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BC’s tourism industry hopes government counters another Alaskan cold front

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Rob Shaw: ‘Let's hope the premier is right that cruise ships won’t give BC a miss. But on this file, so far, he hasn’t been.’

British Columbians who work in or rely upon the province’s $2.3-billion cruise ship sector have learned one important thing about Alaska Congressman Don Young in recent months: You really don’t want to piss this guy off.

Unfortunately, it seems the 88-year-old senior Republican member of Alaska’s congressional delegation is not only furious at Premier John Horgan and his BC government, but he’s prepared to use his experience and clout in Washington DC to actually do something about it.

Young has tabled a new bill in Congress that would make permanent his previous temporary law allowing US cruise ships to skip Canadian ports while Canada’s borders are closed due to COVID-19.

It’s a masterful bit of political maneuvering, by a veteran of Washington’s hallways of power.

Called the “Tribal Tourism Sovereignty Act,” the new bill would let any Alaska-bound cruise ship skip the legal requirement to stop in Canada if it instead stops at a community or port owned by an American First Nation.

“It is time for a new model that does not allow foreign governments to control Alaska’s economy,” Young wrote in an op-ed in the Vancouver Sun.

“My proposal offers a win-win opportunity for tourism markets and native communities.”

The changes are necessary, he wrote, because once the temporary bill expires in November “Canada will once again have de facto veto authority over Alaska’s cruise industry.”

“We cannot allow such a vital portion of our economy to be held hostage by a foreign country, in this case, Canada,” Young added.

The bill has all the elements needed to pick-up support from American lawmakers: An America first emphasis, a COVID-19 recovery plan, benefits for indigenous communities and a compelling narrative about a foreign power (in this case Canada) holding the United States’ interests hostage for its own economic gain.

It’s now clearer than ever that BC horribly misjudged Alaska’s intentions earlier this year when the state reached out to Horgan and his cabinet to try and broker a peaceful solution to the cruise ship dispute.

Horgan gave them all an indifferent cold shoulder, and left it up to Ottawa to engage with the Americans. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, meanwhile, did nothing. The crisis only grew.

Horgan, though, remained dismissive Tuesday, describing Young’s comments as the kind of “provocative statements” he’s grown used to from a country that previously elected Donald Trump.

Horgan took to the airwaves of CKNW’s Jas Johal show and suggested Young might not be serious about the legislation because he’s spending so much time in the media and not enough doing actual work.

“I would suggest that if you’re a US legislator and you want to pass laws you would do that in Congress not in the editorial pages,” Horgan told Johal.

He then quickly added: “But we’re obviously concerned whenever there are these type of trade actions.”

Horgan appeared unaware Young had already tabled the bill in July.

Johal kept pushing Horgan, until the premier admitted he has no current plans to deal with the cruise ship dilemma at all.

“There’s a handful of politicians involved here and we’ll be working with Ottawa through the ambassadors in Ottawa to monitor those things,” he said. “I’ve got more than enough to deal with between the oceans and the mountains, and the Yukon and the 49th Parallel. I’ll let Canadian officials deal with this issue.”

That’s cold comfort to the 15,000 people working in the sector, and the billions at stake annually to B.C.’s economy. When Johal raised the “considerable” economic impact on BC, Horgan’s frustration boiled over.

“You want me to pick a fight with the US, Jas?” he asked. “Of all of the things, in all of the lands, in all of the times, this is what you want to focus on? That’s fine by me.”

“Where are we man? What are we doing here? We’re in a global pandemic and an industry collapsed.”

Horgan’s Transportation Minister, Rob Fleming, tried a more diplomatic approach in a statement that said “we’ll be meeting urgently with whomever forms government next week to get them to engage immediately with the United States and assert Canada’s interests in Washington DC.”

The BC Liberals, who have dogged Horgan on the issue for months, said the government can’t make the same mistake.

“The people whose families and livelihoods are counting on a successful return of the industry need the premier to get serious about this issue,” said critic Teresa Wat.

“Taking cheap political shots like he did last time didn’t work and it won’t work this time. He actually needs to work with the Americans to solve this problem.”

As BC’s cruise ship sector faces turbulent waters, the federal government, which is the lead on international relations with the United States, is nowhere to be found.

Instead, Trudeau is out on the campaign trail, hoping to turn his minority into a majority.

Though, to be fair, his cabinet ministers did so little to help BC on the file prior to the election it’s hard to notice any difference now that Parliament is dissolved.

Horgan, meanwhile, said he’s confident that the cruise ship sector will keep BC stops due to public demand to see the natural beauty of the province, and won’t cave to Alaskan politicians looking to redirect tourism dollars across the borders.

“I’m confident that the industry will vote with its feet and will continue to provide opportunities for the travelling public that include BC,” he said, adding that “the industry is going to make choices based on what their ridership wants to do.”

Let’s hope the premier is right. But on this file, so far, he hasn’t been.

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@robshawnews.com

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