Monday, February 26, 2024
February 26, 2024

Swierenga saluted during National Volunteer Week


An interest in anything to do with transportation and logistics is what keeps Harold Swierenga at the helm of Salt Spring’s volunteer ferry advisory committee (FAC). Chair since 2008, he says his 15-year run started with a simple conversation borne from curiosity.

“I’m an economist. I retired here from Ontario and got talking to some of the FAC members at that time. I’d done some work in transportation and because I was riding the ferries quite a bit I became a member,” he explains.

April 24 to 28 is National Volunteer Week across Canada. The annual event seeks to recognize volunteers, like Swierenga, and celebrate the positive impact of volunteerism in communities.

“I do it because it’s a way to contribute and I get a lot out of it,” Swierenga said when asked why he gives his time as an FAC chair.

FAC chairs and members work year-round to provide BC Ferries with advice and insight that helps inform day-to-day operations, terminal and vessel improvements, schedule changes and other initiatives. There are no days off for an FAC chair. They answer emails, phone calls and questions from community members 24/7.

Swierenga says satisfaction in the role comes from the fact that people know he cares enough to call him, rather than BC Ferries, with their ferry issues.

“Sometimes I have an answer for them and sometimes they call me just to complain,” Swierenga added with a chuckle.

It’s that kind of volunteer service which National Volunteer Week is designed to celebrate with this year’s theme being ‘Empathy in Action.’ The theme seeks to draw attention to how volunteers build awareness around the experiences of different community members and build capacity to work collectively together towards common goals.

FAC chairs like Swierenga and his committee members are at the front lines of this work, bringing the perspectives, ideas and concerns of the Salt Spring Island community to the table in conversations with BC Ferries.

For BC Ferries’ part, ferry advisory committees are a vital connection to the communities they serve.

“The community insight and understanding that our ferry advisory committees provide us with is invaluable. We rely on them not only for community-centred advice but also to help us get information out to the community, especially when changes are afoot,” said Brian Anderson, vice president of strategy and community engagement. “The committees do a phenomenal job and we are grateful for their dedication and the many hours they contribute.”

For the Salt Spring Island community, an issue Swierenga hears a lot about from locals is the Fulford terminal redevelopment. Discussions go back 30 years, according to Swierenga, adding that the ongoing delays are frustrating. But he tempers the pace of change on that project with a belief that the future for Salt Spring in terms of ferry service looks pretty good.

“We are getting new terminals at Vesuvius on Route 6 and on the other side at Crofton – that’s in the works to be ready for 2028. So it looks good that way, and the two Island Class ferries for that route will hopefully come at the same time. Redevelopment of the Fulford terminal is now scheduled next. We’re also getting an interim bigger ferry on Route 6 this month and we have quite an improvement on routes 9 and 9a (service between Lower Mainland and the Southern Gulf Islands) since 2017. The gains are incremental; we can use more boats and bigger boats, but so can almost every other route,” he said.

Swierenga knows that these major changes will happen after his time as chair but said that’s just fine, adding he was never a single-issue FAC member.

“They tend to quit,” he points out. “FAC members need to be interested and study the whole ferry system given its interconnectedness.”

Away from FAC business you’ll find Swierenga digging into his vast marine library at home, working on his antique car collection or having a glass of wine with his wife Sabine at the end of the day. You may even spot him working around his waterfront property, which is visible from the ferry run between Swartz Bay and Metro Vancouver.

“One time, years ago, the ferry captain saw me on the shore and he tooted the ship’s whistle,” Swierenga quips. “Whenever I see the Spirit I instinctively check my watch to see if it’s on time. It’s just second nature.”

FAC Facts:

• There are 13 ferry advisory committees situated in communities up and down the coast of British Columbia.

• Committees are generally made of up of eight to 12 members who represent ferry-dependent communities.

• FAC members bring a wide variety of voices and perspectives to the table. A committee’s composition depends on the community, and often includes representatives such as: full-time and part-time residents, the tourism industry, commuters, seniors, businesses, commercial goods and service providers, and many more.

This past year, FAC members have helped with:

• Understanding the complex use of ferry service in the Southern Gulf Islands;

• Developing new schedules for two-ship service for Gabriola Island and Quadra Island;

• Adjusting and communicating service and schedule changes during pandemic recovery;

• Providing early input on terminal development plans.

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