Restoring the Bella Coola ferry service is the first step toward revitalizing the regional economy, according to Member of Parliament Nathan Cullen. On a recent visit to the Central Coast and Bella Coola, Cullen (NDP MP for Skeena/Bulkley Valley, which includes the Central Coast) said in an interview with the Coast Mountain NEWS that economic renewal involves “not only restoring the ferry service, but enhancing it.”
He was commenting on the 2014 cancellation of the direct summer ferry service between Bella Coola and Port Hardy, a BC government decision which has seen many tourism-related businesses between Northern Vancouver Island and the Cariboo suffering for the past two seasons, some reporting financial losses of 60 – 85%. The decision replaced a 115-vehicle ferry on a 12-hour sailing with one that can carry a maximum of 16 cars on a 16-hour trip.
Cullen said the area “started out so far ahead (in terms of tourist appeal) with its natural advantages”, but with the global tourism market “you have to remove barriers, not put them in the way.” He noted that he was involved in establishing the “Great Bear Rainforest” – an effort that cost $60 million in public money and another $60 million in private funds. “And now we’re not inviting people to see it.”
“You have got to do more than put the welcome mat out. You’ve got to make it easy.”
Cullen said the federal NDP is looking into the way the BC government manages the annual federal subsidy designed to help with the costs of operating the northern ferry service. These funds, some $21 million this year, are transferred to the province, and should be dedicated to subsidize the costly northern routes such as the one eliminated in the 2014 cuts. But it might take legal work to determine if the money is used for what was intended. Cullen said these routes “need to be subsidized,” but this should be seen as an investment in the economy.
“It pays back. You build it up. Like any business, if you put money in, you get more back. This is an investment that accrues over time,” he explained.
Cullen, the NDP’s Economic Critic, says an economy like Bella Coola’s “Is just getting hammered with the changes to forestry and fishing,” he added, “It could be strong again, with a diverse economy, with a bit of forestry and fishing, some tourism, some farming.”
He described the Central Coast Regional District as unique, being the only regional district in the province that doesn’t include at least one municipality, a fact that limits access to federal government funding. For example, areas in the northern part of his riding (which covers one-third of the entire province), recently received federal funding for some mountain bike trail development projects. Such projects would be valuable in the Bella Coola area, he noted.
“Mountain bikers would come here if you had trails for them, but you need money for that.” Federal government money is rarely available for areas such as Regional Districts or Improvement Districts that don’t have “an anchored municipality”.
He noted that Queen Charlotte City was incorporated nine years ago for that purpose, and since then has been able to access federal funding.
Cullen referred to the frustration expressed in a community meeting during his visit regarding the need for waterworks improvements in the Valley, but added that this is a growing problem across Canada, “applying equally to places like Bella Coola, Vancouver, and Toronto.” This is part of a $70 billion infrastructure problem, he said, claiming “our infrastructure is crumbling and the federal government is not owning up to what’s happening. That’s a big, big bill that’s coming due.”
He also described the Bella Coola Valley as unique in British Columbia. Nowhere else in the province is there such a large community separated from its nearest sizable neighbour (Williams Lake) by such a great distance (400+ km). The environment and moderate climate have made this possible.
One result of this is that “People like their independence. They like to be in a place where there aren’t a lot of rules and taxes and that kind of thing. That’s what I pick up in the Valley.” However, he added, “One of the downsides is that things like federal funding are harder to move.” Federal funds tend to “skew towards larger communities that have more drafters, writers, and proposal people” than smaller communities.
Bella Coola area communities are also disadvantaged because residents are ineligible for the “Northern Living Allowance” which provides certain federal tax breaks. Despite their remoteness, resulting in high transportation costs, Cullen said this should be based on the cost of goods and services and not on location, noting that the program was set up decades ago when “a line on a map” determined which communities needed such assistance.
He said this could be easily changed, but “you need a government wanting to change it.” He said the current federal government is “not interested” in changing this, perhaps because it allows them to “play politics” from time to time by bending the line and favouring certain regions to garner support.
In spite of the obvious economic plight of Bella Coola and the Central Coast, Cullen says he is “optimistic” about the future for the region because of an increase in community collaboration that he is seeing in the northwest in general and recently on the mid-coast. He pointed to cooperation between Bella Coola’s two community forests and efforts to work with First Nations communities as examples.
After representing his riding for 11 years, Cullen said “I’m seeing a much higher level of collaboration than I’ve ever seen. I’ve seen towns that have bickered with one another, but you can’t afford to bicker when times are tough. The old patterns of mistrust and suspicion of your neighbour don’t work. You don’t have the luxury. You need to collaborate.”
He said that the current federal election campaign is a good time to raise important issues, such as the need to restore and enhance suitable ferry service, recommending that the region lobby all of the political parties running in Skeena-Bulkley Valley to agree on the issue so that whoever is elected can claim total non-partisan support. T
his might be an effort to get a commitment on improvements to the Bella Coola harbour or to push for a “public-private partnership” in operating the marine link to Port Hardy.
The latter, Cullen said, would require considerable government involvement because the ferry route is a public resource which could not be allowed to fail as a business. But BC Ferries needs to run the service properly, he noted., “BC Ferries CAN run this service properly. They have the mandate. They have the money. But they are choosing not to do so.”
He likened BC Ferries to a money-losing restaurant that doubles its prices and closes three days a week to improve its bottom line. Before long, you’d have a restaurant open one day a week trying to sell a bowl of spaghetti for $50, he said. By cutting services and raising fares, BC Ferries has done just that. “If you look at what BCF is doing on the North Coast, it looks like a company trying to drive itself out of business.”
Cullen was highly critical of both the federal and provincial governments for their philosophy of governing. “They see government as the problem, not the solution,” he said. In the provincial case, he was alluding to the 2002 decision to separate BC Ferries from government control, greatly reducing the accountability of the Ferry corporation.
Recalling the time when public education was being created, Cullen said the current federal Conservatives and the provincial Liberals would have argued that “government should not be in the role of educating or caring for our kids.”