In addition to transportation, the ferry service has provided other economic benefits for the province. For example, 31 of the 34 ferries in service were built within BC, creating thousands of jobs for residents.

While in power, the NDP government created a new crown corporation called Catamaran Ferries International, Inc. This new corporation was to continue supplying ferries for years to come, continuing the tradition of building ferries in the province and guaranteeing good jobs. However, in early 2003, Gordon Campbell’s Liberal government cancelled the project and scrapped the new crown corporation (along with all of its employees) in favour of a plan to privatize the industry, which the Liberals outlined in Bill C-18, the Coastal Ferry Act.

Since privatization, the newly renamed British Columbia Ferry Services Inc. has done everything possible to cut costs and increase profits. Wage rollbacks, casualization of labour, and the scaling back of staff became orders of the day. By the end of the year, the cutbacks resulted in a bitter strike by the 4,300 members of the British Columbia Ferry Marine Workers Union (BCFMWU). One of the most critical concerns raised by the BCFMWU has been a lack of job safety. A year before the privatization, the union had already filed a report calling for an independent safety audit in regards to the condition of BC’s aging fleet.

Throughout the privatization process, the Liberal government tried to sway public opinion by claiming that the private ferry operator would not have the same degree of freedom that most private companies enjoy. A commissioner, to be appointed by the government, would oversee operations and ensure the company’s policies follow the public interest. Article 38 (3) of the Coastal Ferry Act states: “The commissioner must not regulate ferry operators in relation to ancillary services.” What the Liberals don’t want the public to understand is that the definition of “ancillary services” includes all services related to vessel maintenance.

In pursuit of the bottom line, conditions have become more and more dangerous for both employees and passengers. Because large profits can be extracted from modern on-board cafeterias, the cafeterias receive multi-million dollar upgrades, while engines are left to decay. The five largest vessels in the fleet, which service the busiest Vancouver / Vancouver Island routes (two of the five have seen major accidents in the past three years) underwent $30 million refits last year, but according to BCFMWU president Jackie Millar, “very little went into the engineering side of it.” In a similar case, the Queen of Nanaimo, now 40 years old, underwent a $13 million refit this spring, but according to Millar, her engines went “totally untouched.” The only maintenance in the engine room involved replacing a few pipes.

Since the March 22nd sinking of the Queen of the North, which tragically killed two passengers, the union has renewed its call for improved safety practices. The Queen of the North was a 38 year old vessel originally built in Germany. She employed a single-hull design that was unable to survive a significant hull breach or the flooding of more than one bulkhead compartment. In contrast, all newer ferries are able to survive the flooding of at least two bulkhead compartments.

Immediately after the sinking, the BCFMWU called a press conference to announce that training standards had fallen victim in the pursuit to minimize costs. Millar, the union’s president, reported that the crew of the Queen of the North was not “familiar with the use of all of the bridge equipment and controls.”

David Hahn, the New York businessman hand-picked by Gordon Campbell to run BC Ferries, responded to the union’s press conference by placing the blame directly on the crew of the vessel. Rather than sparing the expense to implement a reasonable minimum of training, Hahn simply responded that the crew members were to blame because they should have spoken out if they didn’t understand the equipment. He went on to announce that in order “to remove that doubt,” BC Ferries has “introduced a new form that we’re asking all the officers to sign, stating that they’re familiar with the equipment, they’re comfortable with it.” Apparently, according to Hahn, the main problem is that crew members aren’t aware that they need to understand the equipment, and this new form will quickly convince them to somehow train themselves to use unfamiliar technologies, while no adequate training is provided.

Hahn continues to ignore the years of repeated calls by ferry workers for improved safety standards. Lloyd Patrick, a former crew member, wrote to The Province the day after the Queen of the North sank, “The crews of these vessels have voiced their concerns for years, but they’re not listened to.” According to Patrick, the safety record that BC Ferries had enjoyed had been achieved “only through sheer luck.”

Lloyd Patrick is not alone in making his concerns known. In response to Hahn’s comment about bridge crew members needing to speak out if they are uncomfortable, Millar stated, “BC Ferries has consciously made decisions in the past to sail vessels that we deem, and our members deem, to be unsafe, and if expressions of concern are raised the crew members, the ships’ officers, are disciplined for it.” Hahn’s reply was that the union’s safety concerns are a “bunch of BS”. But it isn’t just the union voicing these concerns.

Darin Bowland resigned his position as director of safety, health, and environment for BC Ferries just a week after the sinking. He claims that after the Queen of the North sank, BC Ferries “prevented (Bowland) from conducting an inquiry into the sinking,” and undermined his authority in order to keep the causes of the accident from reaching the public. Bowland, who had only been hired two months before, says he had already conducted a review of safety practices and found them “woefully inadequate.” He also warned senior management that “there was a strong likelihood of catastrophic incidents” if their procedures weren’t improved. Additionally, just a week before the Queen of the North sank, Bowland spoke at a regular meeting of the Nautical Institute, telling them that he was concerned about training for crews facing increasingly complex equipment on ships’ bridges.

It is clear that two sides of this story are emerging. On one side sit the workers who operate the ferries, the union which represents them, the former safety director of the company, and even Transport Canada, all of whom condemn BC Ferries for their safety practices. The other side belongs exclusively to David Hahn, who reports that the system is “incredibly safe”, and who insists that forcing crew members to sign a ridiculous form is the best means of improving training procedures.

Hahn had no previous marine experience, and previously held jobs as Director of Marketing for Hertz Corporation, Chief Operating Officer at Ogden Aviation, and vice-president of Covanta Energy Corp. Covanta was a multi-national corporation which racked up $3.3 billion in debt before it was forced to declare bankruptcy. It is obvious that Hahn was not hired (at a rate of $300,000 per year) because anybody thought he was the best choice for the job of overseeing this essential service for the public. The BC Ferries website makes this perfectly clear when it refers to his specialities as, “business restructuring, strategic planning, revitalized marketing, revenue growth, acquisitions, and customer service.” Hahn was hired because he has experience squeezing every dollar out of large corporations and their employees.

So far, Hahn has succeeded in that task. For the year ending March 2006, net earnings reached $49.9 million, up $14.7 million compared to 2005. Since being hired, Hahn has reduced costs by attacking the living standards of his employees, and he has sacrificed passenger and crew safety for the benefit of increased food sales. This accident, or any other which might happen in the future, won’t hurt BC Ferries financially. They received $67.9 million on the Queen of the North’s insurance claim, which isn’t a bad price for a 38 year old vessel which was scheduled to be replaced within five years anyways. But despite his successes on the balance-sheet, Hahn has failed miserably in providing a safe service which British Columbians can rely on for years to come.

Firing Hahn to simply replace him with another CEO wouldn’t help matters much. BC Ferries blatantly exposes the reality of privatization, a reality which neo-conservative governments like the BC Liberals deny. When vital services are privatized and become controlled by CEOs like Hahn who are hired to measure success only by profit, every other possible measure of success falls into steep decline, including workers’ rights and the safety of the service. This is the same reality that has led to an absurdly high record number of rail accidents since BC Rail was privatized; the same reality has been demonstrated every time a service that people depend on has been privatized.

The NDP has been vocal in calling for public hearings, but that isn’t nearly enough. BC Ferries must be re-nationalized, and put under the control of the workers who operate the system every day. The workers were the first to sound the alarm about safety, and have continued to sound it ever since. They have far more expertise regarding the technical elements of running a ferry system then David Hahn. The ferry workers play a daily active roll in running the ferry system and would take into account the safety of passengers and welfare of the province, rather then just the bottom-line.

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