks that people in ferry-dependent communities think he’s on their side, he’s got another thing coming,” Eby said.


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Wolf Depner

About the Author: Wolf Depner

I joined the national team with Black Press Media in 2023 from the Peninsula News Review, where I had reported on Vancouver Island's Saanich Peninsula since 2019.
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