Fisheries will be a slippery file for Tories
by Margret Kopala

Published in the Ottawa Citizen, January 28, 2006

First it was western populists, then Ontario Tories followed. All being well, there’ll be a full complement of Quebec autonomists after the next election. Stephen Harper’s Three Sisters of Canadian conservatism - named after the mountain located along the Trans-Canada highway between Calgary and Banff on whose peaks three Indian maidens, so the legend goes, perished in isolation – could soon be reunited.

But if a week is a long time in politics then the time required by the Liberals to choose a leader and trigger another election will be an eternity. For Harper’s Conservatives, elated yet walking on eggshells, that’s certainly enough time for the discipline of a well run campaign to succumb to the curse of Canadian conservatism which reads: the longer Liberals rule, the easier it is for Conservatives to forget how to do it.

The handful of Conservatives who’ve warmed the opposition benches since 1993 will sit easily in the hot seat of cabinet responsibility but no mountain of good intentions will compensate for others lacking corporate memory or hands on experience. Fortunately, a few Mulroney acolytes remain to provide oversight but then look what happened to the Clark/Mulroney Conservatives cursed by a 20 year absence from government.

Clark lost a confidence vote while Mulroney lost an average of one cabinet minister a year to allegations of wrong doing.

After ‘Tunagate’, for instance, the 1985 scandal in which rancid tuna was released for general consumption, Fisheries Minister John Fraser was forced to resign. He went on to become Canada’s first elected Speaker of the House and, after government, to garner a host of honors and become a pillar in British Columbia’s salmon rehabilitation industry but other ministers weren’t so lucky.

Fish could be a player in the current Conservative government too. According to Dennis Brown’s 2005 Canadian bestseller “Salmon Wars: The Battle for the West Coast Salmon Fishery”, mismanagement of the only natural resource that remains in federal jurisdiction is the biggest factor behind British Columbia’s depleted salmon stocks.

Salmon Wars encapsulates some twenty years in the West Coast fishery. During this time, the salmon fleet was radically restructured and the Pacific Salmon Treaty, famously signed at the Mulroney-Reagan “Shamrock Summit” by Fraser (who put his name in the wrong column), became a source of ongoing dispute between the two countries.

It was also a time when markets for salmon dwindled. This was partly because of corporate concentration and partly because of competition from fish farms, says the former secretary-treasurer of the United Fishermen and Allied Workers Union, one time advisor to B.C. Premier Glen Clark and impassioned son of a West Coast fisherman. Depressed prices and an ideology of downsizing and privatization became the convenient pretext for governments to halve commercial operations.

But downsizing was misguided from the outset, Brown argues, and simply created fewer vessels with greater fishing capacity. Pollution and global warming were also factors in destroying fish habitat while over fishing by Americans, poaching and other abuses accounted for other losses. From the Fraser Plan to the Pearse Report, from Ministers Mifflin to Tobin to Anderson and the Aboriginal Fisheries Strategy, Brown exposes their ineptitude in dealing with a resource that generates $1.9 billion annually and employs 20,000 British Columbians.

This week, even as George W. Bush congratulated Stephen Harper on his election win, the U.S. administration outlined its new policy to save wild salmon from extinction. In Canada, the plight of the iconic salmon has yet to resonate nationally but this must now change.

The fate of the East Coast cod stocks are reason enough for urgent action but, for a party that’s advancing eastward, the loss of five seats in its most westerly strongholds should set alarm bells ringing.

Expeditious action on the Conservative party’s promise to hold an independent judicial enquiry into the collapse of salmon stocks could succeed where others have failed to set the West Coast fisheries on a productive course and help prepare for the 2008 Pacific Salmon Treaty negotiations with the United States. As Dennis Brown himself concludes, all is not lost. There’s a vast body of knowledge available from the work of thoughtful experts, he says, and “the thousands of working people who have devoted their lives, most of them anonymously, to ensuring that the wild salmon will endure forever.”

MARGRET KOPALA’s column on western perspectives appears every other week.

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