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Toronto Harbour Commission, Toronto harbour operator's license

Only in Toronto

By Gary Reid
Thursday, May 25, 2006

I wasn’t very long on the job at the Toronto Harbour Commission ("THC"), in the mid-1970s, before I got my first angry customer telephone call. Although I was not the person to whom the call should have been directed, it was bounced to me anyway. Gamely, I heard out the complaint.

The THC had decided to increase the annual fee for the Toronto harbour operator’s license from $1.00 to $2.00. It was an outrageous increase, all out of keeping with the annual inflation rate, claimed the yachter. I pointed out that the fee had been retained at the $1.00 level for many years and the costs of administration had risen. He was unconvinced; it was simply bad management not to build in an annual inflation factor. I promised to pass on his comments to the appropriate people in my organization.

I enquired of older hands if anybody knew this fellow. It turned out he was a charter member of one the oldest, most prestigious yachts clubs in the harbour. He was richer than King Solomon and owned the biggest yacht in Toronto, a 76-foot motor monstrosity. And he was carping to me about a dollar!

Such was my baptism into the peculiar world of the Toronto harbour operator’s license.

The license is required to operate a boat with a motor (even a sailing vessel with an auxiliary motor) within the boundaries of Toronto harbour. An applicant is required to pass a written and practical boat-handling test.

In the early 1980s, the THC raised the fee to $3.00. When the notice went out from the finance department, it stated that THC would accept only cash or a certified cheque. Dozens of letters and telephone calls ensued, pointing out our stupidity asking for a certified cheque for such a paltry amount. We had to issue a correction and an apology.

The 1980s also saw the transfer from THC of the Toronto Harbour Police to the then Metropolitan Toronto Police. That change initiated a different perspective. The harbour police had been friendly, safety advisers to the thousands of boaters plying Toronto’s waters, only issuing tickets for boating infractions in the most egregious instances. The metro police were more interested in catching bad guys and were not beholden to the THC and its federal licensing jurisdiction.

After I became CEO of the THC, we raised the license fee again. I thought it prudent to take a booth at the International Boat Show, held every January at Exhibition Place, to advertise the license to the uninitiated, announce the increase to the holders, and to sell license renewals. Other public agencies, including the Ontario Provincial Police, were regular exhibitors at the show. I also thought it would an opportunity for some of the backroom staff, particularly in the finance department, to meet our customers face to face. It doubled as a team and skills building exercise.

I subsequently received about 100 letters from show attendees. About a fifth of them cursed us for "squandering" public money to purchase a booth. Conversely, another group praised us because we did exhibit . Others complained that the fee was too little and that allowed too many idiots to run boats around the harbour.

Two people gave me the old "increase exceeds inflation" argument. I took the trouble, in responding to them, to do a review of the inflation rate in Canada during the previous decade and determined that we could increase the fee another $2.00 to compensate for the inflation factor.

However, the most interesting commentary came from boaters complaining that they had held the license for years, had been stopped by the police, and had never been asked to produce the license. That prompted me to visit the head of the police marine division. The next boating season saw officers regularly asking for proof of a license.

But, history has a way of repeating itself.

A young man I will call Donny recently started a yacht delivery service. Last year, he delivered a yacht from Toronto to the Caribbean. When he anchored, the island’s customs and immigration officials motored out to clear him. The first question they asked him was what credentials he had to be a yacht delivery skipper. The only thing Donny could produce was his Toronto harbour operator’s license. The officers took that to shore to check it out. Sometime later, they motored out again and said that was sufficient proof because the Toronto license was internationally recognized.

Upon hearing this story, a friend of Donny’s, John Boasman, who was planning a Caribbean sail, decided to obtain this useful license. He went to the police station on the waterfront.

The young constable on the desk professed to have never heard of it. An older officer advised John that the police did not much bother with the license, but since he had enquired he would now have to get one. John was issued with a learner’s permit that requires him to have a licensed operator with him until he successfully passes the test --a ludicrous proposal for a man of his experience. He lives on his boat.

Worse, the chances are far better that the Caribbean police will ask him to produce the Toronto license before the Toronto police will.

Gary Reid is a freelance writer and a public affairs consultant.
Gary Reid,
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