Consultation? What consultation?

Gabriola FAC Chair, John Hodgkins,  warns that mixed messages are appearing about the forthcoming government consultation on ferry services.

Back in May, the Ministry of Transportation told us “There will be significant adjustments to service levels, and discussions with communities about trade-offs among service adjustments, fare increases and potential community contributions” (their words).   That was five months ago.

The following month, the Province issued a request for proposals (RFP) for a consultant to “work with the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure on a community engagement process to discuss service adjustments with coastal communities” (their words). In early July, the  BC Ferry Commissioner published the new contract between the government and BC Ferries, which set out the ‘guiding principles’ that would be used as the basis for identifying the service adjustments. It was pretty clear, then, that the axe could fall just about anywhere – major routes (to and from the mainland) or the minor routes to the islands.

Those ‘guiding principles‘ left little doubt that the government intends to target those routes and sailings that are not well used, eying up routes that “report annual capacity utilisation levels below 55%” (actually, that means just about all of the minor routes) and “ferry routes that have core service levels defined on a round-trip basis where such round trips typically report capacity utilisation levels below 20% either seasonally or annually”.  Seemed clear enough.

So, in early August when Vancouver-based Kirk and Company were appointed to conduct the public consultation, the stage was set. Or so it seemed. The government undertook to “liaise with BC Ferry Commissioner, local governments, First Nations, Ferry Advisory
Committees, and stakeholders of affected communities to advise them of the engagement program” (their words).

Then, silence. Two months of silence. Until last week, when the Province and their consultants met with the Chairs of the 13 coastal Regional Districts in a “pre-consultation”  sessions to seek their reaction to the draft consultation plans. Few details emerged – but one thing seems clear; the government doesn’t seem ready or willing to tell local communities yet about which of our ferry services are at risk.

In his report to Strathcona Regional District Board, Chair Jim Abram said “the strong view of the entire group [of RD Chairs] was that the consultation as proposed would be a dismal failure” .   The group nominated Colin Palmer, Chair of the Sunshine Coast Regional District, to respond to the Minister on their behalf. Palmer’s message was equally clear: “If the public are going to give you valid input during the consultation process, we believe considerably more work is necessary to refine the consultation process. To be specific, the background information intended  for the public to understand the challenges facing the coastal ferry service is incomplete.” He urged the government to “be assured the process is right from the beginning rather than having the consultation period consumed by criticism of the process.”   Tough words indeed.

Adding his weight to the argument, Sunshine Coast RD Chair, Gary Nohr, told on-line news sheet HQComoxValley.com  “we felt at this point with the work being done by the Ferry Advisory Committees and also our meetings with the minister and the premier that we were moving in the right direction, including the changes to the Ferry Act, but this consultation if it goes ahead the way it’s organized right now will be a disaster.”

After meeting with the Regional District Chairs, the Ferry Advisory Committee chairs received similar messages from the Ministry’s consultants. The Province wants this consultation to guide the strategy – but without going into detail about how the service cuts might affect individual communities. “That comes later” we’re told, “once we have seen the consultant’s report”. But will islanders be consulted again before the cuts (sorry, “service adjustments”) are announced?  Who knows.

What we do know is that the consultants are due to report back in February – and that the government’s contract with BC Ferries says that the plans need to be in place by June 30 next year, otherwise the Ferry Commissioner can impose either service cuts or more fare increases – with minimal notice to the public. And what happens between February and June? An election.

Whatever shape this consultation process finally takes, we have to know how this impacts on Gabriola. BC Ferries has already provided data to the Province and the Ferry Advisory Committees showing how well our ferry service is being used. We shared that data with the public here on our website back in August. So now we need to know what the Province has in mind – and we still have no date for the public consultation here on Gabriola.

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