As privy councillors from British Columbia who have served as ministers of Fisheries and Oceans in past federal governments, we wish to inform you of our serious concern regarding the content of Bill C-38 and the process being used to bring it into force.
We have had lengthy and varied political experience and collectively have served in cabinet in Progressive Conservative and Liberal governments alike. We believe we have a fair understanding of the views of Canadians. Moreover, we believe there is genuine public concern over the perceived threat this legislation poses to the health of Canada’s environment and in particular to the well-being of its fisheries resources. We are especially alarmed about any possible diminution of the statutory protection of fish habitat, which we feel could result if the provisions of Bill C-38 are brought into force. Migratory salmon and steelhead are icons of our home province. Our experience convinces us that their continued survival would be endangered without adequate federal regulation and enforcement, particularly in the area of habitat protection.
With respect to process, we find it troubling that the government is proposing to amend the Fisheries Act via omnibus budget legislation in a manner that we believe will inevitably reduce and weaken the habitat-protection provisions. Regrettably, despite the significance of the legislation, to date the responsible ministers have provided no plausible, let alone convincing, rationale for proceeding with the unusual process that has been adopted. Quite frankly, Canadians are entitled to know whether these changes were written, or insisted upon, by the Minister of Fisheries or by interest groups outside the government. If the latter is true, who are they?
This country’s fisheries are vital to our coastal communities, particularly first nations communities, and a strong and effective Fisheries Act, supported by a robust scientific research capacity and enforcement personnel, is critical to maintaining healthy fish stocks. Major changes to such critical legislation warrant extensive and factual discussion and a broad consultation process. We therefore strongly recommend a full examination of the proposed Fisheries Act amendments, and of the proposed staff reductions, by the standing committee on fisheries and oceans (not the finance committee) of the House of Commons. That examination must include appropriate testimony from industry and first nations representatives, academic experts and present and past personnel of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.
Furthermore, greater clarification of the purpose of the proposed changes is needed from the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans and the Environment Minister. To date, they have provided only vague and general descriptions of the problems that they wish to address through these amendments. This lack of information has made it impossible for us to determine whether or not their concerns are well founded and whether the proposed changes will have any appreciable beneficial effect. Without such information, we can only judge from our own experience, which suggests that the shortcomings of the existing legislation have been greatly overstated and that the remedial action proposed is vastly out of proportion to the issues they have referred to, but only vaguely. In short, we have the impression that the ministers are using a sledgehammer to swat a fly.
Collectively, we have spent many years in government attempting to maintain fish stocks and protect fish habitat. A strong Fisheries Act, a competent science establishment and vigorous enforcement programs are essential to protect fish stocks and the habitat on which they depend.
The authors are former federal ministers of Fisheries and Oceans.