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Coast Salish say ferry is an important link

ANACORTES, Wash. – As the state ferry Chelan glided across the water, state Rep. Jeff Morris, D-Mount Vernon, described this region as the Mesopotamia of the west: A place of many peoples and many cultures, united by this marine highway known as the Salish Sea.

For millennia, big cedar canoes regularly plied these waters for gatherings and trade visits. Today, this ferry is a modern link, carrying peoples between Vancouver Island, in British Columbia and mainland Washington state.

On this day – March 29 – about 250 Americans and Canadians rode the Chelan to celebrate the first day of Washington State Ferries’ spring/summer sailing schedule – a schedule that includes daily runs from Anacortes to Sidney, British Columbia The ferry does not go to Sidney in winter.

Among the passengers were Samish and Swinomish people from Washington state, and Tseycum from North Saanich, British Columbia

The ferry route, part of Washington State Ferries’ marine transportation network, has been threatened by state budget cuts; passengers found out only the next day that the state legislature had preserved funding for the ferry route. But, on the first run of the season, passengers campaigned to show how important the ferry route is to the region’s economy, as well as relations between Americans, Canadians and Coast Salish peoples on both sides of the border.

A Samish Indian Nation display of photographs illustrated the importance of the ferry route to Coast Salish peoples who comprise several indigenous nations in Washington state and Vancouver Island. Coast Salish people use the ferry to visit family and participate in ceremonial gatherings on both sides of the border. During the 2008 Canoe Journey, about 500 canoe family members, 60 vehicles and 22 trailers took the ferry to the San Juan Islands and then to Sidney.

Among those to review the display were Morris, who had a Samish grandfather and serves as House speaker pro tempore; state Rep. Judy Clibborn, chairwoman of the House Transportation Committee and state Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, chairwoman of the Senate Transportation Committee.


Photo by Molly Neely-Walker Rosie Cayou-James, Samish, shows a photo display to passengers on the ferry to Sidney, British Columbia, March 29. The photo display illustrated how the Sidney ferry is an important link for Coast Salish people in Canada and Washington state.

According to Samish leaders, Coast Salish peoples in the U.S. and on Vancouver Island have cultural and family ties and depend on the Anacortes to Sidney run. Eliminating the ferry run would force travelers bound for Vancouver Island to drive 85 miles north to Tsawwassen, in lower mainland British Columbia, and take a ferry to Vancouver Island.

Natasha James, 14, and Lewis James, 12, rode the ferry to Sidney with their grandmother, Rosie Cayou-James, of the Samish Indian Nation. The children have relatives at Samish and Swinomish on the U.S. side of the border, and at Tseycum First Nation on Vancouver Island, where they live.

“This ferry is the only way the grandkids can get (between Washington and Vancouver Island) because their parents work,” Cayou-James said. “I have five grandkids on Vancouver Island. Without this ferry, grandma has no way to visit the grandchildren.”

Cayou-James’ son, Earl James of Tseycum First Nation, said that whenever he rides the international ferry he sees Native people traveling to gatherings or other significant events, such as funerals.

Leaders are also concerned about the economic impact to the community and region.

According to a study by E.D. Hovee and Company, in 2006, about 131,600 passengers rode the ferry between Anacortes and Sidney. About 1,470 jobs with more than $30 million in annual payroll and nearly $126 million in annual spending are directly and indirectly associated with this ferry service within the Northern Puget Sound region. The state receives $4.6 million a year in taxes related to the ferry run; local jurisdictions collect $1.3 million.

One state senator, Kevin Ranker, D-San Juan Island, said cutting the Sidney ferry would be “foolhardy” with the 2010 Vancouver Olympics on the horizon.

The state Transportation Department has argued that by eliminating the ferry run it would reduce its debt load by $9.4 million over a number of years. But Morris doubts that savings; he prefers the Sidney ferry over a proposed $11.7 million Enhanced Driver License program which would allow Americans and Canadians more efficient border crossings, and $12 million to implement a ferry ticket reservation system.

Morris has called for more efficiency in the state ferry system. He said four new ferries will have hull designs that are more fuel efficient, and will include overall safety designs requiring fewer crew members. And he negotiated with the City of Sidney a $100,000-per-year reduction in the fees Sidney charges the ferry service to land at the Sidney ferry landing.

“Sidney’s move to reduce our landing cost by $100,000 clearly sends the message this is a partnership and not a one-way relationship,” Morris said.

Richard Walker is a correspondent reporting from San Juan Island, Wash. Contact him at