Hundreds of placard-carrying coastal British Columbians gathered at the front of the legislature Tuesday to protest against impending cuts to the ferry service that provides their primary transportation link to the mainland.
The protesters waved signs that read "Why do you, B.C. government, hate us?" Another read, "B.C. government and BC Ferries suck the life out of coastal communities."
"Coastal Ferries Act – A Titanic Mistake," read another homemade sign.
Quadra Island resident Ted Conover, who was one of the estimated 500 people at the protest, said cutting services will eventually strangle coastal B.C.'s economy, especially on Vancouver Island.
The retired chartered accountant said many of the protesters were expressing their outrage at the coming cuts, but they should be making the economic case to the Liberal government for improving ferry service.
He said the government has yet to provide compelling data that justifies the reductions, due in April.
"That's what they should be looking at," he said. "What is it costing them in decreased revenues from the area. On Quadra Island there's a fish cannery, and I don't know how many trucks a day they bring across, but they're looking at barging now or moving the cannery. What does that cost to drive industry out?"
Mr. Conover said the service cuts will also result in dropping property values on island communities, which eventually means fewer tax dollars collected by the government.
"If they are going to start with cuts, they should start at the top [of BC Ferries head office] and work down," he said.
Canadian singers, and Gulf Island residents, Valdy and Gary Fjellgaard had the crowd clapping and singing along to their duet Islander.
Valdy told the crowd that the louder they sang, the more their voices would be heard within the walls of the legislature.
Transportation Minister Todd Stone said ferry service cuts will be painful for many coastal communities, but rising ferry fares, which are also due to increase in April, must be kept in check.
"We've said consistently from Day 1 in releasing our plan, there are going to be impacts," said Mr. Stone. "We know that. We know in every coastal community there will be impacts, whether it's in small business, whether it's in tourism. But at the end of the day, fares cannot continue to escalate."
Many underutilized routes are subsidized by taxpayers, Mr. Stone said, noting that the Coastal Discovery circle tour route from Port Hardy to Bella Coola subsidizes each passenger by $2,500.
Mr. Stone's ministry issued a statement Tuesday that stated federal and provincial tax dollars to support ferry services adds up to more than $200-million this year. Over the past decade, taxpayers have contributed $1.7-billion to BC Ferries, said the statement.
BC Ferries is expected to make $54-million in cuts through efficiencies by 2016, the government said.
The service reductions are estimated to save $18.9-million over two years, while fares are set to increase four per cent this year and 3.9 per cent in 2015.
BC Ferry Coalition spokesman and rally organizer Jef Keighley said protesters demand a halt to cuts.
He said the coalition believes Premier Christy Clark has failed to listen to what coastal communities want from BC Ferries.
Mr. Keighley said scheduled service cuts will affect 20 per cent of the population and the high cost of travel is harming business and driving a wedge between families and friends.
New Democratic ferries critic Claire Trevena told the crowd that coastal residents pay 80 per cent of the cost of ferry services, but they are still made to suffer cuts.
"This is driven completely by the neoconservative ideology of the Liberal government," she said.