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Photograph by Paul Nicklen
CONTRIBUTION · 19th July 2011
Bruce Barcott

Why oil sands, a sunken ferry, and the price of oil in China have the Great Bear Rainforest in an uproar.

The Queen of the North was the pride of the BC Ferries fleet—right up until the night she sank. On March 22, 2006, during a routine run from Prince Rupert to Port Hardy, the ferry exited the narrow 45-mile Grenville Channel just past midnight. Then something went wrong. The officer at the helm, distracted by a conversation with another crew member, neglected to turn after leaving the channel, which points like a rifle barrel at the tip of Gil Island. At 12:20 a.m. the ferry's bow met the island's rock at a speed of 17.5 knots, ripping a hole in the hull. One hour and 20 minutes later, the Queen came to rest under 1,400 feet of water.

Of the 101 people aboard, 99 survived, thanks largely to the citizens of nearby Hartley Bay, who put to sea in fishing boats in the middle of the rainy, windy night to rescue them. Two passengers were never found. Today the Queen of the North remains where she sank. Every day, a little more fuel leaks out of her tanks, which still hold tens of thousands of gallons of diesel.

"We had to learn a new language," recalled Helen Clifton, a matriarch of the Gitga'at, one of the First Nations bands living along the coast. " 'Sheen,' 'shine,' 'burbling,' 'boom.' It opened our eyes to what happens in a disaster."

Now, when the Gitga'at people of Hartley Bay discuss the proposed Northern Gateway project, an oil pipeline that would turn these same waters into a supertanker expressway, they always mention the Queen. The accident taught them two lessons, they say. No matter how safe the ship, the most mundane human error can sink it. And when disaster strikes, they alone will be left to clean up the mess.

That leaves them skeptical about the pipeline and the tankers it would attract—about 220 a year. The government has already approved a fleet of liquefied natural gas tankers to call at nearby Kitimat in 2015. The oil tankers would be even bigger.

"I teach math at the school here," said Cameron Hill, a member of the Hartley Bay Band Council. "If I were to express the Queen of the North as an exponent, I'd say it was an x-squared disaster. The potential damage from those oil tankers is x to the 100th power."

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the when of it
Comment by Don Bruce on 7th August 2011
He said to me, it`s not a matter of if, but a matter of when it will sink. He was/is a helicopter pilot of many years. He was referring to owning a float plane. I think it applies equally well to this issue. Having hand logged in the Wright Sound area I feel justified in saying big Tankers heading up Douglas Channel is courting disaster. Anyone saying differently is dangerous person. D.B.