Connecting the Coast – The essential service of BC Ferries

Q+A with BC Ferries

Boarding a ferry on the coast of British Columbia reminds us how beautiful our region is — but it’s also a reminder that BC Ferries are a vital component of both our visitor and commercial economies, bringing goods, people and connection to our lives.

BC Ferries is one of the largest ferry operators in the world, moving more than 60,000 people and 23,000 vehicles throughout coastal B.C. every day. That equates to more than 22 million passengers a year across its 25 routes. CEO Mark Collins tells South Island Prosperity Partnership how BC Ferries contributes to our economy and shares his organization’s vision for a post-pandemic future.

Why did you join South Island Prosperity Partnership?

We recognize BC Ferries contributes to the prosperity of the South Island and supports the local economy. BC Ferries is focused on connecting communities, providing safe, reliable, and efficient ferry service that supports the economic well-being in the region. We employ about 1,500 people in Southern Vancouver Island and the Southern Gulf Islands. It’s important we do our part to nurture an innovative, diversified, inclusive and sustainable region for those who live and work here.

What do you see as key to growing a resilient, robust economic future for our region?

I believe the key to growing a resilient, robust economic future for the region is to know our strengths and play to them. We have a wonderful working harbour in downtown Victoria, a significant naval presence, and a vibrant tourism sector. The South Island is home to light industry, government and an exceptional tech sector. We should play these strengths, supporting these sectors to ensure the region is an attractive destination for growth in these areas.

What is our region’s secret sauce when it comes to competing internationally to attract quality talent, businesses with household sustaining jobs, and investment?

We live, work, and play in one of the most beautiful places in the world and there is no doubt it is a great place to raise a family. Employers frequently highlight the quality of life experienced by living on Southern Vancouver Island to attract top talent. Is it enough “sauce”? Indeed, this is a wonderful place to live, but for many it is too expensive and that is a limiting factor. There are significant challenges and stressors associated with real estate prices, affordable housing, the complexity of our local government structures, and our overall transportation network, for example. The lifestyle on South Vancouver Island allows us to enjoy the natural beauty and work in many different growing sectors, such as technology, businesses tied to the environment and food and beverage as well as the ocean and marine sector. We live in a beautiful place that attracts talent and resources.

As we come out of the pandemic and look to boost the economy, we have an opportunity to streamline government and municipal structures, review and revise things like permitting and approval processes, and redefine relationships with Indigenous groups in the spirit of cooperation and understanding. Further developing efficient regional transportation could also help strengthen the economy. It is possible to put ferries in a number of places and revitalize the E&N corridor. I would like to see us build consensus and move forward on innovative solutions so that people can work, travel and live comfortably in the region.

What are you most excited about in terms of your own organization’s plans and potential?

We are working hard to address one of the most important issues of our time – climate change. This year our hybrid battery electric vessels demonstrated the benefits of electrifying the coastal ferry fleet, and we continued to invest in our new, innovative Island Class vessels. We are working with both levels of senior government to provide emission-free ferry service to four routes and six ships in the near future. Combined with our leading investments in LNG propulsion, BC Ferries aims to reduce our carbon footprint in support of Clean BC and federal climate goals. I believe the marine industry as a whole is on the cusp of major breakthroughs, especially when it comes to electric propulsion, and I look forward to what advancements are made in the coming years.

What’s one thing about your organization you really want people to know that they probably don’t know?

BC Ferries is among the biggest employers and economic drivers in the region. We employ more than 1,500 people from Thetis Island to Chemainus, Swartz Bay to the Southern Gulf Islands and at head office in downtown Victoria. BC Ferries is proud to provide good paying jobs that support families. Throughout coastal British Columbia, our 35 vessels provide an average of close to 500 sailings per day, with stops at 47 ports. Fourteen of those stops and more than a quarter of our annual service is in the South Island region. We invest in the communities we serve. Whether we’re covering the cost of fuel, wages, terminal upgrades or IT advancements, it amounts to hundreds of millions of dollars in the South Island region every year.

What challenges are you most invested in helping our community overcome and why?

Throughout the pandemic, BC Ferries has provided lifeline ferry service to coastal regions. Going forward, post-pandemic recovery is of primary importance. As we emerge on the other side of this health crisis, we are keeping our capacity in market to facilitate the smooth flow of people, goods and services. We are committed to supporting businesses and families and they live and work in the South Island region, and up and down coastal British Columbia.

What lessons have most profoundly impacted you since the pandemic sent shockwaves through our community and economy?

During the COVID-19 pandemic, our eyes were opened to the fragility and resilience of our supply chains. Overnight, we saw how quickly and easily things we take for granted can be disrupted. I think back to the rush on toilet paper, food supplies, grocery staples such as flour, vegetable seeds, and bicycles. Being in the transportation industry and playing a critical role in the movement of essential goods to remote coastal communities, we saw this first hand. We’ve heard many times that Vancouver Island has just a five to seven day local food supply. The system is fragile, but we have learned we are resilient. Even in the worst pandemic of our generation, we didn’t collapse. We all found a way. The economy kept going. People kept going. It’s amazing how people can adapt, and what they can do without, in the midst of a crisis.

When you envision the South Island region in 2040, what will have changed? What does our future look like?

I hope that we have the will to make enough change so the region is truly sustainable and resilient. By 2040, I hope we can look back and say all levels of government worked together to break down barriers to allow for better, low impact transportation, make high quality education available, and promote affordable and sustainable housing. I hope we will have developed and enacted long-term solutions to homelessness and the overdose crisis. Our region is grappling with these significant issues.

To affect change and drive innovation, we must be willing to take some risks and be willing to try new things. If it works, we all win. We must embrace, not fear it. We must accept reasonable compromise and reject rigid partisan positions. By accepting that we are different, we can identify the common ground, which is the basis of our community. We all win when our community works.