Ferry service essential to community, labour board hears

Burns Lake residents hope the regular service of the Francois Lake ferry can be maintained amid a labour dispute between the vessel’s staff and the employer.

Some residents, including Cheslatta Carrier Nation chief Corrina Leween have urged the Labour Relations Board (LRB) to ensure that a possible strike by workers not affect regular ferry sailings.

“We need that ferry to be running on a regular basis and not just used in an emergency situation,” as Corrina Leween, Chief of the Cheslatta Carrier Nation told Lakes District News.

Leween spoke last week at an LRB hearing in Vancouver, where the board is listening to parties who would be affected by a possible strike by MV Francois Forester ferry workers.

Eighty staff and auxiliaries work for the ferry service that makes 20 return trips per day between the Northside and Southside of Francois Lake.

The British Columbia Government and Service Employees’ Union (BCGEU), which represents the workers has since August been negotiating with the employer WaterBridge over training, wages and staffing levels.

The two sides have also been conferring with the LRB to determine the ferry’s essential services level in case there is a strike.

In August, the workers voted 78 per cent in favour of striking, but a strike can’t happen before the LRB sets the essential services.

LOOK BACK: Most Francois Lake ferry staff vote to strike

Under the B.C. Labour Relations Code, “employers and unions [must] maintain certain essential services to the public when they take job action in a labour dispute. Essential services are those related to the health, safety or the welfare of British Columbia residents,” according to the LRB.

The hearings in Vancouver are set to continue this week, said Guy Pocklington, Information Officer with the LRB.

“Then there’ll be a decision published on the essential services designations. I would imagine, given the seriousness of the situation it would be published soon after the hearings,” Pocklington said.

“[In case of a strike] the union wouldn’t be obligated to do any trips that aren’t in line with the level of essential service. The key is what the level is. In the case of Kootenay Lake it was education and health care.”

The dispute at Kootenay Lake, east of Nelson is between workers with the BCGEU Service Employees Union Local 2009 and company Western Pacific Marine.

Workers went on strike over the Labour Day weekend. There were intermittent shutdowns of the service during September, and sailings were limited to health care personnel, school staff and students and their parents, according to the essential services order.

READ MORE: Ferry closure Monday afternoon, all day Tuesday

READ MORE: Kootenay Ferry to shut down Thursday afternoon

But Leween and others have told the LRB that the ferry’s importance to the local community goes beyond just health emergencies and school-related trips.

“They’re going to be making a decision on the outcome of the testimonies, trying to have our ferry considered an essential service vessel,” Leween said.

“I focussed in on emergencies, I focussed on the distance around the alternate routes east and west. We talked about the risk to people traveling on those dirt roads if they had to. I talked about the school bus, all the professionals and all the school teachers who go across and come home, and the pharmacists and health practitioners at the health clinic. And the economic development impacts. Employment becomes an essential service when you can’t feed your family. If you can’t come over here and work, then [ferry] becomes an essential service.”

“By concentrating on the Cheslatta Carrier Nation but also the residents as a whole and the Northsiders working here, we really can’t have that service cut for our people,” Leween explained.

Burns Lake mayor Dolores Funk also hopes the service can keep running.

“I am concerned for the safety and well being of the people who require the ferry to access essential services each and every day and hope that an agreement is reached as soon as possible,” she said.

WaterBridge Equipment, the sister company of WaterBridge Steel operates the Francois Lake ferry, which transports hundreds of people and their vehicles across the lake daily.

Blair McBride
Multimedia reporter
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