On dependence and independence

When Ottawa sells out the fishery to score international political points, it raises questions about our current – and future – relationships

Oh, Canada. Whenever the topic of Newfoundland (and/or Labrador) independence comes up, it has a tendency to get fenced in to a discussion about finance. Proponents and opponents alike argue about whether we could ‘afford’ to be our own nation once again; would we be better off, financially? Worse off? Do we benefit more from our current arrangement? Or does it actually cost us? Would we be able to pursue better, more flexible economic policies and trade if Ottawa wasn’t in the way?

While the question of finance is an important one, it’s not the only one, nor even the most important. In many ways it’s impossible to answer, and thus neatly distracts us from the more important questions. The question of ‘affordability’ ultimately becomes a matter of pitting fairly arbitrary predictions against each other, and the fact is there’s no foolproof way of predicting the global economy and the effects it would have on us as an independent nation. Even as part of Canada we are unable to do this: the country’s tumultuous dipping in and out of deficit and the rising and falling waves of unemployment and precarious job markets all attest to the fact that predicting national financial fortunes is impossible. When we invest ourselves too completely in economic prognostications and convince ourselves they will hold true a year from now, it threatens to become a dangerous (and delusional) waste of time and resources. In fact it’s not even the point. Independence is never a get-rich-quick-scheme. The point of it is to bring autonomy and control over fiscal decisions closer to home.

This is not to say that finances don’t matter – they do. But what matters is having in place sensible economic policies to respond to the unpredictability of global economics; policies which are made locally and reflect the priorities of the regional population. Thus, independence or autonomy becomes not so much a question of where we would enter the global economy, but of how we would respond to the challenges it throws our way, and whether locally-empowered responses would be more effective than ones coming from Ottawa. There are countries that are not very prosperous at all but where sensible governments deploying sensible and frugal policies are able to maintain a quite decent standard of living. There are countries with great economic wealth and riches where governments – through corruption, ignorance or incompetence – pursue reckless policies that squander national wealth, allow rampant inequality and leave large numbers hungry in the streets. The real question that needs to be asked is this: would independence help or hinder us to achieve greater control over our standard of living; reduce inequalities; empower our communities; and foster a greater sense of political accountability between our government and the peoples who live here? If independence is to be debated, that is the debate that needs to be had.

And, whatever the outcomes of that debate might be, events over the last few weeks have offered a stark revelation into at least one way in which our relationship with Ottawa has worked very directly against our own interests.

Scoring points – at whose expense?

According to CBC reports, Canada became the “lone dissenting voice” last month trying to block important proposals being debated by the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to support family-run, independent fisheries, in response to the depredations of large-scale industrial fishing fleets. The importance of such protective measures would be easily apparent to any of our many rural fishing communities, which have seen their traditional livelihoods decimated by large-scale international fishing fleets.

Why did Canada adopt a position opposing these proposals? According to media reports it appears to stem from a clause that was added asserting the rights of independent fishers in countries under ‘occupation’. Although no specific countries were mentioned, most critics assume that’s an oblique reference to the Israeli occupation of parts of Palestine. When it comes to Middle East politics, The Harper Conservatives have demonstrated a nearly fanatical support of Israel – so it’s widely assumed this is an extension of their extremist position on Israeli-Palestinian politics.

(Canada’s archaic position in the politics of the Middle East – as a robotic yes-man for Israel – is hard enough to understand on its own, other than as a pathetic effort by Stephen Harper and his cronies to try to ‘play with the big boys’. Unfortunately, it merely isolates Canada’s position as immature, unhelpful and increasingly deplored by our peers in ‘grown-up’ global diplomacy. While initially following the US lead, in recent years Harper’s Conservatives seem to be trying to out-do US support for Israel, consistently refusing to criticize Israeli settlement initiatives in Palestinian areas, and other actions that have drawn global condemnation. The image comes to mind of the unpopular kid on the playground, so desperate for attention that he acts out in ways that irritate even the members of his own team.)

Well, back to the fishery. As the fishery crisis unfolded in the decades following Confederation, many fishers and researchers speculated that Canada was actively trading off fishing rights (and not taking any serious action to enforce fishing boundaries or conservation measures) in exchange for other trading or diplomatic points. Doug Oldford, Liberal MHA for Trinity North, put it most bluntly when, speaking in the House of Assembly about the fishery crisis in 1992, he stated:

Now, Mr. Speaker, the decline in the fish stock did not happen overnight. One of the problems we have is that the total management of the fishery, the harvesting capacity, is under the control of the Federal Government…Their tolerance for error, their tolerance for mistakes never favoured conservation, and the Federal Government had too many other outside influences, which I call diplomatic influences. They had to consider what would cuts do, and how would they affect international trade relations. How would it affect wheat sales to Russia if there was a cut in the Russian quota, or how would it affect the sale of manufactured goods to European countries or countries around the Pacific Rim if we were to cut quotas to Spain, Portugal, Germany or to Japan? How would it affect Brian Mulroney’s stand or his seat at the francophone summit if we were to cut French quotas? What would the French say?

This crisis, Mr. Speaker, has been brewing for some time. I remember Brian Peckford when he stood one time with his coat off and his tie all askew, and he made a very astute observation and a very emotional plea when he said: they sold the shop. He was referring to actions taken by the Federal Government. So it is quite obvious that conserving global trade relations took precedent over conserving fish stocks for Newfoundlanders and Labradorians.

The more things change, the more they stay the same, it seems. Once more, Canada’s bewildering position as saboteur in the FAO talks resonates strongly with Oldford’s accusations of 20 years ago. For the sake of scoring a couple political points with Israel (to what end is unclear, other than to boost some egos in Ottawa), the federal Conservatives are making a sacrificial lamb of small-scale fisheries in this province.

Food for thought

The shameful position of the Canadian government at the FAO talks reinforces the suspicion many Newfoundlanders and Labradorians have held about the Canadian government’s willingness to sacrifice regional interests for the obscure ideologies of Ottawa elites. If this is emblematic of the way the Canadian government squandered the fisheries which were the mainstay of so many communities for so many generations, then let it also strengthen our resolve to organize and act to put an end to such federal arrogance. Whether that means sending a stronger message to our representatives in Ottawa to respect regional interests, or whether it means exerting greater autonomy against a federal government whose short-sightedness risks local futures, is the debate we ought to be having. One thing is clear: Ottawa’s efforts to draw itself closer to its international allies like Israel have only underscored for us here how truly distant the political regime in Ottawa is from our real interests.

Editor’s note: If you would like to respond to this or any article on TheIndependent.ca, or if you would like to address an issue we haven’t yet covered, we welcome thoughtful and articulate Letters to the Editor. You can email yours to: justin(at)theindependent(dot)ca. Not all letters will be printed, but all will be read.

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