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New SeaBus sails for the first time

Indigenous ceremonies welcome symbol of reconciliation at Vancouver's Waterfront Station

TransLink has officially launched Burrard Chinook, the latest SeaBus in its fleet and a floating gesture of reconciliation.

Dignitaries and representatives of the three host First Nations, the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish) and Səlilwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) gathered at Waterfront Station Thursday to welcome the $32-million piece of transit infrastructure.

The Chinook is adorned with Coast Salish art and bears its name in the English, Squamish and hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ languages. The custom livery was designed by three Indigenous artists: Kelly Cannell from the Musqueam Nation, Siobhan Joseph from the Squamish Nation and Angela George from the Tsleil-Waututh.

The design on the bottom depicts the life cycle of the chinook, a staple food to Salish nations. The geometric designs on the top call to mind a blanket or a pathway.

Gone are the days of a smashed bottle of champagne on the bow at the launching of a ship. To mark the occasion, the host nations, whose people paddled the inlet in canoes, held a traditional ceremony, calling on witnesses to come and help share the news with the people of their own community.

Syetáxtn, Chris Lewis, Squamish Nation council member and spokesman, noted that once not so long ago, such a ceremony could have resulted in jail time. But he said, the name and the artwork on the “big canoe” show things are changing for the better.

“Our people will no longer be invisible in their homeland. Our culture is going to thrive. It’s going to be visible. It’s going to spark conversations,” he said. “Our little ones … will take pride in seeing their culture recognized. They will no longer feel like they have to hide who they are and where they come from.”

Newly appointed TransLink CEO Kevin Quinn said to expect more of that going forward.

“One of the key things that I've really learned today is a visual representation for Indigenous people on their own land is incredibly important, and it's something that we're going to continue to prioritize at TransLink,” he said.

As it emerged into view at Waterfront Station, people cheered. Indigenous delegates drummed and sang, and two Vancouver fire boats shot arcs of water into the air for the Chinook to sail under.

North Vancouver-Lonsdale NDP MLA Bowinn Ma said the new SeaBus would be critical in the province’s role to stave off the worst effects of climate change, with transportation making up more than a third of B.C.’s carbon emissions.

“This additional SeaBus will increase reliability, increase resiliency of this incredibly important connection in our region. And that's important because every person we can get out of a car means less congestion, less GHGs, more well connected communities,” she said. “A lot of you will know that I also refer to the SeaBus as 'the people's yacht'… Folks, as of today, you will have a new yacht.”

The Burrard Chinook was commissioned in 2017 as part of the TransLink Mayors’ Council’s 10-year plan for transit improvements, including 10-minute SeaBus sailings during rush hours. The feds paid for half of it, with the province paying 33 per cent and TransLink covering the remainder.

While its maiden voyage on Thursday was smooth sailing, the Chinook faced rough seas before entering service. It was originally intended to launch in 2019, but when it arrived for sea trials, engineers found it sat too low in the water to safely cross the inlet and dock in the two terminals. The problem was excess weight due to a heavier emissions control system and air conditioning being added into the designs. To make the vessel more buoyant, they had to engineer larger bulbous bows, but that work was delayed by another year when COVID-19 shut down a Singaporean shipyard making the parts.

As for when the Chinook will be put to use for 10-minute service, as it was intended, Coast Mountain Bus Co. president Michael McDaniel said it will depend on demand from passengers. Soon after the pandemic began, ridership fell to less than 20 per cent of typical levels. It has been growing and recently passed the 40 per cent threshold.

“It is improving. We're working on that as we speak and we will be looking to make an announcement about that in the coming weeks,” he said. “We're keeping an eye on it but it is building back quickly, which is great.”