B.C. Ferries abruptly cancelled all public community meetings and shifted local ferry committee meetings online Wednesday to protect employees citing a spike in aggression that includes gun threats and acts of vandalism.

Public notice about moving the Cortes Island and Quadra Island ferry advisory committee (FAC) meeting online, and the outright cancellation of a subsequent community town hall session happened within hours of the two events scheduled for mid-day and at 3:30 p.m. respectively.

It’s not entirely clear if it was a single incident or a compilation of incidents at different events that caused the cancellations, said Diana Mumford, chair of the Southern Sunshine Coast Ferry Advisory Committee.

However, a member of the public uttered threats involving the use of a gun at their FAC meeting in Gibsons on Sept. 20, she said.

Mumford described the meeting as charged — with 40 people attending in addition to the committee members and BC Ferries staff. Local frustration is running high after service from Horseshoe Bay to Langdale was slashed to buffer the loss of the Coastal Renaissance that serves B.C.’s Lower Mainland and Nanaimo. The vessel has been out of service due to mechanical failures since Aug. 17.

BC Ferries has cancelled 32 sailings on the Sunshine Coast run, or Route 3, in September and October, including the Thanksgiving long weekend. The day before the FAC meeting, there were waits of seven and half hours for the ferry, Mumford said.

Mumford told BC Ferries she had seen social media posts about staging a protest at the FAC meeting but wasn’t sure if any measures were taken by the corporation in response.

“The meeting was tense, but I think we were moving ahead,” Mumford said, noting she felt staff were receptive, heard the complaints and were open to suggestions and exploring some possible fixes.

It was dismaying that someone in the audience resorted to threats as a means to express their opinion at the event, Mumford said.

BC Ferries sent a letter to all the community ferry advisory committees noting a rise in aggressive behaviour to staff including "a threat to the effect that if BC Ferries didn't make changes, the individual would take a gun to everyone."

“It was something about getting a gun or having a gun,” Mumford said, adding she couldn’t recall the exact wording.

“That is not acceptable,” Mumford said.

“As a ferry advisory chair, and as the chair of the chairs’ group, I am so discouraged the voice of one person who made a really dumb, stupid comment obviously wasn't thinking that it would negate all of the hard work that the volunteers [on] various advisory committees do and that we'd be judged for that.”

Various community and FAC meetings have taken place since the tense Southern Sunshine Coast meeting. Mumford said since then, she’s received reports that someone at a public meeting in the Northern Sunshine Coast directly confronted a ferry employee and attendees had to intervene.

Over the course of the summer, BC Ferries has been plagued by mechanical failures with other key vessels, staffing shortages and technical glitches with its reservation system.

Brian Anderson, BC Ferries' vice-president of strategy and community engagement, issued a letter to all the community FACs chairs on Sept. 26 detailing additional reasons for cancelling the public meetings for the safety and security of staff.

“Over the past several months, our team members have noted a rise in aggressive, threatening and abusive behaviour while out in [the] community, including the keying of vehicles, shouting foul language and a disrespect for personal space,” Anderson said.

“During a recent FAC meeting, a member of the public uttered a threat to the effect that if BC Ferries didn't make changes, the individual would take a gun to everyone.”

RCMP and BC Ferries security personnel are reviewing the situation, he said.

“We value our FACs and understand the importance of community engagement,” he said.

“We also believe that the conversations and actions of all involved in these events should always be respectful in nature. These changes have not been taken lightly.”

As was mentioned in the public cancellation notices, BC Ferries enforces a zero-tolerance policy for abusive behaviour, the letter said.

BC Ferries plans to develop a safety and security plan for FAC meetings and other public events consistent with the approach to other public-facing areas of the business, including terminal and vessel operations, said Deborah Marshall, BC Ferries executive director of public affairs, in an email.

Marshall did not clarify if there were any signals of aggression or threats associated specifically with the Quadra Island and Cortes Island FAC meeting or community event, or why the cancellation was announced the same day as the meetings.

“We understand each community is different, however, due to the gravity of this situation, we are employing a consistent response for all communities by pressing pause on our in-person events while we develop fulsome safety and security plans to support our staff at these events,” she said.

Rochelle Baker / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer

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The person who attended the meeting and threatened any type of violence needs to be found and charged. This is beyond moronic! What is it that so many people just don’t get?
It’s the same thing with the airlines, there are FAR more people travelling on the ferries today with a system that wasn’t built to carry this many. The ferries are old and replacing them is ALWAYS a fraught political affair. Plus we have all these ferries that were built in Poland and other foreign countries that require parts to be shipped in and even engineering specialists on occasion. As always they are making do with what they have! And to have some angry IDIOT come in and threaten them is beyond the pale. Either as the Vancouverites used to love telling Vancouver Islanders, “suck it up buttercup, you decided to live on an island”, or become part of the solution, don’t bloody add to the problem!

As a frequent ferry traveller I agree, and this abuse of innocent ferry employees cannot go unpunished.

It's noteworthy that the Coastal Class ferry taken out of service for major mechanical repairs was built in Germany for less cost than if it was built in BC. Yet the two largest ferries in the fleet, both Spirit Class vessels, were built in BC a decade earlier than the three Coastal Class boats, and have an exemplary service record despite this week's removal of one of them for medium-scale repairs to the hull.

Staffing is affected by management's policy of keeping too many ferry workers on a permanent on-call basis, which is very disruptive to family life. Change that policy back to steady, predictable shift work and employees will then have the stability they deserve which will be reflected in staffing levels.

Remember that BC Ferries remains stuck on the massive engineering challenges of transporting hundreds of tonnes of cars with ever sailing. They are floating traffic jams, yet 400,000 passengers will be accommodated on board this coming Thanksgiving weekend

It's beyond time to provide 21st Century passenger only downtown harbour service between Vancouver, Victoria and Nanaimo, eventually followed by the Sunshine Coast and possibly Seattle. The ships will be smaller, lighter and far less expensive then building and maintaining massive car infrastructure, and would no doubt take the pressure off the main runs with 400 cars, buses and trucks per vessel. Direct commuter rail connections to the ferry terminals will stimulate the Network Effect and amplify transportation efficacy on a much smaller footprint than floating traffic jams, huge parking lots and choked highways.