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Life without ferries on Haida Gwaii

The milk freezers are out again. That’s the moniker one island grocer uses for panic shoppers on Haida Gwaii — those who snatch 20 litres of milk (five 4-litre jugs) off the shelves the day the freight is unloaded. They fear the shelves will never fill again, even though they’ve seen it all before.

Once again Haida Gwaii is dealing with no way of getting on and off the islands with a vehicle for a month (Jan. 4 to Feb. 5). The big ferry, as islanders call it, isn’t running, not due to cataclysmic reasons, such as the reckless or not sinking of the Queen of the North, but because the dock at Skidegate Landing is being expanded to accommodate BC Ferries’ new Northern Expedition, which will come on line this summer.

It’s not all bad news. In exchange for a six-hour boat ride to the mainland, would-be walk-ons are now being offered a plane trip to Prince Rupert — at the same fare. With the special that’s on now, that’s a $20 ticket, each way.

Great . . . except that as one Queen Charlotte resident found out, it takes the same amount of time to take the 25-minute airplane ride anyway.

After arriving at 11 a.m., two hours in advance of the small ferry Sara Eaton would be taking to the airport (which is on Moresby rather than Graham Island where she lives), she waited another two hours at the airport for the flight from Vancouver to come in and take off again. Then the 25-minute flight and another hour wait at the airport in Prince Rupert (which is on an island too) for the bus to take the passengers on a little ferry before dropping them off at the hotel in town at 6:30 p.m., meant she’d spent 7.5 hours en route.

“It was bizarre,” she said.

Meanwhile, a barge service is bringing groceries and other freight to the islands, and Rick MacDonald at Clearbrook Trucking says everything is going well in that regard.

Of course, with only two barge trips a week, instead of the ferry’s regular three, customers are missing that extra freight day.

For example, mail is being delivered to the islands on Mondays and Fridays only, making concerns over the mail service more pronounced.

While the ferry was still underway in December, Queen Charlotte Mayor Carol Kulesha noted that it took more than nine days for a Christmas card to arrive from Prince Rupert. But she was more concerned about seniors who by the New Year were still waiting for their Old Age Security and CPP cheques, delivered to other Canadians on Dec. 22.

“Our problems with Canada Post are only going to get worse,” she forecasted.

And ferries concerns are going to get worse as well, as islanders found out just after New Year’s Day.

New Transport Canada safe-manning regulations for the Kwuna, which is the small ferry running between Graham and Moresby Islands, will slash the vessel’s capacity from 150 passengers to 36 by March (it was supposed to start January 1, but they got a last-minute reprieve).

School field trips will be affected, when 60 to 90 students are trying to reach inter-island events, but the drastic impacts will come when the tourist season starts up. Passengers heading to and from the airport could be left behind for two or three sailings, sometimes with a two-hour wait in between.

BC Ferries spokesperson Deborah Marshall says it would cost more than $200,000 a year to increase the crew level on the ferry to meet former passenger capacity levels, and they have no plans to hire more staff for the Kwuna.

North Coast NDP MLA and BC Ferries critic Gary Coons says BC Ferries has known for two years that these Canada-wide staffing requirements were coming. He can’t believe the corporation is taking a stance that will have such devastating effects for the Islands’ burgeoning tourist industry.

He says BC Ferries has hired 100 new managers over the last year and a half, and yet islanders had no idea this issue would hit them in 2009.

“BC Ferries seems to be constantly running in crisis mode,” he says. “This issue should have come forward to the communities long ago.”

Heather Ramsay is a regular contributor to The Tyee.

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