Protests to ramp up as province confirms cuts

John Gleeson/Staff Writer / Staff writer
February 7, 2014 01:00 AM

BC Ferry Coalition Jef Keighley speaks to reporters at the Tell the Premier Press Conference on Tuesday morning in Vancouver. Jim Abrams is to the right followed by SCRD board chair Garry Nohr.

The B.C. Ferry Coalition is vowing to ramp up its campaign for fiscal fairness after the Christy Clark government announced it was plowing ahead with fare hikes and cuts to sailings and the seniors' discount in April.

Coalition organizer Jef Keighley, calling the Clark government's decision "extraordinarily mean-spirited," said preparations are already being made for a protest on the lawn of the legislature, tentatively set for Tuesday, March 11, from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.

"We'll be looking for people to join us and help send the provincial government a strong message that we're not prepared to take this anymore," Keighley said after Wednesday's announcement.

People from coastal communities as distant as Haida Gwaii have promised to attend the Victoria protest, while Vancouver Island organizers are booking buses for a "convoy" that will start in Port Hardy and work its way south to the capital, he said.

Buses are also being booked for the Sunshine Coast, but will likely pick up protesters at Horseshoe Bay.

The legislature protest will be followed by simultaneous coast-wide rallies in affected communities, tentatively set for Saturday, March 15, with two or three events to be held on the Lower Sunshine Coast.

"The pressure's on and it's our intent to keep it on and build it," Keighley said.

On Tuesday, Keighley and other coalition members delivered about 400 letters to Clark's office at Canada Place, on top of hundreds that were sent directly after the Jan. 18 Tell the Premier rallies. While Clark did not appear, some Vancouver media outlets covered the event, bringing the coalition's message to a Lower Mainland audience.

The next day, the province released the consultants' report on the latest round of community engagement sessions and confirmed that planned service cuts and fare increases would go into effect in April.

The consultants' report, Keighley noted, made no recommendations to support the province's decision to press ahead with a plan that was universally shot down by affected communities.

"What they do report is the anger and angst we're talking about from coastal communities was found in spades at all of those meetings," Keighley said. "We find government trying to be a parental figure who says, 'We know what's best for you,' and quite frankly this fight has only begun."

Sunshine Coast Regional District chair Garry Nohr, who joined Keighley and other coalition members at Canada Place, was also in Vancouver to attend a Union of B.C. Municipalities workshop for rural area directors. On Wednesday, the directors passed a motion calling on the province to stop raising ferry fares and cutting sailings.

"It was almost unanimous from all the elected officials -and that includes the Interior and the Kootenays and the North," Nohr said after the vote. "Out of a roomful of 96 people, I think two were against it."

Although the motion did not demand that BC Ferries be restructured as part of the provincial transportation system, that goal was identified during the discussion before the vote, he said.

Going forward, he added, it will be critical to get as much solid information out to inland and northern communities, "so they just don't see it as whining coastals. That's what the government is counting on, but today showed them there is support, by elected officials at least."

In its announcement, the province said reduced sailings on 16 minor and northern routes will start on April 28, while both the 50 per cent cut in the seniors' discount and four per cent general fare hike will take effect April 1.

The province will also go ahead with a gaming pilot project on a major route.

"BC Ferries will meet with designated community representatives to refine the schedules on the affected minor and northern routes, taking into account the community input received during engagement," the province said. "For example, on some routes, there are opportunities to eliminate midday sailings in favour of retaining early morning or late evening sailings. The final schedules will be made public by the end of March."

One tweak to the planned cuts was the addition of sailings between Bella Coola and Bella Bella, which Keighley called "meaningless," as the vessel is "an overgrown rowboat" that will do nothing to offset the devastating losses to the area's tourism sector.

The report on last fall's community engagement sessions, prepared by Kirk and Company Consulting Ltd., identified "opposition to service reductions" as a key theme at 22 of the 23 meetings, while funding BC Ferries as part of the provincial highway system was a key theme at 17 meetings.

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