Thursday, October 4, 2007

Islanders are up in arms, or I should say up in noses, about a recent incident that happened on the Queen of Capilano. Last week, my friend Paul Hoosen was arrested after he boarded the ferry without a boarding pass.

Here's Paul's version of events:

I was in the line-up for a ticket 9 minutes before the scheduled sailing,
but didn't get to the ticket window until about 6 minutes before. The ferry
was a bit late, and was just unloading cars, so we went up to the front
right away to ask if Boweners should come forward. The agent said no, that
there was time,but called us forward two minutes later.

When the ticket agent called us forward, I was first in line. I handed her
my credit card, and asked for a book of commuter tickets, and to use one for
that passage. She was about to scan it, but heard on the radio that Bowen
was clearing (they hadn't even finished unloading cars at that time). She
refused to allow me to purchase tickets, saying she didn't have time to
process a credit card. When I responded that it was legal tender, and that
it takes no more time to do this than to pay with cash, she again refused my
payment. the Boweners behind me were astounded, and spoke up for me, to no

I went down to the dock, and talked to the marshalling employee directing
foot passenger traffic, and she refused to let me on the ferry to buy a
ticket there. I was also denied use of a commuter ticket that another
passenger offered for me. The same happened when I talked to a Supervisor,
whom I had suggested she call.

When I went on the ferry, it was against the orders of this Supervisor, and
I went upstairs to buy a ticket there, which I was sold without incident.
The First Mate didn't have to catch up to me. I went back down to the car
deck, and showed him my valid receipt for passage (he had just finished
loading cars), but he said the Police had been called, and that I had to
disembark. That's when I calmly but firmly told him I would not (so I didn't
comply), and he asked that I wait by the ramp for the Police to arrive,
which I quietly did.

The officer walked straight up to me and demanded that I leave the ferry. I
showed him my ticket and refused. He said a second time to leave the ferry,
but was already starting to execute the judo move to take me down, according
to witnesses. I had exhibited no signs of violence, or anger towards him, so
the "without provocation" is certainly true.

The charge is actually "Assault by Trespasser", and is a misdemeanor charge,
so shouldn't technically affect my work in hospitals, other than to be
confusing for kids and parents, and to precipitate a lot of discussion that
takes away from the purity of the character.

Paul complied, although he was frustrated at the situation. What happened with the police officer was, in the minds of everyone concerned, unconscionable. Paul met the police officer from the West Vancouver Police Department, who, without warning or provocation, dropped him with a judo sweep, kneeled on him and handcuffed him. The whole incident was caught on a cell phone camera and dozens of witnesses watched. Paul was escorted off the ferry, a little bruised and fairly steamed by now. He was charged with "assault by trespasser" and made to sit in the police crusier for 70 minutes and then released and told not to board the ferry until 9:30, the last sailing of the day.

Now, this is bad enough, but the whole situation is made worse by the fact that it happened to Paul Hoosen. Paul is a longtime Islander, a dedicated and tireless champion of the Community and Performing Arts Centre initiative and a professional clown who works at BC Children's Hospital with kids who are desperately sick, lonely and scared. He has a huge heart and is loved and respected all over Bowen. This incident triggered a flood of support for Paul, including a "rubber nose" campaign whereby Islanders have been dropping toonies in buckets all over Bowen and buy rubber clown noses which they have been wearing or displaying on the ferry in solidarity with Paul. The money is going to help pay for his legal costs, some of which he will incur when he makes a court appearance on November 7.

The protest is on the one hand serious and on the other hand completly silly, capturing the absurdity of the whole situation. Global News picked up the story and ran interviews with Islanders who were decked out in their red noses, sacrificing a little bit of dignity to stand with Paul and make their concerns known to the world. BC Ferries could only respond with classic PR spin which made them look silly - they arrested a clown and are being confronted with rubber nose wearing Islanders and the best they could do was to respond with their PR officer reciting policies.

But this incident is serious for BC Ferries because it has actually catalyzed some simmering frustration that Islanders have felt with the Corporation. This has been brewing for a number of years. It's not about the crews who staff the ships, but about the increasingly distant and cold corporate relationship that BC Ferries has taken with its long standing customers - those of us who depend on the ferry daily and to connect us to the mainland. I have no quibble with our crews, and I've written before of my admiration and support for them. They are courageous and generally pleasant folks. In recent years they have worked closely with the community on issues such as the behaviour of school kids and ferry marshalling. I have seen them save lives, rescue other ferries and stand up against the corporation that tried to renegotiate their contracts.

The Corporation on the other hand is a different beast. Over the years they have raised prices significantly for passage to Bowen, added a fuel surcharge and increased the prices far beyond the rate of inflation. Ferry service is generally reliable but in the summer time it is crazily out of whack. The Corporation has promised us a new boat for years (which I don't see the need for) but they refuse to improve service on the run until Bowen builds them a new terminal on the Island. In the meantime, BC Ferries has done exactly this at Alert Bay and maintains terminal on all the other islands. Yet we are expected to pay for ours.

The Coporation, which is a semi-private body owned by the Province and governed by an appointed Board is only accountable to the BC Ferry Commissioner who approves and enforces the terms of the contract that BC Ferries has with the province. Over the years I have sent submissions to the ferry commission regarding price increases and fuel surcharges, but I have never once received so much as an acknowledgement of my submission. The Corporation does not respond to complaints other than with the odd acknowledgement and exhibits little flexibility or creativity when it comes to developing new ideas such as length based pricing, commuter cards or charging for bicycles (which is a ridiculous notion, but so far they won't budge). Worse still, they have been talking about securing the ferry terminal at Horseshoe Bay under the auspices of security, thereby preventing locked in passengers from access the shops and restaurants of Horseshoe Bay. If they lock the gates and prevent people from leaving, the merchants in Horseshoe Bay wil suffer terribly and security won't be improved in any way.

So all of this, which is long simmering, has come to a head with Paul's arrest. The incident somehow captures the spirit of the relationship between BC Ferries and Bowen Islanders. Many of us feel empathy for Paul because we have all felt treated badly by the Corporation at some time or another. Although Paul is only person I know that has been wrestled to the ground and handcuffed at the behest of BC Ferries, we are all handcuffed by the monopoly that BC Ferries has over our route and the unaccountable nature of the Corporation and the Commission that is supposed to oversee it. So we're with Paul, and in a bigger way, I think we are all about inviting the Corporation to really understand the way we feel treated by them. If there was a competing service to Bowen I have no doubt that it would do well. BC Ferries HAS to notice this frustration, but there is very little improvement.

So at the risk of being overly optimistic, and wanting to be constructive, here are some ideas that I have for the Corporation.

  • Fifteen minutes before a sailing, dedicate one foot passenger booth to that sailing. That way Bowen Islanders won't get caught in the line up with a busload of passengers heading for Nanaimo. Do the same with the Langdale run. Everything will speed up.
  • Implement an electronic card system, similar to the one used on transit systems the world over. Commuters can buy a monthly or annual pass and simply scan the card at the terminal, receive a boarding pass and hit the ferry. The ferry cutoff time can be sent to the machine, and if a passenger is late, no pass gets issued. Simple and it takes no time at all.
  • If a customer runs into a problem assume good intentions. No one boards the Bowen Island ferry with the criminal intent to assault anyone by trespass. Unless a passenger is inebriated or violent there is no reason to call the police. Staff need to be flexible creative and communicative and they need the support of the Corporation to make discretionary decisions without getting in trouble. The Queen of Capilano crew has a relationship with Bowen Islanders and that relationship is stifled when the Corporation forces them to follow dehumanizing policies. We are all people, all friends and colleagues. Let the adults work it out.
  • And to alleviate the issues on pricing, I sent a submission to the Ferry Commission years ago stating that I was in favour of the fuel surcharge if a small percentage of it went to developing a long term plan to wean the ferries off of fossil fuels. This doesn't have to be an overnight thing, but to simply charge the fuel surcharge and not appear to be address the economics of ever scarcer fuel seems short-sighted. Many of BC Ferries' own customers could help them in this regard. On Bowen alone, there are people involved in the bio-fuels industry with extensive experience in large scale fleet conversions and planning. I'm sure they would be willing to offer advice. If you are going to charge increasing prices that outpace the rate of inflation, at least demonstrate some creativity and openness to addressing your long term cost structure. Give us some confidence that we are not just being soaked.
  • Adopt length-based pricing in a more graduated way to give smaller cars a break and to charge larger vehicles for the actual space they are buying. Reward carpooling, as these people are ultimately helping you to keep down costs by lessening the demand for bigger boats, and let bikes on for free.
  • Institute an ongoing and creative conversation between BC Ferries and Islanders to find mutually beneficial solutions to problems. Instead of sending PR flacks out, or holding "town hall" style meetings - which are little more that show and tell - atcually come and engage in creative processes to find new ways of doing things for mutual benefit. Practice a little bit of deliberative dialogue with the smart people on Bowen Island, and reap the rewards of good ideas and better relationships. It;s not hard to do. Many of us on Bowen are skilled at designing and facilittaing these kinds of processes. Ask us for help.

I would love it if BC Ferries would comment here, or send me an email, or sometime let me know that the ideas I have sent them over the years were received. (Blogs are all the rage you know. This one has held my musings since 2001). I think Islanders want to have a constructive relationship with the Corporation, and to avoid the kinds of dynamics that lead to a clown getting thrown to the ground and charged with assault all because he tried to play by the Corporation's own policies and was denied.

And of course, good luck to Paul. We're all with him and we support him because if it could happen to this big hearted lion of a man, it could happen to all of us, and that's not a cheery thought.