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Cohen Inquiry: Fishy Commission Blackout

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Posted May 11, 2011 by Damien Gillis in Politics

From the North Shore News – May 11, 2011

by Elizabeth James

“The Cohen Commission is a public inquiry, not a
matter of security. Yet the more the commission delves into why the
Fraser sockeye are in trouble, the more the federal government tries to
suppress the proceedings.”

Alexandra Morton, Biologist, April 30

Two
days before Canadians elected the federal Conservative Party to the
majority it coveted, biologist Alexandra Morton sounded an alarm about
the perils of giving the Conservatives outright control of the House of
Commons.

The timing was unfortunate because voters were in no
mood to elect a fourth minority government in less than seven years, so
the alarm stood little chance of affecting the eventual seat count.

That does not lessen the significance of the warning.

As British Columbians should have learned, when any party governs with a large majority it pays to monitor its activities.

So
given that Morton’s concerns go to the issue of the public’s right to
know, eyeing the progress of the prime minister’s Commission of Inquiry
into the decline of sockeye salmon in the Fraser River would be a good
place to start.

Led by the Hon. Bruce Cohen, a justice of the
Supreme Court of British Columbia, the inquiry has been underway for
more than a year.

As a long-time researcher and advocate for the
preservation of wild salmon stocks, Morton was granted standing as a
person with a “substantial and direct interest in the subject matter of
the inquiry.”

No matter her standing, Morton is prohibited from
releasing any information about the proceedings — even though she
believes withholding the information poses a risk to wild salmon.

The
terms of reference set out in the order-in-council that established
the inquiry, require the commissioner to, “. . . follow established
security procedures, including the requirements of the Policy on
Government Security, with respect to persons engaged under Section 11
of the Inquiries Act and the handling of information at all stages of
the inquiry.”

Those legal constraints caused Morton to write in
her email of April 30: “To access the commission’s database of
documents provided by participants, including the salmon farming
disease records, I was required to sign an undertaking that I would not
disclose those documents until they became part of the public record
as an exhibit. I believed that was reasonable in respect to the
database.”

But Morton balked when commission counsel expanded the
blackout to include its ruling on her application to be released from
her undertaking “on a limited basis” to allow her to relay information
she believed was “urgent and required by law to the Canadian Food
Inspection Agency (CFIA) in respect to a very significant risk to wild
salmon.”

I can only echo Morton’s concerns by asking: What do salmon disease records have to do with government security?

I
am likely to be drenched in legalese answers to that question but will
go even further: How can the terms of reference for an inquiry into
the decline of fish in the Fraser River be allowed to trump the
legislated requirements of Health Canada, the CFIA and the B.C.
Ministry of Health?

Because, taken
together, the regulations of those agencies require that they be
notified immediately of any disease outbreaks or imminent threat to
safety of the food we eat and the water we drink.

The findings of the Cohen Commission are not due to be concluded and made public until spring or summer of 2012.

Following
the logic of the commission’s terms of reference, if a similar inquiry
were to be held on, say, the decline of tuna stocks, or on farming
methods for cattle or chickens, would we be expected to wait a year or
more to discover we were being exposed to hazardous levels of mercury,
or to mad cow disease or avian influenza?

My bottom line is
this: If retailers are allowed to sell farmed salmon then, as a
consumer, I have a fundamental right to know what I am putting in my
mouth.

The precedent for that right is seen everywhere on food
safety labels that provide lists of ingredients and warnings that read,
“This product may contain. . . .”

Yet Morton can only say, “No comment”?

I
don’t care if some government official — elected, informed, or
otherwise — has decided high levels of sea lice pose me no harm, or
that the diseases for which farmed Atlantic salmon have been or are
being treated with unnamed substances cannot be transmitted to human
beings.

Nor do I accept the commission’s equivalent of “No comment; it’s before the courts.”

Fish play a significant role in my regular diet.

So
apart from my desire to support efforts to preserve a miraculous part
of British Columbia’s wild heritage, I have a right to know what I’m
eating — now, not later.

Read original article


About the Author

Damien Gillis

Damien Gillis is a Vancouver-based documentary filmmaker with a focus on environmental and social justice issues - especially relating to water, energy, and saving Canada's wild salmon - working with many environmental organizations in BC and around the world. He is the co-founder, along with Rafe Mair, of The Common Sense Canadian, and a board member of both the BC Environmental Network and the Haig-Brown Institute.

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