A ferry pulls up to the Skidegate Landing terminal. (File/Haida Gwaii Observer)

A ferry pulls up to the Skidegate Landing terminal. (File/Haida Gwaii Observer)

Islanders want BC Ferries to follow order that lets residents board before tourists

For ferry-dependent communities, ferries are often the sole practical lifeline to work, school or medical appointments.

  • Jul. 12, 2020 3:30 p.m.

By Rochelle Baker, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, National Observer

B.C. islanders are feeling trapped and calling for action on a Covid-19 measure that allows residents to board ferries first as the summer tourist season heats up.

Gruelling sailing waits in B.C.’s Discovery Islands have surged again, as the province relaxes guidelines on non-essential travel as part of its COVID-19 reopening plan.

Quadra Island resident Sarah Johnston says the return to two-sailing wait-times means the 20-minute crossing to Campbell River is now often a four-hour journey or more for essential goods or medical appointments.

“It’s crazy,” Johnston said of the ferry traffic that regularly spills out of the parking lot and holding lanes, and up the hill from the terminal into Quadra’s road ways.

“If this is what we’re seeing in a summer with travel restrictions, imagine what will it be like in the future.”

And for neighbouring Cortes Island residents negotiating a two-ferry journey, the waits are even longer.

For ferry-dependent communities such as Quadra and Cortes, located off Vancouver Island’s northeast coast ­— and for a score of other coastal communities in British Columbia — ferries are often the sole practical lifeline to work, school or medical appointments.

But BC Ferries is not acting on a temporary emergency ministerial order that permits residents priority boarding, and which the Ministry of Transport confirms is in place.

Johnston said she typically takes measures to avoid peak hours, but some issues make travelling during busy sailings unavoidable.

“Last summer I was dealing with numerous medical appointments with my dad who was suffering from a serious medical condition,” Johnston said.

“He wasn’t able to sit in a car comfortably for long periods of time, and that made it really hard.”

READ MORE: Departure Bay ferry capacity increases to 70%, says BC Ferries

They did their best to avoid rush hours, but medical appointments typically fell into peak travelling periods, she said.

Johnston wants BC Ferries to offer island residents preferred boarding currently allowed under Ministerial Order (MO84) due to the COVID-19 crisis.

Johnston has asked about the priority boarding option at the ticket booth in Campbell River on several occasions. Attendants provided a variety of explanations why it wasn’t being offered, such as inadequate staffing levels and logistical issues, such as insufficient holding areas in smaller terminals, Johnston said.

“I don’t see why it’s that big an issue,” Johnston said, adding that preferred boarding measures wouldn’t have to be for every occasion or sailing.

She’d like to see a “get out of jail free” pass issued to residents on a once weekly basis for essential or unavoidable travel.

“I’m sure part of the resistance is, if they did it under the order and it succeeded, what reason would they have not to continue into the future,” she said.

BC Ferries spokesperson Deborah Marshall confirmed that residents and essential goods and workers are temporarily being given priority on sailings during the state of emergency due to the pandemic.

“It wasn’t an issue in the beginning of the pandemic, because our traffic had completely fallen off,” Marshall stated in an email Tuesday.

“Now that traffic is coming back and the province has lifted ‘non-essential’ travel (guidelines) it is becoming an issue on many routes.”

But Marshall did not clarify why priority boarding wasn’t being offered to Discovery Island residents, as it has been on other routes such as the Sunshine Coast.

The BC Ferries website states customers will be asked at check-in if they qualify for priority boarding. The website also recommends people make reservations if they want to ensure priority on a specific sailing.

However, reservations aren’t available on smaller routes serving Quadra and Cortes islands and other island communities in the inside passage between the mainland and Vancouver Island.

Quadra Island regional director Jim Abram said it is clear islanders should be getting preferential boarding.

“The ministerial order is very clear that residents have priority loading as long as we’re in a state of emergency,” Abram said.

Workarounds are likely possible to logistical issues, he said.

“We have really good people working at the booth, and they are always careful about loading properly,” he said.

“They are very creative and can probably find ways to hold (vehicles).”

Priority boarding exists for those with urgent medical emergencies and Cortes residents already get preferential boarding to Campbell River twice a week on a morning sailing, Abram noted.

It shouldn’t be out of the question to make similar arrangements for Quadra residents, he added.

Residents regularly using the ferries ultimately pay more toward operational costs, Abram said.

“We pay taxes, but we also pay a healthly fare towards the operation,” he said. “We’re being double dinged as residents.”

High-season traffic makes it difficult for residents to get to work, appointments or attend business, he added.

“It is almost impossible to use the ferry system when it is completely clogged with non-residents,” Abram said, noting the current focus on staycations has brought more and larger vehicles with campers, boats and RVs to the island.

“We have accommodated and welcomed tourists, and we still do, but the situation just happens to have changed… we are in a worldwide pandemic.”

Noba Anderson, Cortes Island regional director, said calls for priority boarding aren’t necessarily universal, but many islanders have been requesting the service for years.

“We’ve always been told (by BC Ferries) a customer, is a customer, is a customer,” Anderson said.

“It would be a very interesting trial to see if they can do it, and if they can, it would be important to have a more in-depth conversation about whether it can be implemented moving forward.”

But not all residents agree with the notion of preferred boarding.

Quadra resident and retired BC Ferries captain John Arnold said everybody feels they have a justifiable reason to get on the ferry before someone else.

Everyone who chooses to live on the islands knows ferry waits in summer have been an issue for decades, he added.

“(It’s like) someone building a tree house and then demanding someone else supply the ladder,” Arnold said.

He suggested residents are best served by adapting practical measures, such as leaving a second, cheap car across the water and walking on board.

“I only go when I have to, consolidate errands as much as possible, and the number one rule is to go and get back early,” Arnold said.

He also thinks it would be a logistical nightmare for attendants at the smaller terminals to organize priority boarding.

Quadra resident Alan Atkinson was one of many travellers stranded in a long vehicle backup that snaked its way out of the Quathiaski Cove ferry terminal on Thursday.

But he still feels first come, first served is the fairest option.

“We’re all paying the same taxes for the system,” Atkinson said.

He noted he was heading to Campbell River to shop, but could have come for a less crowded sailing.

“I don’t necessarily have to be here right now,” he said.

Transportation Minister and local MLA Claire Trevena also confirmed that the ministerial order was in place.

The province has the expectation the order be acted on, but operational issues fall to BC Ferries, Trevena said Friday.

“We’d hope BC Ferries would be respecting the order, but there is always what the implementation is on the ground,” she said.

BC Ferries must balance both commercial and public interests when making operational decisions, Trevena said.

Priority boarding is a temporary measure under the order, and caution needs to be exercised to avoid pitting residents against tourists, especially given many coastal economies such as Quadra are reliant on tourism, she added.

“We want to avoid getting a battle about that,” Trevena said.

“We know coastal communities are reliant on BC Ferries,” she said.

“We as a government are committed to system that serves B.C. residents, but that also includes every B.C. business.”


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

bc ferryBCFerriesCoronavirus

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

An aerial shot of Cedar Valley Lodge this past August, LNG Canada’s newest accommodation for workers. This is where several employees are isolating after a COVID-19 outbreak was declared on Nov. 19. (Photo courtesy of LNG Canada)
52 positive COVID-19 cases now associated with LNG Canada site outbreak

Eight cases still active, 44 considered recovered

The Kitimat River in July. (Clare Rayment photo)
Good News, Kitimat!

Bringing some local good news to your week

Skeena MLA Ellis Ross has been named critic for Environment and Climate Change Strategy for the BC Liberals. (Peter Versteege photo)
Skeena MLA Ellis Ross named critic for Environment and Climate Change Strategy

Previously, Ross was the critic for LNG, Resource Opportunities, and Responsible Development

Red sky in morning: an early-morning sunrise on May 16, 2020, captured just north of Kitimat. (Eric Roy photo)
Clare’s Corner: Hello, darkness, my old friend

Why does the after-work darkness affect you so much more as an adult than as a child?

A tongue-in-cheek message about wearing a face mask to curb the spread of COVID-19 on a sign outside a church near Royal Columbia Hospital, in New Westminster, B.C., on Sunday, Nov. 29, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C.’s COVID-19 infection count climbs back up to 656

20 more people in hospital, active cases still rising

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
B.C. researchers launch study to test kids, young adults for COVID-19 antibodies

Kids and youth can often be asymptomatic carriers of the novel coronavirus

A sign is seen this past summer outside the Yunesit’in Government office west of Williams Lake reminding visitors and members to stay safe amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (Rebecca Dyok photo)
B.C. First Nation leaders await privacy commissioner decision on COVID-19 information

Release of life-saving data cannot wait, says coalition of First Nations

MLA Jennifer Whiteside is B.C.’s new minister of education. She is speaking out against Chilliwack school trustee Barry Neufeld and asking him to resign. (Black Press)
New education minister calls on Chilliwack trustee to resign

Whiteside echoes former minister’s promise to look at options to remove Barry Neufeld

Peter Beckett. ~ File photo
Supreme Court of Canada to decide if it will hear appeal in 2010 wife murder trial

Peter Beckett has stood trial twice for murder in connection with the death of his wife, Laura Letts-Beckett

Tabor Home in Abbotsford. (Ben Lypka/Abbotsford News)
B.C.’s largest COVID-19 care-home outbreak records 19 deaths, 147 cases

Tabor Home in Abbotsford has been battling outbreak since Nov. 4

Ash and Lisa Van carry a freshly cut Christmas tree while wearing personal protective masks at a Christmas Tree Farm in Egbert, Ontario, Sunday, Nov. 29, 2020 THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Cole Burston
‘Everyone wants a tree and they want it now’: Christmas tree sales on pace for record

Anticipated demand for Christmas trees has sparked a rush by some to purchase more trees wholesale

Business groups have been advocating for years that local approvals for construction in B.C. are too long and restricted, and that B.C.’s outdates sales tax deter business investment. (Black Press Media file photo)
B.C. residents worried about COVID-19 deficit, business survey finds

Respondents support faster local approvals, value added tax

Most Read