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Taking on water

John Horgan’s brusque dismissal of Alaska’s cruise industry proposal has come back to haunt him, his government, and BC’s bedraggled tourism sector. But as Rob Shaw notes, it’s still not clear the Premier realizes he’s in deep water.
Victoria, quite literally clinging to a cruise ship. (GTS Productions /

When Alaskan lawmakers wrote to Canadian officials two months ago, pleading for help in rescuing their cruise ship season, they received a high-handed response from an entirely disinterested Premier John Horgan.

“I’m confident that this blip along the way is a result of frustration, quite frankly, by Alaska, that we’re not having ships stopping in Canadian ports for very good reasons,” the premier said.

Such was his lack of enthusiasm in assisting B.C.’s neighbours to the north that he not only didn’t reply to the Alaskan letter, but he publicly mocked the chances that Alaska’s congressional delegation could pass a law it was threatening to put on the floor of the U.S. Senate that would allow Alaska-bound cruise ships to skip stops in B.C. ports for the first time in a century.

“Anyone who has spent any time watching the U.S. Congress knows that the likelihood of success on any number of endeavours is remote in good times, much less in times of crisis,” scoffed the premier.

Horgan’s words came back to haunt him Thursday when the Alaskan delegation managed to get bi-partisan support to not only introduce their bill, but pass it through the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. The Alaska Tourism Restoration Act is now awaiting the signature of U.S. President Joe Biden.

The Alaskans did not forget such dismissive behaviour.

In announcing their victory, U.S. Congressman Don Young went out of his way to mock Horgan, casting him as a sort of cartoon villain in Alaska’s efforts to kickstart its economy and save thousands of jobs.

“Now that the bill is headed to the President's desk and cruises will bypass Canada entirely, I am sure that Premier Horgan will never again underestimate the 'small but mighty' Alaska Congressional Delegation,” said Young.

He also took to Twitter, where the 87-year-old representative for Alaska gave our young whippersnapper of a premier some tough love political advice.

“Advice for @jjhorgan: don’t underestimate Don Young and the Alaska Delegation! Our bill, the ‘blip’ as you say, is now headed to be signed into law. This season, cruise passengers will safely sail to our state to support Alaska's jobs and economy – not BC's.”


But full credit to Horgan for consistency, because if he gave a hoot that B.C.’s $3 billion cruise ship sector was shaken to its foundation on Thursday he didn’t show it. He failed to show up for question period in the legislature, where the Opposition BC Liberals again raised the issue. And at a subsequent press conference on vaccinations for children, he chose not to address the subject at all.

Apparently he has a meeting with the Alaskan congressional delegation set for next week. By then, the hard feelings will have had more time to solidify.

“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, one of the bill’s original co-sponsors.

What Horgan hopes to accomplish in next week’s meeting remains unclear. The Alaskans owe him no favours. They could just as easily continue to wail on him for local political points, having achieved all their goals despite him.

Officially the B.C. government says it’s not worried about the new cruise ship legislation because it’s only temporary. This is technically true. The bill to skip stops in Victoria, Vancouver, or Prince Rupert applies until March 2022 or whenever Canada ends its ban on allowing foreign cruise ships to dock due to COVID-19.

But the province’s tourism and cruise ship sectors are worried that the genie is already out of the bottle.

They fear once Americans get used to sailing past Canadian ports entirely, they’ll discover it’s faster and more lucrative to sail directly to and from Alaska on a permanent basis.

Worse, Alaskans have reignited debate about an ancient maritime law that mandated Canadian stops, by amending the legislation. Now other American lawmakers are going to stop and take notice that the law only really benefits Canada, while serving the United States no real purpose.

Utah Senator Mike Lee is the first of what’s expected to be several such critics of what’s called the Passenger Vessel Services Act (PVSA).

When the Alaskans brought forward their amendments, he dusted off the original 1886 law that mandates foreign-built vessels, crewed with a mix of U.S. and foreign staff, must stop at a foreign port when going to and from Alaska.

It was supposed to incentivize construction of U.S. ships, which could then sail directly. But the cruise ship industry builds its mega-vessels more cheaply overseas, and compromises by stopping these monstrous boats in Victoria or Vancouver instead. Not a single large cruise ship has been built in the United States in 60 years, noted Lee.

“Make no mistake, the PVSA is not America First,” he told the Senate.

“This is the encapsulation of Special Interests First. Or even, you might say, Canada First. Perhaps this is the reason the Canadian government lobbies Congress to keep the PVSA in place. Think about that for a minute... this unfortunate situation has been exacerbated by the pandemic, during which Canada has closed its ports to cruise ships, making it effectively impossible for Alaskan cruises to carry on. But the only reason why Canada wields this tremendous authority over us is because of our own law—our own law that they’re lobbying us to keep in place because they benefit from it.”

So yes, technically, Alaska’s new bill is “temporary.”

But in the course of cracking open that ancient law, they awoke a simmering mess of special interests, lobbyists, and lawmakers that could, now that the issue is on their radar, amend the bill to make it permanent at any time, citing the need to protect American jobs in the tourism sector.

The Alaskans, in their letters to Horgan and Prime Minister Trudeau, tried to warn of this outcome. They repeatedly said their legislation was not the best solution.

Instead, they asked Canada to allow “technical stops” where cruise ships could pull into Victoria or Vancouver for a couple hours, complete virtual customs and fulfil the requirements to stop in a foreign port under the existing law. No passengers would leave the ship, and the threat of spread of COVID-19 would be virtually non-existent.

But neither Trudeau nor Horgan took them up on the idea.

Another casualty of the multi-month crisis has been the credibility of Tourism Minister Melanie Mark.

When the Opposition BC Liberals raised the Alaska letter in March, she responded: “The members opposite want a lesson in geography around Alaska and B.C. They are two different countries. International rules apply around international waters. The advocacy from the provincial government will deal with the federal government and the prime minister.”

When the BC Liberals raised the issue again this week, prior to the bill passing the Senate, she was again belligerent. “The Opposition is fearmongering,” she said. “It is a proposal that hasn’t gone anywhere … the possibility of the legislation passing is very unlikely.”

Mark also initially tried to suggest she was working with B.C.’s cruise ship sector, only to be caught out when Greater Victoria Port Authority CEO Ian Robertson pointed out she’d declined meetings. She did, eventually, agree to sit down.

But Mark still hasn’t talked to the Cruise Lines International Association, which represents the largest cruise ship companies and has been trying to arrange a sit-down with her. The association has met several times with federal officials in Ottawa, who say they are waiting for B.C. to make clear its position on issues like technical stops.

“Her arrogance is going to cost us the cruise ship industry,” Liberal MLA Peter Milobar remarked to the house Thursday.

On that, the ship may have already sailed.

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.

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