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The Spirit of Hartley Bay's People

The little village that saved the ferry passengers honoured by People's Order of BC. Fourth in a series.

Robyn Smith 7 Sep 2012TheTyee.ca

Robyn Smith is a senior editor for The Tyee.

Edward Robinson was getting ready for bed at 12:25 a.m. when he learned the Queen of the North was sinking. He turned on the radio traffic channel that marine vessels use to report in on, and was told to stand by. When the mayday call came, Robinson switched to channel six and put out the call to all available guards for help. Around 20 men from Hartley Bay quickly reported down at the docks, packed into a fleet of speedboats and gillnetters, and sped off towards the plunging ferry.

It was a windy night, he recalls.

"I guess it was coming in what we mariners know as squalls. It wasn't a steady wind -- it would blow hard and just quit for a few minutes, then come again. When we headed out, there was a little bit of waves when we were leaving our dock, but as we got closer to where the Queen of the North was going down, it got calm."

He'd spend the next 16 hours on the water bringing survivors from the ferry's lifeboats back to shore, and then manning a perimeter, looking for the lost.

On March 22, 2006, the night the Queen of the North struck Gil Island and sank, all but two -- Shirley Rosette and Gerald Foisy of 100 Mile House -- were safely returned to shore, to Hartley Bay's cultural centre. There Mona Danes and other volunteers received ferry passengers. They prepared hot coffee and meals, handed out warm blankets and clothes, and carefully took down the names of everyone who arrived.

"The first bunch of people who came through that door, I'll never forget, they were just so sad," Danes said. "What could I do? Just hold them and pat them, 'You're OK, we're here for you.'"

For their initiative, selflessness and extraordinary commitment to the well-being of others that night, the Gitga'at of Hartley Bay, B.C., a tiny coastal community of 200, received the Governor General's Commendation for Outstanding Service in 2006.

And last year, readers of The Tyee also selected them as worthy of the The Tyee's inaugural People’s Order of B.C.

As their nominator put it, "I say the award should be given to each and every member of the Hartley Bay band, for their heroic efforts at rescuing the passengers of the BC Ferries' Queen of the North. If it wasn't for their prompt action, it is possible many more passengers would have died when the ship went down. And considering that nearly five years [now six] have gone by, and that Hartley Bay has been all but forgotten, it is time to put the residents of that small community front and centre once again (and with any luck, forevermore)."

What's in a ferry name?

In the months following that night, an idea was put forward to name one of BC Ferries' North Coast boats the "Spirit of Hartley Bay." But as the CBC reported, that was eventually vetoed by then-BC Ferries president David Hahn, who said the name wouldn't fit well with the company's marketing strategy. BC Ferries took other steps Hahn believed would be more meaningful to the people of Hartley Bay, such as giving them a small rescue boat, repairing a boardwalk, buying schoolyard playground equipment and installing a new dock gangway.

But to Robinson, the name would've been a good fit for a ferry. "When you think of it, people traveling on the vessel, it would be like the spirit of Hartley Bay holding them up, making sure they get to their port," he said.

"I think everybody here thought it would've been a good idea," Danes agreed.

But it's not the awards or public accolades that buoy Mona Danes. She's kept spirited by cooking and caring for visitors during the recent Enbridge hearings in Hartley Bay. The fact that a number of First Nations are working together to stop the pipeline drives her -- and gives her hope.

"We band together, we might win," she said. "We're fighting now with everything that we have."

That's the spirit of Hartley Bay.

On Monday, the final winner of The Tyee’s first People's Order of BC awards: anti-poverty activist Jean Swanson. Find the whole series here.  [Tyee]

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