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dave obee Ferry strikes cause a summer of chaos

By Dave Obee

The long, hot summer of 1958 should have been a time of celebration on Vancouver Island. We were, after all, celebrating the centenary of British Columbia, and Princess Margaret, the Queen's younger sister, was coming to the party.

Instead, it became a summer of frustration. Vital ferry links between the Island and the mainland were cut, and at times there were long lineups for the ones that remained. Tourists stayed away, afraid that if they got here, they would not be able to return home.

The labour disputes of 1958 resulted in permanent changes to our transportation infrastructure, thanks to the creation of B.C. Ferries.

The problems started on Friday, May 16, when the Seafarers' International Union ordered its members to strike the Canadian Pacific ferry service at midnight. The old contract had expired the previous September, and the union was asking for wage increases averaging 37 per cent. The company offered eight per cent.

CP, which had been losing money with its 10 Princess ferries, ordered the vessels into port at the end of the afternoon runs. The bands, drill teams and floats coming to the Island for the annual Victoria Day parade had to find quick alternatives.

The City of Victoria made desperate telephone calls to Prime Minister John Diefenbaker and Transport Minister George Hees, asking that the ferries be ordered back into service. They did not respond.

Victoria Mayor Percy Scurrah said the strike had been inspired by the Communists but retracted the statement after labour leaders protested.

The strike was a sharp blow to the local economy. Hotels and motels reported that bookings dried up. Restaurants reported that business was down by 50 per cent. The tallyhos were withdrawn from service as well -- "there was just no business," as operator Arthur Knapp said.

An editorial in the Daily Colonist -- which was celebrating its 100th birthday that year -- argued that the ferries were a vital part of the Trans-Canada Highway system.

"Viewed casually by those whose holiday or business journeys have been dislocated, this strike is a nuisance," the editorial said. "When the possibilities lying beyond it are examined, it assumes proportions of utmost gravity for everyone."

It was still possible to get to and from the Island. The Anacortes-Sidney route, run by Washington State Ferries, was busier than normal, with an extra vessel added.

The Black Ball ferries were still in service between Horseshoe Bay and Nanaimo, but business was down. There was a simple reason for that; the Seafarers voted on May 24 to strike Black Ball as well. People did not want to find themselves stranded here.

Trans-Canada Airlines, connecting the Island to Vancouver through the Patricia Bay Airport, put on extra flights.

Arnold Webb, managing secretary of the Victoria Chamber of Commerce, had a long-term solution. He said that for $25 million, a series of tunnels and bridges could be built to link Sidney with Anacortes, eliminating the risk of another ferry strike.

On June 10, a Colonist editorial offered another suggestion: a ferry link between Sidney and Steveston on the mainland. Such a route would provide "convenient fast and wanted service," the editorial said.

Three days later, Washington State Ferries increased its service to and the from the Island. There would be four round trips between Victoria and Port Angeles, using the streamlined Kalakala, and six days a week there would be three rounds trips between Anacortes and Sidney.

Even that failed to bring back the tourists. They continued to stay away, forcing layoffs in the businesses that relied on tourist traffic.

By late June, things were looking much worse. The Seafarers announced that their strike against Black Ball would start at midnight, June 23.

Enter Premier W.A.C. Bennett and the provincial cabinet. Bennett announced that the Civil Defence Act had been invoked to declare an emergency in all areas served by Black Ball.

In other words, the province seized the assets of the company to ensure that it continued to operate. It could not do that with the CP ships, since CP came under federal law, but it wasted no time with Black Ball.

That bought three weeks of additional service. The Black Ball employees were still determined to go out, but they promised they would stay on the job until after Princess Margaret had left the Island on July 16.

On July 17, they started their strike, leaving the Washington state routes as the Island's only connections to the mainland. At Sidney, there was a seven-sailing wait to leave the Island.

Within days, the provincial government went to court for an injunction ordering the Black Ball workers back to work. The court order, which cited the Civil Defence Act, was issued on July 21 and service resumed on July 23.

Also on July 23, the federal government temporarily seized the CP ships and ordered the employees to return to work. Those vessels, which had been tied up for more than two months, started running again on July 26.

Some people in the Island's tourist industry feared that they would not be able to overcome all of the negative publicity that the strikes had generated, but at least they could be confident that they would never have to go through a summer like that again.

And they could thank Bennett for that. On July 17, the same day the Black Ball employees walked out, Bennett had announced that the provincial government would start its own ferry service, to be running within a year.

Posted July 13, 2008


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