British Columbia

'The thing is our lifeline': Interior B.C. ferry strike imminent

Barring a last minute settlement, the largest freshwater ferry in the Interior will not be running this long weekend — and likely beyond that.

Kootenay Lake ferry could sit idle on busy long weekend

Beginning Saturday morning, the ferry could be sitting idle if an agreement isn't reached between the BCGEU and Western Pacific Marine. (Province of B.C.)

Barring a last minute settlement, the largest freshwater ferry in the Interior will not be running this long weekend — and likely beyond that.

The B.C. Government and Service Employees' Union has served 72-hours strike notice to the private company that operates the Kootenay Lake Ferry north of Nelson.

The ferry, which runs between Balfour and a terminal near Crawford Bay, is the longest free ferry ride in the world and is usually packed with vehicles crossing Kootenay Lake during summer long weekends.

Beginning Saturday afternoon, the ferry is expected to be idle.

"Our members don't just work on these ferries, they live in ferry-reliant communities," said BCGEU president Stephanie Smith.

"They know how important this service is to their friends, families and neighbours and they know what it's going to take to make it safe and sustainable for years to come. That's why they're fighting for a contract that prioritizes the recruitment and retention of highly skilled staff in a highly competitive industry."

Wage dispute

The BCGEU and Western Pacific Marine have been negotiating a new collective agreement for months but are far apart, on wages in particular.

The Liberal government under Gordon Campbell privatized the running of inland ferries, and according to Bryan Coe, marine superintendent with Western Pacific Marine, the company can't afford the increases demanded by the union.

"The employer in this case is caught between the mandate of the provincial government of two per cent, two per cent and two per cent, and the union's demands for what they consider to be coastal parity, which in some cases are 34 and 42 per cent," he said.

Under the terms of an essential services ruling issued this week by the B.C. Labour Relations Board, the Kootenay Lake Ferry will be shut down to routine travel but will be available for emergencies and disaster response. 

Limited access

It is going to be a major inconvenience to locals and visitors to the West Kootenay, since the Labour Day weekend is usually one of the busiest of the summer.

"None of my guests can get across the lake to go to Ainsworth or to go to Nelson and do all their recreational things," says Paul Hindson, owner of Kokanee Chalets in Crawford Bay. 

"We've got people with medical needs that need to get across. There's all kinds of reasons why we need to have access to that ferry. The thing is our lifeline."

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