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The Orca’s series on BC’s ports next turns to the biggest – not just in the province, but the whole country.

When human eyes have looked upon Vancouver’s waterfront, they have always seen one thing: more.

It wasn’t one Coast Salish First Nation that resided in what is now Vancouver, but three – the Tsleil-Waututh, Squamish, and Musqueam – plus additional Indigenous cultures in the vicinity like the Tsawwassen, Semiahmoo, Stó:lō, Kwikwetlem, and others. All were deeply rooted in the maritime ways of life.

When the first Europeans arrived, it only took a year to go from one to a multitude. It started with Spanish captain José María Narváez, then British captain George Vancouver, and Spain’s Dionisio Alcalá-Galiano and Cayetano Valdés all between 1791 and 1792. They were only exploring, not establishing posts, but they did some trading with Indigenous residents and thus began global shipping in Vancouver. Ships from Europe and America would evermore make the Salish Sea a regular port of call.

When the fur trade got established in the area during the early 1800s, they were positioned strategically for defending against American attack, should war ever break out, or as a colonial fallback to the Fraser River if the Hudson’s Bay Company got politically ousted from the Columbia River.

War didn’t happen, but the ousting did.

Fort Langley was therefore always more than just a fur exchange. As a commercial operation, in addition to the main commodity of pelts, it was also a strong export location for barrels of salted salmon, cedar lumber and shingles destined for faraway places.

After that, place names were added that are still familiar today. First were Queensborough and New Westminster, established as further fortification against American attack, as was the first European settlement area to include the word “port.” Port Moody, at the end of the area’s deepest tidewater inlet, was situated as a point of waterfront defence for New Westminster.

As 19th century events unfolded, the continental railroad arrived from the east and that visionary word, “more,” once again emerged when the Canadian Pacific Railway reached salt water. The plan was to stop the tracks at Port Moody, and that’s where the CPR indeed went. But despite the unbudgeted expense and added labour, the project managers stood at the shore and could envision a grander future. So, they spontaneously added 20 km of track along Burrard Inlet, allowing for additional shipping opportunities closer to the ocean. Vancouver was born – and so was the region’s port complex, as now shipping could be done from multiple locations in the same general area.

Burrard Inlet, False Creek, the Fraser River’s delta, it all became a hive of shipping activity that spearheaded the entire economy of what would become modern British Columbia.

It still does. And that word, “more,” is always at work. The network of docks, roads and rails around the Lower Mainland was so widespread and complex by the mid-20th century that when the federal government established the national port system, the region was carved into three separate entities: the Port of Vancouver, the North Fraser Port Authority, and the Fraser River Port Authority.

They existed this way until 2008.

It was banker Sarah Morgan-Silvester, on her way to the Order of British Columbia, who chaired the amalgamation process and executed one of the most impactful ventures in the history of BC business. She was then made the inaugural chair of the newly formed mega-port’s board of directors.

Duncan Wilson is the Vancouver-Fraser Port Authority’s (VFPA) current Vice-President of Environment, Community and Government Affairs. He was there for the amalgamation process.

“The whole two long painful years of it, yes,” he said. “It was really quite awful because at the time the legislation didn’t exist to merge the ports. It was having to be made up as we went along. And all these amalgamation committees – everyone was trying to be so collaborative and respectful of each other and the different organizations, so it took two years.”

“Now it could be done basically by the stroke of a pen, because the legislation was changed so now the Canada Marine Act has a procedure for merging ports.”

An economic monster was unleashed. The three port organizations had been jockeying with each other for tenants, contracts, and funding, but joining forces allowed for a streamlined approach. Vancouver’s port was always big, but it accelerated. It is the largest in Canada and third largest in North America, in terms of total tonnage of cargo.

“The port handles over 76 million metric tonnes of the country’s total cargo which loosely translates to over $43-billion in import and export goods from global trading partners,” said international freight tracking platform “With 25 terminals handling container, bulk cargo and break cargo the port provides employment directly to over 30,000 individuals who deal with the maritime cargo, shipbuilding and repairs, the cruise industry and other non-maritime enterprises.”

For perspective, the next four largest ports in Canada combine for about 98 million tonnes. The second largest, Montreal, handles 35 million and third place Prince Rupert handles 30 million annually.

Vancouver is a whale of an operation. Its success is also its liability.

As more containers move in and out of the port, as more bulk cargo is imported and exported, as more trains and trucks service these operations, and more warehousing is needed, as more ships anchor in line out in the Salish Sea waiting for their turn to dock, the more congestion is added to stressed Lower Mainland transportation routes, and more land is tied up in Canada’s steepest real estate market, and more effects are inflicted on the environment. Community associations, environmental groups, municipal governments, neighbourhoods, and First Nations all rightly have a say.

If anyone feels the pinch of the port’s planning process, it’s West Coast Reductions (WCR) Ltd. This niche company has had a home on six acres of port property since 1964. They collect waste and biproducts of the agriculture and food industries and turn them into useable commodities, including significant amounts of environment-helping biodiesel. They also ship about 20 per cent of Canada’s canola oil.

WCR has a farm of storage tanks, a refinery, and other structures on their site. Replacing what’s already there would cost about $350-million, but their customers are aggressively demanding they upscale their operations. But they can’t invest the required millions without the certainty of a long-term lease. The Vancouver-Fraser Port Authority won’t give them one. They might need to kick WCR out and use their six acres for storing shipping containers, they were told. No decision will be made until 2023 at least.

But such a specialized operation can’t just be jacked up and shunted to a new site, even if an alternative lot could be found.

Surely, six acres can be sourced somewhere else for the VFPA’s needs, said WCR’s Director of Government Relations & Strategic Initiatives, Jared Girman. But even more alarming to him is the port authority’s easy dismissal of a critical industry over a glorified storage unit. The port authority is, after all, a public institution whether it is arm’s length from government or not.

“They are making the argument that the service we provide is worth less than the value of container stacking. We feel that is just fundamentally wrong.”

WCR is one of the little guys in the terminal community. The grain industry is at the other end of the spectrum and even that sector reports feeling squeezed by the Vancouver-Fraser Port Authority. According to Duncan Wilson, there was a 27 per cent increase in the amount of grain (canola and wheat are by far the largest varieties for export from Canada) shipped out of Vancouver in 2020 and that year it surpassed coal as frontrunner for biggest commodity by tonnage.

There are seven grain terminals around the Vancouver port complex, each owned by one of the nation’s major grain companies. Even with that kind of real estate and clout, though, said Western Grain Elevator Association Executive Director Wade Sobkowich, “We get the sense that grain isn’t even welcome at the Port of Vancouver and the only reason that they like us there is we can pay the bills for their other projects, and that is patently unfair.”

Wade Sobkowich

Sobkowich has some suggestions to improve the situation, but one option for the grain companies is to simply divert more shipments away from Vancouver and instead to Prince Rupert, which does a much smaller amount of grain exports, but that could change.

Wilson said the challenges facing the VFPA’s decision-makers come with the pressure of a straining metropolitan area and the pressure of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product, a discernible percentage of which crosses their threshold.

“In the last seven, eight years we’ve increased our annual tonnage by the same volume as the annual tonnage of the Port of Montreal, so we have basically added a whole Port of Montreal’s worth of tonnage, added the entire second-busiest port in Canada, into the Port of Vancouver.” said Wilson.

“And we will have to do that again in the next seven or eight years – all in the context of being adjacent to 16 municipalities. No port in world has anything like that: 16 different agendas, 16 different visions for their waterfront – and then plus dozens of First Nations whose traditional territories intersect with the port. We bear the Crown’s duty to consult, and depending on what we’re doing we have had to consult with up to 46 (First Nations). We are managing to build infrastructure and manage operations in that context. So from my point of view, it has been an enormous success story and I think it shows the real strength of the Canadian port systems and how we are set up.”

The angst being felt by the terminal operators like WCR and the grain producers is largely attached to the continual growth in shipping containers coming into Vancouver from primarily Asia.

WCR’s uncertainty is because the port authority needs contingency space in case their expansion project, Roberts Bank Terminal II, does not get federal approval.

The grain producers are upset that their rents are so high as the port authority builds a piggybank to build the new terminal.

There are other concerns as well over the concept of creating a peninsula bulb in the ocean that currently does not exist, then leasing that space to another container import company.

In the next installment of this series The Orca will examine the Roberts Bank Terminal 2 project’s proposed benefits and hear from its detractors.

Frank Peebles is a veteran magazine and newspaper journalist based in Prince George. He has won numerous awards for his work, including Canadian Community Newspaper Association and BC-Yukon Community Newspaper Association citations.