VICTORIA - It’s been a choppy patch for BC Ferries.
Fares have soared. The Queen of Oak Bay crushed a flotilla of boats last year in Horseshoe Bay.
And then in March the Queen of the North sank, claiming two lives and wreaking havoc on service between Prince Rupert and Port Hardy.
So far, the Liberal government has stayed above the fray. It changed B.C. Ferries from a Crown corporation to a sort-of independent business in 2003. If you’ve got worries, talk to the company, cabinet ministers said.
But three years on the pretence that ferries have nothing to do with government has pretty much unravelled.
Transportation Minister Kevin Falcon might have just been able to dodge most questions about soaring ferry fares and their effect on regional economies.
But he can’t avoid the hard questions about safety on BC Ferries in the aftermath of the Queen of the North disaster. David Hahn, the corporation’s CEO, has been handling the issue, but his credibility has been damaged. People need to hear from the government, which owns the corporation and is ultimately responsible.
Hahn and the BC Ferry and Marine Workers have been feuding about safety. It’s been a bizarre spectacle - try and imagine Air Canada’s management and unions tossing public abuse at each other after a plane crash. The union complains safety issues have been ignored. Hahn says union members are refusing to co-operate with an internal investigation into the sinking.
And then Derik Bowland dropped a bombshell on BC Ferries.
Bowland isn’t just another critic. He started with BC Ferries in February as director of safety, health and environment. He left a $200,000 job as cruise ship captain to take on the senior safety job. And then five days after the sinking - less than two months after he started work - he left.
Now Bowland is suing B.C. Ferries, claiming its refusal to address safety problems and efforts to prevent him from doing his job effectively forced him from the post.
It’s important to remember that he has his own agenda as an ex-employee suing the company. And none of the allegations in his statement of claim have been proved.
But they are terribly serious. Bowland alleges he began pointing out major safety shortcomings soon after he began work and warned warning that “there was a strong likelihood of catastrophic incidents if safety practices and protocols were not immediately improved.”
Bowland alleges the corporation refused to recognize serious problems in safety policies and practices. If it had the Queen of the North might not have sunk, he says.
And he alleges B.C. Ferries executives first undermined and the blocked entirely his efforts to investigate the sinking, which claimed two lives. That’s when he left the job.
Hahn has given one radio interview on the lawsuit, saying Bowland was a short-term employee who had never been on the Queen of the North. No warnings of safety problems reached him or other senior executives, he says.
But Hahn has a credibility problem. The Transportation Safety Board is investigating the sinking. On May 11 it delivered a letter to him warning of problems. "Information gathered so far has revealed that some bridge team members were not familiar with the use of all the bridge equipment and controls," the letter warned. B.C. Ferries needs to examine its training, the letter said.
Hahn didn’t reveal the letter’s existence for two weeks and then described it as “benign” in an interview. When a reporter uncovered the letter the warning looked far from routine. (Hahn now says he will release material from the safety board within 24 hours of receiving it.)
The questions are beginning pile up. The answers from B.C. Ferries are inadequate; the report from the Transportation Safety Board is months - perhaps more than a year - away.
It’s time for the government to step in, review safety and report to the public.
Footnote: Hahn has proposed B.C. Ferries do its own safety audit and release the results. He says he is talking to a “credible” individual about leading the review. At this point, an internal review won’t be enough to provide the needed reassurances about safety. The government needs to take the lead.