May 8, 2015 (41st Parliament, 2nd Session)


Nathan Cullen

New Democratic Party

Mr. Nathan Cullen (Skeena—Bulkley Valley, NDP)

Mr. Speaker, I rise today in support of Motion No. 591, concerning the ferry between Wood Island, P.E.I. and Caribou, Nova Scotia.
As somebody who represents northwestern British Columbia in this place, we know the ferry system as well as anybody does. It is good to support our friends and fellow Canadians on the other side of the country who are dealing with a government that has shown inconsistent support to the ferry services across Canada and has fallen far short of promises made by the Canadian government, time and time again.
The fact that the government could not even bring itself, in hundreds of pages of the 2015 budget, to even mention Wood Island and the vital ferry service shows where the government's priorities are. It is certainly not with the people of P.E.I. and Nova Scotia. That is the reality. Those are the choices it is making.
The government has lots of money for unfair income-splitting initiatives, $2 billion-plus for that. It has billions more for other pet projects. However, when it comes to vital services that actually help Canadians stay connected to other Canadians and when it comes to helping services that actually help our economy, the Conservatives are nowhere to be found.
We saw it again today with 20,000 more jobs lost in the Canadian market. That parenthetically marks 16 months in a row that Canada has had less than 1% growth in our economy, which is the worst stretch of economic performance outside of a recession in the last 40 years. The Conservatives are wrapping themselves in this idea of how well they are doing on the economy, except for the facts. The facts are the facts that Canadians face each and every day.
It goes without saying that many of the services like the one we are talking about today, and many other ferry services across the country, pay for themselves in whatever support is offered by the government. If we look around the world, particularly the developed world, the developed nations in Europe, Australia and whatnot, the ferry services provided there, and the strength of the central government, is much stronger and consistent than what we have in Canada.
Coming from British Columbia, as anyone who has ever visited the coast of B.C. from south all the way through to the north, ferries are an integral link. They are in fact our highway system. If people are driving down Highway 16 in northern British Columbia and get to Prince Rupert, they get on the ferry and keep going when they get to the other side, in Haida Gwaii, some four or five hours away on the ferry. I have taken that ferry many times.
It is a vital link. To suggest that it does not deserve support would be like saying to people in the Greater Toronto Area that there will be no support for development on Highway 401, or saying to people along the TransCanada, that it is not a vital link anymore. For us, the ferry service is exactly what it is. It is a link between us and the rest of the country.
When B.C. entered confederation, as part of the deal, the Government of Canada promised to support ferry service. Yet, what we have seen from consecutive Conservative and Liberal governments is a constant bleeding of the funds, a constant shortfall, again and again.
The B.C. ferry service, to put this into some context, moves more than 20 million British Columbians, other Canadians and visitors every year; 20 million people get on and off ferries in British Columbia. That is an absolutely essential component, not just to our tourism economy, which is obviously vibrant and vital to the people of British Columbia, but it is essential to just about every part of the economy. People living on Vancouver Island or any of the southern or northern gulf islands, or where I live on the north coast, the ferry service is essential, yet it is not treated as an essential service by the government. We have seen cutbacks year after year on the north coast routes. We have seen prices continue to climb, while service continues to drop.
Again, the Conservatives pretend to be good at business, but imagine a business that offered less and less service of a lower and lower quality and charged more and more for the product. The business would not last very long, but that is exactly how the Conservatives have treated the ferry service in British Columbia with their partners in Victoria, the so-called Liberal government of Christy Clark.
What they have done, year after year, is cut back support for the ferry services. The Conservatives have mismanaged it entirely. They have done what Conservatives always do with vital crown corporations, with vital services, they have privatized it. We know how the promises always go when Conservative politicians get up and say they that will privatize something and let the private sector do better. What the private sector has done to the ferry service in British Columbia has been nothing but a disaster. It was good at one thing, which was paying executives a lot of money. The previous CEO of BC Ferries made more than $1 million, each and every year he was CEO as he was cutting services to British Columbians and raising the costs.
The new CEO took a huge pay cut, coming in at a little north of half a million dollars a year. I just do not know how he makes ends meet. That must be tough. He has two vice-presidents who are making more than $650,000 a year to run the ferry system. To put that into some context, just south of us, in Washington state, the same job is being done by a CEO at $145,000. That is a sixth of what they are paying themselves in British Columbia, yet they claim poverty. They claim poverty when it comes time to actually provide services to British Columbians.
For the routes I represent in northern British Columbia, going from Prince Rupert to beautiful Haida Gwaii, the very western tip of this country, a place that, for any Canadian or anyone who has the fortune to go there, burns in the memory--it is a magnificent place, a place we all should get to--this ferry service is essential for business and tourism.
However, for the nearly 5,000 people who live on Haida Gwaii, often just getting to a dentist appointment or a medical appointment or having a baby requires them to leave the island and take the ferry across. That can run, for a family of four, up to nearly $1,000 just to get back to the mainland to get basic services, because the downturn in the economy on that island has been so devastating that they have lost many of their essential services. They have closed so many of the important things that for any particular care people might need they have to come off the island, and they are hit with this huge tax.
The subsidy that came from the federal government, which was promised by the federal government to British Columbia, was consistent for a while and has since started to roll into general revenues, as Conservatives are so wont to do. They take a very specific thing for a very specific and important measure and they roll it all into general revenues. Guess what happens to it when it goes there, into the black hole of Conservative economics and government. It can go into any project and anything they deem to be important to them on any given day. That is a problem for us, because we see dedicated money just not going to the dedicated purpose.
The effect on places like Bella Bella, Bella Coola, and some of the smaller coastal communities along the central and north coasts has been even more devastating. These are vital and vibrant communities, yet they require that connection, as any Canadian does, of transportation to get across to talk with and visit people, do business, and be with family and friends.
To us, this has been a reprehensible approach to government. We have long put in our platforms, as New Democrats, year after year, more and stronger, consistent support for ferry services on the west coast. It is good that we are being joined by our Liberal colleagues now to talk about sustainable ferry service, predicable ferry service. We have to keep in mind, particularly for those businesses that rely on the tourist trade in Îles de la Madeleine and on the east coast, along with the west coast, the unpredictability the Conservatives are causing now by saying they are in consultation, while the contract is running out
For those who are in the tourism business, the time to make money is a very tight window of three, four, or five months, maybe. If they are setting up that operation and hiring staff, and they do not know if or what kind of ferry service they are going to have to their island and to their business, that can be devastating, because those people looking to come to visit make their decisions four and five months out, because they sometimes travel from far away. If they do not know if they are able to get there, they are not going to come.
We saw this last year with BC Ferries, which has this so-called private-sector approach, being such brilliant managers of something like the ferry service. They had actually allowed construction companies to book virtually the entire deck of what was a now reduced ferry, just in case they wanted to put any equipment on it. People were phoning BC Ferries, a privately run company that is supposed to be efficient, and were being told that the ferry was full, so people did not come, because they had to come from far away to the get to the north coast, to Prince Rupert, just to get over to Haida Gwaii and some of the other islands. Therefore, the ferry was sailing 40% to 50% empty most of the time, because the construction companies were not coming up, and they were not paying for any of the space.
This is the Conservative world view of how to run an essential service. It is terrible business practice. It is awful public management practice, because it hurts communities that, in some cases, are just struggling to hang on, doing all they can to remain vital and a contributing part of Canadian society.
We have known that for many years the subsidy from the federal government to the 20 million passengers who ride B.C. ferries is around $1.40 a year, which is dramatically less than it is in other parts of the country. We do not wish the other parts of the country, the east coast in particular, to come down to our level, because we see the results in massive cuts, layoffs, strife and uncertainty. We want to bring it up to a reliable and vibrant ferry service. That is what the country needs. It is what the economy needs.
The Conservatives say that they are concerned about the economy and that they want to reverse the trend of anemic job growth for 16 months now, which the Governor of the Bank of Canada called an atrocious situation with respect to our economy. Let us start with the practical things, the smart things, such as helping out the ferry service. For the life of me, I cannot understand why the Conservatives will not support this motion. I cannot for the life of me understand why the Conservatives so consistently look to bleed the ferry system across this country, from east to west to north, to the point where people cannot rely on it anymore. It is what helps connect this country. It is what helps keeps us strong.

Topic:   Private Members' Business
Subtopic:   Ferry Services to Prince Edward Island
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