Upper and Lower Sunshine Coast residents -with a little help from their friends on Gabriola Island - fired the first shot across the bow of BC Ferries last weekend in a coordinated campaign to roll back ongoing fare hikes and planned service cuts.
Aimed at Premier Christy Clark, the BC Ferry Coalition's mass protest Jan. 18 drew more than 2,000 people to seven rally points between Langdale and Earls Cove, as well as large demonstrations in Powell River and Gabriola Island, whose routes are both facing major cuts in scheduled sailings on April 1.
Lead organizer Jef Keighley had billed the one-hour Tell the Premier protest as "the opening salvo" in the coalition's public awareness campaign, and said after the event that among participants "there was great enthusiasm about carrying on the fight."
On Gabriola, he said, the estimated 400 protesters represented about 10 per cent of the island's permanent residents.
Keighley, chair of Sunshine Coast Senior Citizens, said the protesters came from all political and economic demographics, proving that the ferries issue is "universal" for people in coastal communities.
"This is an issue that for the first time in my living memory is uniting people who voted Liberal, who voted New Democrat, who voted Green, who voted Conservative or who didn't vote at all," Keighley told the crowd at the Sechelt rally, the largest of the seven on the Lower Coast, drawing an estimated 500 people.
"It's bringing together business people, it's bringing together labour and community groups, local sports organizations, local governments, seniors - it is uniting everybody in the communities that are affected," Keighley said.
"So our message to send back to Christy Clark is get off the pot, put this on hold, listen to the population, because coastal communities represent 20 per cent of the total B.C. population and we generate 35 per cent of the economic growth in the province. We deserve to be listened to."
The Sechelt rally took place, at the request of shíshálh Nation Chief Garry Feschuk, on the site of the former residential school, and Feschuk said the coming 50 per cent cut in the Monday-to-Thursday seniors' discount would hit Elders hard.
"They went through a lot when they were growing up in the residential school era, and now being Elders they had a benefit of being able to travel the ferries for free on Monday to Thursday," Feschuk told Coast Reporter. "Now that's gone, and coming from that era they really don't have anything."
The fare hikes and service cuts are also hurting families and sports teams that travel to the Lower Mainland for high-level competitions, he said, and are jeopardizing economic development in areas like tourism.
"We're starting to delve into the tourism industry now and this will have a huge impact."
Addressing the crowd, Feschuk said he agreed the issue was the provincial government's brand of "consultation, when everything is predetermined," and drew applause from the mostly non-Native protesters when he added: "Sometimes I chuckle, because now you know how we feel."
Other speakers at the Sechelt event included District of Sechelt Coun. Alice Lutes, who said she "took a little bit of a beating" when she introduced a motion in support of the protest at council Jan 15, "because someone felt it wasn't our place to do this kind of demonstration."
"It was the mayor!" protester Betty Ann Pap shouted from the crowd. Both Mayor John Henderson and Coun. Doug Hockley voted against Lutes' motion, which passed 5-2.
"In my mind if there's no protest, there's no progress," Lutes said.
School trustee Lori Dixon brought letters for Clark from both herself and her husband, former chief Stan Dixon, whose focus, she said, was "respect for Elders."
"My issue is children," she added, saying students are unfairly being charged to attend educational or athletic events off-Coast.
"Why should our children be cut off from the rest of B.C.? Because we live in the most beautiful place on the Earth, we shouldn't be penalized for it."
Sunshine Coast Regional District (SCRD) chair Garry Nohr said more than 100 people turned out at the north end of Redrooffs Road in Halfmoon Bay.
"It's quite surprising in Halfmoon Bay how many walked out, because some of them could hardly walk," Nohr said. "It's affecting them and it's the seniors that seem to be coming out."
About 250 people rallied at the Langdale ferry terminal, lining both sides of the highway to catch the arriving ferry traffic.
West Howe Sound SCRD director Lee Turnbull and Gibsons Coun. Lee Ann Johnson both urged the protesters to keep making their voices heard, and former Sechelt and District Chamber of Commerce president Jim Cleghorn said coastal communities are united in "lobbying the government until we get some solution that is sustainable and affordable."
Other Lower Coast rallies drew about 250 protesters at Pratt Road in Gibsons, 125 at Roberts Creek, 110 at Madeira Park and 35 at Egmont Road.
On the Upper Coast, estimates for the Powell River rally at the Westview terminal ranged from 250 to 600 and higher.
At the Sechelt rally, Keighley pointed out that since BC Ferries was transformed 10-and-a-half years ago under Gordon Campbell from a Crown corporation to a quasi-private entity, inflation in B.C. has gone up 14.9 per cent.
"In that same timeframe, depending on what route you're looking at, the minimum increase in ferry costs was 50 per cent and some routes went up as high as 93 per cent," Keighley said. "So when you're talking about this three-and-a-half per cent fuel surcharge, we have paid that and paid that and paid that already."
The fuel surcharge was added to fares one day before the protest.
To illustrate how far the service has sunk over time, Keighley cited an original 1962 BC Ferries schedule that was provided to the coalition by a Gibsons resident who made a small donation to the cause.
"Back then there were 15 sailings a day from 6 a.m. to midnight, and you could get on at either side at midnight and arrive at Horseshoe Bay or Langdale at one in the morning. We have nine sailings now, and they run from 6:20 till about 8:20 -and they want to start curtailing that," Keighley said.
Also at the Sechelt rally, Bev Nelson reprised her lounge-act performance from the Nov. 30 Gibsons engagement session of a BC Ferries "blues" number she wrote, set to the tune of "Stormy Monday."
- With files from Ian Jacques
© Coast Reporter