The government inaugurated BC Ferries as the BC Toll Authority Ferry System. Start-up was scheduled for the summer of 1960 with a service from Tsawwassen to Sidney (for Victoria). The government constructed two “V-Class” roll-on-roll-off vessels in provincial shipyards and terminals were built.
Initially, private competition continued in parallel, with Black Ball serving the Horseshoe Bay to Nanaimo and Horseshoe Bay to Langdale runs. The government bought out Black Ball in 1961, acquiring five of its vessels, and also acquired five small vessels of the Gulf Islands Ferry Company. Canadian Pacific continued but in 1962 cut back its services on the Vancouver-Nanaimo run, eventually retiring to freight only services.
As the ferry system expanded and started to service other small coastal communities, BC Ferries had to build more vessels, many of them in the first five years of its operations, to keep up with the demand. The vast majority of the vessels in the fleet were built in BC waters with 10 ships built in the period 1962-65, plus two foreign purchases and one domestic purchase.
Around 1967, seven of the original vessels were “stretched” for increased capacity. In 1976 three new large, double-ended “C-Class” vessels entered service. In 1977, BC Ferries became a Crown corporation. In 1980, a Scandinavian vessel was purchased, renamed Queen of the North and recognized as the corporation’s flagship operating on the Inside Passage on the north coast of the province. In 1981, two “jumbo” ferries, the Queens of Oak Bay and Surrey, started operating.
In 1985, BC Ferries took over the operations of the saltwater branch of the BC Ministry of Transportation and Highways, which ran ferry services to very small coastal communities. This action dramatically increased the size of BC Ferries’ fleet and its geographical service area. The distinctive ‘dogwood on green’ flag that BC Ferries used between 1960 and 2003 gave the service its popular nickname “the Dogwood Fleet.”
A major new route was launched in 1990 – the Mid Island Express from Tsawwassen on the BC mainland to a new terminal at Duke Point, south of Nanaimo on Vancouver Island. In 1993 and 1994, the two largest vessels currently in the system – the Spirit of BC and the Spirit of Vancouver Island, both single-ended, were built. They began serving the Tsawwassen – Swartz Bay route in 1994. A new route – the Discovery Passage – started operating between Port Hardy and the mid coast during the spring, summer and early fall using a foreign purchase vessel, the Queen of Chilliwack.
In the mid 1990s, the provincial government decided to use BC Ferries to advance its goal of supporting BC’s shipbuilding industry by building a “Pacificat class” fleet of custom-designed high-speed catamaran ferries for BC Ferries, with the eventual goal of exporting additional vessels on the international market. The three vessels were built by local shipyards between 1995-2000 under the overview of a new provincial Crown corporation. They had a service speed of 37 knots (68 km/h).
The Pacificats were commissioned between 1998 and 2000. They were intended to improve BC Ferries service between Horseshoe Bay (on the mainland) and the Departure Bay (in Nanaimo). However, the program was afflicted with construction cost overruns, late delivery, and operational and capacity shortcomings. The ships were operated briefly and sold in 2003 to a private buyer, the Washington Marine Group. They remain in the province but are currently not in service.
On December 9, 2002, the government announced that BC Ferries would be restructured into an independent commercial company under the Company Act. The Minister said that it would be “transformed into a customer-focused and financially stable marine transportation system that improves services and revitalizes the economy of the province’s coastal communities.”