Originally published in the Victoria Times-Colonist
Ferry-dependent community residents throughout the West Coast of Canada are used to quirky ferry schedules, peak-tourist-season invasions, and the neglect of distant landlubber governing authorities.
But today a new menace looms on the horizon. It’s a menace threatening to turn the safe insulation of their island life into a forgotten, unreachable world. It’s a menace that may destroy the sustainability of a unique way of life and sink a meaningful part of Canadian society and history.
The menace isn’t a ferry boat, a ferry corporation, or even a government that defines aquatic highways as liquid assets instead of cultural capital. The menace is the demise of automobility—the end of a gas-fuelled dream that is unsustainable, both culturally and economically.
With every rise in fuel surcharges islands dramatically continue changing to the point where the ability of islanders to regenerate their way of life across generations is seriously compromised. At jeopardy is the lifeblood that fuels island life: diversity. As diversity is lost so are community integration, civic spirit, economic vibrancy, and collective identity. What follows may be the death of island living as we know it.
This equation in social ecology is simple: as it costs more and more to go to town—either to run errands, meet friends and families, work off island, or to allow children to take part in sports competitions, visit a museum, or catch a movie at the theatre—island living becomes less and less sustainable.
Reduced sustainability translates into loss of diversity. For increasing numbers of families leaving small islands has now become a necessity. As they leave, their social roles go vacant. A community without young families loses school children (and schools), construction workers, contractors, loggers and marine workers, and hospitality industry staff. As young families leave, ageing retirees suddenly find themselves living in communities where ambulance drivers, public nurses, fire and rescue workers, and other crucial volunteers are nowhere to be found. Soon enough a year-round tightly-knit island community turns into an exclusive realty dream: a playground for the carefree rich on summer holiday, or perhaps an exotic investment for a third home in a community protected by a mote.
In hundreds of interviews with islanders over the past two years I have met many who have witnessed the ugly and hidden sides of life on the coast. On many gulf islands some children and their parents—no longer able to commute to work off island—need to camp out their summers in the woods in order to make space for the wealthy vacationers who rent their cabins at lucrative prices. In communities like Swindle Island a 4 litre jug of milk costs $11 or $12. In diabetes-infested places like Bella Bella—where foot passengers returning from Port Hardy grocery stores are charged by the box brought onboard—turning to easily available, cheap, durable goods like pop and chips becomes a necessity. And so does buying a car (ironically, mostly to be driven only on Vancouver Island) to avoid the $15 charge per box.
Automobility is culturally, politically, and socially antithetical to island living. Yet it has been the prevailing lifestyle of North Americans for more than half a century. Recognizing this is a first step to halting it. Disconnecting automobility from marine mobility is the first crucial step to making a ferry boat feel less like a bridge, and a small island feel less like a sprawling suburb.
Reducing, as much as possible, small island dependency on the rest of the world and its ways—including the system of automobility—might then put small islands at the forefront of a global movement that will teach the globe a lesson in sustainability.
Making ferry fares free for walk-on passengers and cyclists, providing discount for high-occupancy vehicles, giving more aid for car pooling, investing in rural public transit, and providing free parking at terminals all seem to be ideas that could make island living less dependent on automobility, more island-like, and less disconnected.
And yes, people—except for First Nations—did choose to live on small islands. But let us remind ourselves that they did so when the road to their home was public and paid for by their taxes. Like it is in Victoria, today.