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After cancelled B.C. Ferry leaves people stranded, Haida Gwaii residents want answers

Why do they cancel sailings rather than postpone them?: mayor Lisa Pineault asks
A BC Ferry docked at the Skidegate Ferry Terminal in June 2022. (Photo: Kaitlyn Bailey/Haida Gwaii Observer)

Daajing Giids council is questioning how BC Ferries decides when to cancel sailing versus postponing them with a letter to Rob Fleming, B.C.’s Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure.

The letter is also addressed to the BC Ferries Commissioner, the BC Ferries Board of Directors’ representative, North Coast MLA Jennifer Rice and Skeena-Bulkley Valley MP Taylor Bachrach, as well as other leaders from Haida Gwaii and Prince Rupert.

During a meeting on Nov. 21, Daajing Giids council passed a motion to send the letter asking the minister to explain how the decision is made.

BC Ferries cancelled the sailing from Prince Rupert to Skidegate and back again on Nov. 10 due to the weather, stated the letter written by Mayor Lisa Pineault on behalf of council. While the weather was poor during the day, it was clear by the evening and for the remainder of the weekend, she stated.

In the past, sailings were postponed rather than cancelled and Pineault wants to know why it has changed.

Despite continually raising the issue during BC Ferry Advisory Committee, the conversations have never gone anywhere, Pineault said.

A spokesperson for BC Ferries wrote in an email to Black Press Media that the decision to cancel a sailing is not taken lightly. The decision to delay or cancel a sailing is based in part on how long the adverse weather will last on that route and if other scheduled sailings provided by that vessel on the Port Hardy to Prince Rupert route (inner passage) will be impacted.

“The safety of our passengers and crew is of primary importance to us. We apologize for any inconvenience customers experience as a result of a sailing cancellation. In the event of a cancellation, our Customer Service Centre contacts customers with bookings to refund fees and/or fares,” the BC Ferries spokesperson stated.

“We do understand that we do not want people travelling in poor weather, that’s just standard. So that is where BC Ferries always brings the conversation back to you but it’s not about that, it’s a fundamental change in how they treat a ferry delay. Now they’re going from delay to just cancellation right away.”

For a nearly 20-year stretch, from 1991 to 2009, there was only one ferry cancellation, Pineault said. If the weather was poor, rather than cancel the trip they would delay it during that time.

“But for some reason, in the past say, decade, they’ve started to do outright cancellations. So, people that are booked for a Thursday sailing, they’ll get an email that says you’re cancelled with no assistance in re-booking and no prioritization for the next available theory.”

While this might not be an issue for travellers on other routes, such as the Vancouver to Victoria ferry, which runs multiple times a day, during the winter, there are only three sailings per week from Prince Rupert to Skidegate.

A cancellation cuts it down to two sailings for the week, which can leave people stranded and away from home for days. They have to pay for their own accommodation and other costs of being away from home during that time.

Cancellations have wider impacts though to everyone living on the archipelago as a result of critical goods, supplies and services not making it to communities on time.

The island communities receive a shipment of groceries on the ferry once a week, on Monday mornings. If this ferry is cancelled, the grocery stores go for more than a week without a delivery.

“That means our people have not had fresh things since the previous Monday,” Pineault emphasized.

The cancellations also impact economic development and dissuade services from working on the island.

“I’ve had reports of RCMP moving and not being able to get out [due to the ferry cancellation] but also the moving truck service that comes here to do that for him doesn’t want to come here anymore because they lost money,” Pineault said.

“Their guy was coming for three days and he ended up being here for eight days and that’s a huge cost, plus they have other bookings.”

There were also people who were travelling to the Sandspit airport to work on some communications upgrade and after the ferry cancellation they do not want to provide their services to Haida Gwaii anymore, she said.

Pineault acknowledged that sharing a ship with the inner passage route, which is only the case during the winter, is part of the problem.

“Other than when they have outflow winds in the early spring, when the thaw starts to happen, that’s the only time they have weather issues in that whole inside passage. That’s why it’s called the inside passage,” Pineault said.

“So it’s always going to be good weather there, it’s an easy choice, it’s low hanging fruit, but it leaves our people without ferry service for at least 36 hours.”

Pineault compared the cancellation to a landslide or other highway service disruption in another community, explaining that for Haida Gwaii, the ferry should be viewed as an extension of highway 16.

“While we completely understand care is required respecting poor weather conditions, this was not the case by midnight on Nov. 10 and Haida Gwaii and our community members are paying the price for these decisions.”