British Columbia’s worst fears were realized Thursday when a U.S. senator tabled legislation to make permanent what was supposed to only be a “temporary” law allowing Alaska-bound cruise ships to skip Canadian ports.
Utah Senator Mike Lee introduced three bills, which will have the sum total of repealing the “Passenger Vessel Services Act” - a 135-year-old maritime law that forces U.S. cruise ships to stop in Canadian ports like Vancouver or Victoria while travelling to and from Alaska.
That now-threatened law is single-handedly responsible for B.C.’s cruise ship sector, worth more than $2 billion in annual revenue.
“The PVSA is bad news,” Lee said in a release. “This arcane law benefits Canada, Mexico, and other countries who receive increased maritime traffic, at the expense of American workers in our coastal cities, towns, and ports. Reducing demand for jobs and travel opportunities here in the U.S. is the opposite of ‘America First.’”
Lee took particular aim at Canada, which has banned international cruise ships from stopping at its ports until 2022 due COVID-19.
“While Canada serves as a primary beneficiary of the law, which diverts commercial activity to its ports, the perverse incentives created by the PVSA also mean Canada controls northwestern American cruise seasons,” read Lee’s press release.
“During the pandemic, Canada has closed its ports to foreign ships. Cruises cannot sail without this required ‘foreign stop,’ and this move could crush the Washington and Alaska tourism economy.”
Lee only awoke to the issue last month after Alaska’s congressional delegation introduced a bill to make a “temporary” exemption to the PVSA that would let Alaska to restart its cruise ship season without Canadian stops.
Lee delivered a barnburner of a speech on the floor of the senate in late April in which he proclaimed it a “Canada First” law in which “Canada wields this tremendous authority over us” and is “lobbying us to keep in place because they benefit from it.”
Alaskan senators had warned Canada of this very scenario.
They’d urged Canada not to force them to introduce legislation for this reason.
And they were right.
It has awoken a mess of U.S. special interests, lobbyists, shipbuilders, tourism organizations and others who will use Canada’s cruise ship sector as a punching bag to score domestic political points with catch-phrases like ‘America First.’
Alaskan senators had warned Canada of this very scenario. They’d urged Canada not to force them to introduce legislation for this reason. And they were right.
But what else could Alaska do?
Its congressional delegation had appealed in numerous letters to Premier John Horgan and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for a compromise on Canada’s cruise ship ban during the pandemic.
Instead of dialogue, they got stonewalled with silence for months.
“Our friends in Canada could have helped us here when we really needed them, and it’s unfortunate that they ultimately did not,” said Alaskan Senator Dan Sullivan.
Horgan even went so far as to mock Alaska’s efforts, infamously calling it a “blip” and suggesting it would never pass the senate, congress or be signed into law by U.S. President Joe Biden.
After all those things did happen, the Alaskans publicly ridiculed Horgan in retribution, warning he’d underestimated their “small but mighty” delegation and Alaskans would now reap the rewards of a cruise ship season of tourism profits at B.C.’s expense.
The risk now is that Lee picks up allies and crafts a campaign around a single message:
Cut Canada out of the cruise ship game, keep the jobs and profits for Americans.
If that idea was wrapped up in rhetoric about economic recovery from the pandemic, it may be an easy sell around congress.
British Columbia is ill-equipped to navigate this mess. It has no expertise or insight into American politics, and can do nothing to influence the world of special interest lobbying in Washington D.C.
Nonetheless, Transportation Minister Rob Fleming tried to sound tough in his own press release Thursday.
“The temporary measure passed in the U.S. was designed to support Alaska’s economy while Canada’s ports were not welcoming visitors,” he said. “This new proposed legislation is of greater concern to British Columbia and Canadians.”
Federal officials were largely taking their lead from B.C., according to the cruise ship sector. And B.C. was silent.
Fleming added he’s “requesting urgent meetings with the federal Minister of Transportation and the Canadian Ambassador to the U.S.”
It's likely too little, too late.
Horgan has said he’ll take the case directly to Prime Minister Trudeau. To be fair, Trudeau and his B.C. MPs deserve a fair share of the blame for the crisis, because Ottawa technically controls the maritime laws, U.S. border and cruise ship ban. But federal officials were largely taking their lead from B.C., according to the cruise ship sector. And B.C. was silent.
Horgan also met virtually with Alaskan senator Lisa Murkowski on June 9 - after months of giving her the cold shoulder when she was reaching out to avoid this exact scenario.
It’s not clear if Horgan will have the gall to ask the Alaskans for help. If he does, he should be prepared for laughter. They have nothing to gain by bailing B.C. out now.
Instead, our province finds itself alone, outclassed, outmaneuvered and outgunned in a crisis of its own making.
Rob Shaw has spent more than 13 years covering BC politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for The Orca. He is the co-author of the national best-selling book A Matter of Confidence, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.
- Rob Shaw last wrote about the politics and complex math of child care in BC.
- Back on May 20, Rob wrote about the cruise ship issue, and even then it wasn't clear Premier John Horgan realized he was in deep water. (It has since gotten deeper.)
- But this came out of nowhere, you protest! If only someone like Roslyn Kunin had foreseen exactly this chain of events back over two months ago. That would have been awesome.