A bill worth supporting

Many would rather forget about the fishery. The responsible among us know we dare not.

On Dec. 9th, an important bill is scheduled to receive second reading in the federal Parliament in Ottawa.

It was earlier this summer when St. John’s South NDP MP Ryan Cleary held a press conference to announce his intention to file a private member’s bill, with the aim of launching a federal inquiry into the collapse of the cod fishery and the state of the fishery in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Bill C-308 – The Newfoundland and Labrador Fishery Rebuilding Act – was introduced on October 21 and according to Cleary is scheduled for second reading in the House next week.

Why is this motion an important one? Well, quite aside from the novelty of an elected MP actually following through on his pre-election promises (this inquiry has been a political commitment of Cleary’s from the beginning; indeed, it pre-dates his entry into politics, back when he was a journalist covering the slow-motion, 30-year long train wreck which was federal fishery policy), Cleary’s proposal is one that deserves thorough consideration, and strong public support.

Oh, the pundits

In the comments war that ensued on local news websites following Cleary’s announcement, a lot of commentators offered heartfelt and emotional support for Cleary’s proposal. Others criticized it, profusely (one can’t help but wonder how many of those anonymous critiques came from fish plant operators, many of whom would seem to prefer to be left alone in their cutthroat squabbling over what scraps remain of the offshore fishery).

Let’s discuss the criticism, first. The general theme of critics goes something like this: the fishery is OVER already, it’s long dead and gone, why are we STILL talking about it, it has no role in our future. People who talk about it are just dwelling in the past and unable to move on and deal with the reality of the present. Some people point out – and there’s a lot of veracity to this – that we (both Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, as well as Canadians) destroyed the fishery ourselves, and must accept what we wrought. Others argue it’s just a way for politicians to wage the politics of resentment, and garner local support by criticizing Canada. There was even one fellow who commented that whether or not the fishery was important for rural Newfoundland, Cleary was elected as a St. John’s MP and the fishery, dead or alive, doesn’t concern the “professionals” of St. John’s.

Here’s what we need to understand: yes, the fishery as an industry has been gutted. It’s a pale fragment of what it once was, and will remain that way for a long time. Yes, we were responsible for a lot of that – either by contributing to unsustainable practices ourselves, or by shrugging our shoulders helplessly when faced with the failure of provincial and federal governments to protect it. But none of that changes the central role that the fishery continues to play – whether we like it or not – in the life of this province.

Repositioning for the future

So what can an inquiry do? The important thing about this bill – and something which has not been covered adequately by local or national journalists – is that it’s not just about the past.

It’s about the future.

It’s about figuring out what happened to the fishery, but in such a way as to determine how the mistakes of the past can be learned from, in order to develop a sensible, and sustainable, future.

It’s not just about laying blame. Remember the phrase “learn from your mistakes”? The very fact that pundits respond to Cleary’s motion by re-living the endless debate about how much blame to attribute to our own actions, to overfishing, to federal mismanagement and perhaps even sabotage, to international trade pressure, to climate change, and so forth indicates just how little we still really know about what happened. And until we understand what happened, how can we begin to make things right and, if they ever start to improve, prevent a similar collapse from occurring again?

…until we understand what happened, how can we begin to make things right…?

Secondly, an important dimension of the inquiry focuses on the role, capacity and powers of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO). DFO plays a critical role in all of our lives – simply by virtue of the fact that it is the government department responsible for our oceans, and we are surrounded by oceans. Fish or no fish, DFO will continue to play a vital and evolving role in our lives – as ocean health, shipping pollution, the oil industry and countless other factors continue to shape the economy and geographic reality of Newfoundland and Labrador. If they are underresourced and prevented from doing their jobs properly, we will all suffer. We need to understand what they did right and wrong during the fishery crisis, who was responsible, and how we build on the good practices while eliminating and avoiding the bad. How much political interference went on, where did it come from, and how do we ensure it doesn’t happen again? What impact did budget cuts have on their operations, and what is a sensible level of budgeting and resources for them to have? What organizational structure ensures minimum political interference, and maximum science-in-the-public-interest? What impact is muzzling of government scientists having on ocean and fishery policy and awareness, and how can we ensure our ocean scientists are able to engage with us – those who live on the ocean – in an unfettered, open and honest way?

Like it or not, the fishery is what this island is about

Thirdly, the aftermath of the fishery continues to shape our economic reality. Communities have been built around the fishery, tens of thousands of our people grew up with skills central to the fishery, and the entire orientation of the province’s economy and culture has been the fishery. You cannot change that overnight, nor even in 50 years. The collapse of the fishery has begun what will be a process lasting years and decades of re-orienting our lives, communities, and ways of life in Newfoundland and Labrador. And this will be a costly endeavor. If the federal government played a central role in undermining our province’s central economic mainstay, in exchange for trade advantages and foreign relations that benefited Ottawa, Ontario and other parts of the country, then they bear an ongoing responsibility to help pay for the change that we are experiencing and will continue to experience. We’re not just talking 5 or 10 years of retraining. We’re talking ongoing retraining and education, community economic stimulus packages and economic diversification funding. We’re talking EI and childcare. If an employer is responsible for an on-site work accident, courts award compensation not just on the basis of how much is necessary to deal with the immediate injury, but if your long-term ability to pursue your living has been compromised – say by losing an arm or a leg – then you’re compensated for your lost ability to work. The same principle must hold here.

If the federal government played a central role in undermining our province’s central economic mainstay…then they bear an ongoing responsibility to help pay for the change that we are experiencing and will continue to experience.

And finally, the future. Where do we go from here? The fact is, the fishery DOES hold promise for our future – if we manage it properly. We don’t know whether it’ll take 5 years or 50 years to rebuild a sustainable fishery – but that’s precisely what we need to find out, and this inquiry can help to do it. We’ll be reaching peak oil in a few years, and it’s downhill from there. We have a fortunate space in which to re-orient our future economy, and a sustainable fishery can and must be part of that. But until we figure out how to do it, it never will.

Also, the federal government is engaging in ongoing activities that will continue to have a major impact not only on what’s left of our fishery, but on our ocean industries and resources in general. Its interactions with NAFO – for instance, its agreement a couple of years ago to amendments that gave it less power to enforce locally-established sustainability standards – impacts what happens off our shores. Its ongoing free trade negotiations with Europe will also impact what ability we have to control what is happening off our shores – there is very credible speculation that our provincial authority will be sold out in these negotiations, so that Europeans will be able to do whatever they want in our waters and we will have no say over it. All these things must also be part of the inquiry – so that we can be informed about all the many different dimensions of government policy which have an impact, or could have an impact, on our provincial ocean-based industries and economy.

In short, this is not just an inquiry to lay blame for some long-over historical event. This inquiry is about our future. If it does not happen, we will be unprepared, uneducated, and unable to meet the demands and challenges our future world and economy will throw at this hardy and noble rock in the North Atlantic.

United we stand. Divided we fall.

But it’s hard to put pressure on the federal government when we don’t even have the full support of the province. And that’s a problem. A lot of people are too quick to play partisan politics and dismiss Cleary’s efforts. Not the people who are suffering as the result of the fishery crisis, to be sure, but a lot of the rest of us are. And that’s a problem. The question shouldn’t be whether it’s a waste of time, but whether it’s the right thing to do. Supporting a motion that will help us to understand a devastating phenomenon which continues to impact our rural communities, and which could help to produce some positive ideas moving forward, is a motion that we should all be getting behind. Naysaying and pessimism does very little to help any of us.

The federal Conservatives have the numbers to dismiss the bill out of hand, as federal fisheries minister Ashcroft has threatened to do. But that is no reason to abandon the effort. If the federal Conservatives use their majority to reject a motion that is in the best interests of the country, or a part of the country, then that shall stand on their record, just as the gesture and hard work of the opposition shall become part of theirs. This is an opportunity for the federal Conservatives to show they are capable of being a truly federal government. If they fail this test, we shall not forget, and we shall have yet another damning piece of evidence about the inadequacies of Canada’s federal system to meet the needs of Newfoundland and Labrador in the 21st century.

Nothing is gained without struggle. Cleary and his NDP are not doing this because they think they’ll win; they’re doing it because it’s right. And if we don’t start doing what’s right, we never will actually achieve it, even if it takes years of trying. What’s important at this stage, is not whether it passes the eventual vote. What’s important is that we understand precisely how important this motion is, and that we show our support for a motion – and a member – who are doing what’s right for Newfoundland and Labrador.

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