With ferry advisory committee meetings cancelled in the past month due to security concerns, community members may have expected BC Ferries (BCF) president and CEO Nicolas Jimenez to arrive at Lions Hall for an ASK Salt Spring session on Friday with a couple of bodyguards in tow.
Instead he and special ASK moderator MLA Adam Olsen joked about that being Olsen’s role.
“Look at the size of him,” said Jimenez pointing to Olsen when local CRD director Gary Holman observed that the CEO had come to the meeting alone.
People may also have expected Jimenez to put on a typical government/corporate public-relations face and convince Salt Spring Islanders that everything will be smooth sailing now that he heads BCF.
Instead, the man who has been credited by some with saving ICBC when he was its CEO from 2017 to 2023 offered what he dubbed both honesty and hope.
“I’m going to be honest about where I think the system is at and I’m going to be honest about what I think the system can do. But I’m also equally going to be hopeful about where we want to make changes in the system. But there are certain things that I know won’t ever be possible and there are certain things I hope can be possible.”
Jimenez said people are unlikely to see material differences in how BC Ferries functions “in a day, or a week or a month, and that’s the kind of thing that frustrates people, and I accept that. But I think I was hired to bring a measure of reality and pragmatism to solving the problem.”
Islanders attending the ASK event raised questions about electrification of the fleet, services for foot passengers and cyclists at both terminals and on vessels, coordinating ferry and transit schedules, and of course the crew shortages that have led to cancelled sailings in the past couple of years.
On that point Jimenez said, “The challenge is not uniquely ours,” referencing a worldwide shortage of trained mariners as the main problem, ”and nobody cares that it’s not uniquely ours.”
He said some recent changes made at BCF to attract workers include altering the “casual” designation for new employees during summer months to give them a financial commitment for that period.
“And as much as it cost, there was huge uplift in terms of what we saw operationally,” with the number of cancelled sailings reduced from the previous year.
Compensation has also been significantly increased for some job designations, he added, in order to retain and attract skilled mariners. But he also acknowledged that lack of housing in island or more remote communities is a significant challenge.
“It’s a real limiting factor for us to recruit people,” he said.
Jimenez said he has been impressed with BC Ferries personnel at all levels, and used an iceberg analogy to illustrate the difference between reality — what goes on below the surface of an ocean — and the public’s perception of the company based on the part that’s visible above.
“There are a lot of very, very capable people in BC Ferries with very specific [transportation industry] skill sets . . . And I often think we’re a bit of an iceberg, so what people see is what they read in the headlines, which is, you know, ‘Ship Sailing Cancelled,’ or ‘Website Down.’ The iceberg that is below the surface is the huge strength that we have in our people.”
Those individuals range from who the public sees at terminals and on vessels, along with “a whole bunch of people you’ll never see who are in engine rooms and in offices helping and thinking about ship efficiency and design, fuel utilization, etc.,” he said. “So there’s tremendous strength that I think people should know about. We should be more open about celebrating that.”
The impacts of cancelled sailings and the medical priority loading system that “does not work” were described by one person at Lions Hall whose wife has missed BC Cancer Agency appointments as a result.
Another person suggested the throughfare system at Fulford be improved so that a reservation was guaranteed on the next available Swartz to Tsawaassen sailing, and that a throughfare option for Salt Springers travelling home from the mainland through Nanaimo and Crofton be instituted.
Jimenez said such suggestions for improvements would be posed to the BC Ferries team via Olsen.
Jimenez also said people should watch for an upcoming invitation to provide their input on what they want the ferry system to look like in 2050. But he cautioned that “if the system is going to work for everybody, we have to recognize and be realistic of what this system is and what it can achieve.”
Olsen echoed that position, noting that people who have lived on the coast for a long time have expectations of the ferry system, but “times have changed, conditions have changed, our communities have changed, and so making sure that the expectations that we have for the ferry system align with what the system can meet is really critically important.”
Jimenez continued chatting with people at Lions Hall until running to his vehicle in order to (hopefully) catch the 1:45 p.m. ferry from Vesuvius.